Taking on the Offendotrons: a review of Russell Blackford's 'The Tyranny of Opinion'

Taking on the Offendotrons: a review of Russell Blackford's 'The Tyranny of Opinion'

Helen Dale
Helen Dale
15 min read

A review of The Tyranny of Opinion by Russell Blackford. Bloomsbury Academic Press (October 18, 2018) 240 pages.

It’s fair to say I have a leitmotif when it comes to commentary. Starting in 2015 (in the Guardian) and multiple times since, I’ve written about offendotrons getting people sacked for their dissenting from progressive orthodoxy breaching politically correct speech codes. Typically, these episodes begin with something like an open letter, a Twitter pile-on, a petition. Sometimes the desired outcome isn’t a sacking. It can be having a book or paper withdrawn, or a publication contract terminated, or no-platforming a speaker, or inducing advertisers and funders to end financial support. Occasionally, it veers into criminality—doxxing, calling police to an individual’s house (known as “swatting”), street harassment.

I could bang on about offendotrons every week and have to resist the impulse. At the time of writing, Oxford Law Professor John Finnis—one of my university tutors and a devout Catholic—was in scope. The attacks on him proceeded in the familiar way. He wrote something “offensive” about gay marriage in a 2011 collection of essays. Someone quote-mines the book. Cue outrage, tweetstorms, a petition, and digging through everything he’s ever written. Finnis—according to the petition—is a homophobe who argues against “the humanity of disadvantaged people.”

The idea of testing Finnis’s ideas intellectually was not entertained until Oxford law student Bláthnaid Breslin wrote a thoughtful piece for The Times. She argued against many of his beliefs, but made the crucial point that his claims for natural law and human rights stand or fall independently of his fairly standard Catholic views on homosexuality.

Instead: Do not pass “Go.” Do not collect £200. Go straight to “sack him!”

Russell Blackford’s Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism does three things to combat this unwelcome trend. First, it provides an updated restatement of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty for the internet age. Second, it sets out the danger posed by intellectual conformity to public reason and political debate. Third, it provides a forensic analysis of the extent to which people on the political Left all over the developed world have adopted behavior once mainly indulged in by American social conservatives—the weaponizing of moral outrage.

In performing these three labors, Blackford also does lots of other useful things. He outlines how people on the liberal-left—where, incidentally, he positions himself—are often more afraid of each other than they are of their conservative or classical liberal opponents. He provides a bipartisan history of the “outrage industry” that goes back 30 years. Eschewing the phrase “fake news,” he instead discusses how credulous reporting (“believe all women!”) has something in common with the atrocity propaganda that emerged during World War I. He draws careful distinctions between historical shaming campaigns and modern ones.

From the first page, Blackford makes it clear his concern is with civil society and public reason more broadly, not freedom of speech in isolation. He recapitulates Mill in part because he agrees with him that private constraints on speech and behavior can be almost as destructive, at least in liberal democracies, as state constraints. Mill argued that “there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent.” Blackford suggests that over centuries—at least in the developed world—we have learnt to manage and constrain the state. By contrast, we have not the faintest idea what to do about Google and Facebook. There’s only one internet, and we’re all trapped there for the rest of our lives.

My political tradition, classical liberalism, often maintains a hard, bright line between state coercion and private coercion, especially as it manifests in the United States (where it is called “libertarianism”). There, the First Amendment—marvelous as it is—constrains only state power. Blackford deliberately draws on the U.K.’s somewhat broader tradition, using Mill to undermine narrower First Amendment interpretations:

[Frederick] Schauer correctly points out that not all cases where some kind of speech is locally restricted are, in a pejorative sense, censorship. For example, I might have a political right—a right held against the government—to express my support for astrology or flat-earth theory ‘to anyone foolish enough to listen’ without having a similar right against my employer. As Schauer points out, “If I am Professor of Physics at a major university, it is silly to gainsay that such public utterances might validly cause my superiors to wonder if perhaps I am in the wrong line of employment and to take action accordingly.”

But what if I am not a physics professor? Imagine that I’m a professor of anthropology, and that I’m not advocating anything as discredited as astrology or flat-earth theory. Rather, I hold certain views about human nature, or about universal tendencies in human societies, that are currently out of fashion in my discipline but remain live options. These views are about as compatible with the evidence as more fashionable ones, and they have never been decisively refuted or definitively rejected within the discipline as a whole. Their current unpopularity is more for political reasons than because of any particular empirical findings that cast doubt on them. What if, in these circumstances, my superiors start to wonder whether I am in the wrong line of employment, and they begin to take action accordingly? This looks far less like a routine, socially acceptable personnel decision than does Schauer’s example of the professor of physics. Other things being equal—assume that I am a competent teacher, and so on—this is indeed looking like censorship in a pejorative sense. [p.53, citations omitted]

In circumstances like these, private (employer) coercion becomes less and less like a reasonable response to an individual not doing his job properly and more like brute, impersonal government coercion—of the kind that free speech laws in every liberal democracy were drafted to restrain. And the internet never forgets. The “right of exit” to which political theorists often refer is absent:

If employers use their power to impose their own opinions and attitudes on employees, or to impose whichever opinions and attitudes prevail in the wider society or a large section of it, this produces a strong pressure to conform. In an economic system—such as exists in the United States—where most employers have an almost unfettered prerogative to hire and fire, this can lead to frightening situations where zealous bosses try to control even their workers’ out-of-hours expression of religious, social, and political opinions […].

As they protect their corporate images, employers may monitor the lives of their employees intrusively. With the advent of social media such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, employers are increasingly taking an interest in the online footprints of job applicants. Complaints to employers provide a mechanism to retaliate against individuals for behaviour or speech that offended somebody but may have little to do with the workplace. [p.30]

When the facts change, I change my mind—what do you do sir? is a famous quip, often attributed to John Maynard Keynes although its origin is uncertain. Blackford has convinced me that U.S.-style contracts-at-will are insufficient to preserve the norms we should expect in civil society. You cannot have a situation where the only people with the freedom to dissent from fashionable opinion are (some) tenured academics or upper-middle-class Shire Tories who own property. Blackford admits, being close to retirement, he’s buffered in a way a younger academic would not be.

The right of employees to engage in politics with which their employer disagrees was originally won by the trade union movement, but there are problems with modern trade unions. Flexible labor markets—with their ease of hiring and firing—reduce unemployment, especially for low-skill workers. Taken too far, labor-market rigidities produce situations like that in France, where there is a large and permanent underclass of “unemployables” and concomitant civil disorder. So conceding the freedom to hire and fire is something I’m reluctant to do. It may be that the only way to capture the economic benefits a flexible labor market and contracts-at-will confer without endangering freedom of speech is to introduce a Negative Income Tax (NIT) or Universal Basic Income (UBI), so that when people are fired for their views they are not reduced to penury.

Unusually for someone defending a radical free speech position, Blackford shows sympathetic understanding of the human tendency to conform. Drawing on economist Timur Kuran’s scholarship, Blackford outlines how the majority of people tailor their public statements to fit what’s socially acceptable. They do so for the most prosaic reasons—to make friends, oil the wheels of commerce, get promotions. This is difficult to criticize. We’ve all done it.

However, stating preferences that differ from what one really wants or believes is dangerous. A person who hides his discontent about a fashion, policy, or political regime makes it harder for others to express discontent. Because opposition to the status quo is hidden, we get false information about the beliefs, attitudes, and wants of others. In liberal democracies, this means there’s often widespread “support” for views that would be rejected in a secret ballotand sometimes are. If you want a succinct explanation for why so many polls predicted Remain would defeat Leave in Britain’s EU referendum, Blackford provides it.

He then moves on to a thoughtful discussion of what he calls “the outrage industry.” He sets out important similarities and differences between outrage as it manifested historically and how it manifests now thanks to social media (“cybermobbing”). He also draws a distinction between its history in the U.S. and elsewhere.

People did get outraged about similar things in, say, 1988. Blackford tells the story of German politician Philipp Jenninger and British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie. Jenninger was brought down by accusations of antisemitism while Rushdie was undone by what we’d now call accusations of Islamophobia. Except the term wasn’t widely used in 1988, which forced commentators to call it by its proper name: blasphemy.

The recapitulation of Rushdie’s travails is salutary. It is well to be reminded not only of the grim roll-call of translators and publishers stabbed or shot; rioters burnt alive in Pakistan at an out-of-control anti-Rushdie protest; the own goal of a terrorist who sat on his bomb in a Paddington hotel; book-burnings in Bradford streets. Even worse is the extent to which politicians and public figures on both the Left and Right hemmed and hawed, trying to appease Muslim sensibilities on the one hand, while Special Branch kept Rushdie alive on the other. Of particular note is how few—not even Margaret Thatcher—made a spirited defense of freedom of speech.

Jenninger’s mobbing also occurred in 1988. He was President of the Bundestag and a minister in Helmut Kohl’s government and had impeccable anti-Nazi credentials. His problem—during a speech on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht—was his vivid description of widely held views in 1930s Germany and his quotations from actual Nazis. These were interpreted as a disguised defense of Nazism. A political firestorm erupted and he was forced to resign from his official roles the next day. He did not stand for re-election in 1990.

There’s been a shift between then and now when it comes to the people to which outrage attaches itself, however. Rushdie was a Booker Prize-winning, bestselling author famed throughout the English-speaking world; Jenninger was President of the Bundestag. By any measure, both men (and others who were subject to “pre-internet” controversies) were genuine public figures. As Blackford’s history progresses, it is possible—and distressing—to watch a dramatic slide down a sort of “publicness” totem pole.

Things like “no platforming”—which started by targeting apartheid South Africa government officials and racist thugs—moved on to prominent academics (Charles Murray, Erika Christakis, Tim Hunt, Germaine Greer) and thence to journalists and writers (Julie Bindel, Laura Moriarty, Peter Tatchell, Maajid Nawaz). Finally, it landed on ordinary members of the public, like the Covington Catholic schoolboys.

Another key difference is the etiology of outrage in the U.K. as opposed to the U.S. In a careful dialogue with Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies (2017), Blackford discusses how in Britain online outrage culture originally appeared on the Left. Nagle uses the label “Tumblr liberalism” as a handy catch-all for the left-wing variety. Both she and Blackford document the emergence of a cult of narcissism, suffering, and victimhood whose adherents are nonetheless capable of immense cruelty.

In the U.S., by contrast, the original outrage warriors emerged on the socially conservative Right, and the phenomenon has deep roots. Blackford traces some of it to McCarthyism, and documents the cynical way people across the spectrum—from transactivists to “Pizzagate” boosters—used McCarthy’s tactics as a blueprint. U.S. religious conservatives also became expert at ferreting out their opponents’ embarrassing personal histories—especially those of left-wing academics—and using those details to shame them into silence or get them fired.

This difference in geography is capable of tripping people up, depending on whether they live on the British or American side of the Atlantic. When Toby Young—a U.K. Tory and an associate editor of Quilletteexpressed his concern “at fellow conservatives mimicking the mobbing tactics of the identitarian Left, whether it’s going after Al Franken, Joy Reid, or James Gunn,” his comment reflects the historical pattern Blackford identifies with respect to Britain, where lefties “started it.” In the U.S., the boot was on the other foot.

Why do people engage in this behavior? Blackford notes there’s a belief common to both political tribes. They typically claim we are living in an emergency situation necessitating drastic action against political opponents and justifying censorship. This “state of exception” or “state of emergency” (terminology varies) is considered so dire that much genuinely appalling behavior escapes censure. “Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was focused on the idea that the United States was in an ongoing emergency situation, but one requiring drastic action from the populist Right,” he notes.

In fact, there’s nothing remotely like a “state of emergency” in any Western liberal democracy. The U.S. will survive Donald Trump safe and whole; the U.K. will survive Brexit. The catastrophizing indulged in by all sides means rhetorical claims are turned up to 11. Hence overblown nonsense about “white genocide,” “rape culture,” “trans erasure,” and so on. But saying this, and standing up for free speech, can be hazardous:

It seems that more and more people, especially in younger generations, now support substantial legal and other formal restrictions on speech that they dislike. They can be very aggressive about this view, and some regard free speech advocacy as itself politically suspect. In this environment, free speech advocates, no matter how conscientious, well informed, cogent, and sympathetic to others they may be, can expect accusations of bigotry or secret agendas. At best, they’ll be accused of insensitivity and cluelessness. These suspicions and accusations may, unfortunately, be the price we have to pay. Often, the only alternative is remaining silent about unfair treatment of individuals, illiberal social developments, and an anti-liberal trend that’s apparent in much left-wing or (revisionist) liberal thought. [p.78]

To up the ante, an individual who defends freedom of speech is sometimes accused of believing exactly the same thing as the speaker whose rights she is defending. Blackford details how during McCarthyism there was a period when even libertarians—generally rock-solid on speech rights—were afraid to defend communists’ right to free speech because they were then routinely smeared as communists. Not as fellow travelers—actual communists. The accusations punched through guilt by association and came out the other side. Chillingly, in the incident that prompted Erika Christakis to leave Yale University, we saw echoes of this. She went publicly undefended by her employer and professional colleagues, even if they (sometimes) supported her privately.

Alongside the “state of emergency” catastrophizing is the claim that permitting certain kinds of speech is a form of “harm,” allowing words to be collapsed into violence and “harm” to be emptied of real meaning. Blackford observes that Mill’s “harm principle“—the core of both left-wing and right-wing liberalism—is no defense against people who insist on equating spiritual or psychological “harm” with physical violence. By this logic, Finnis saying homosexuality “is destructive of human character and relationships” is tantamount to gay bashing.

Blackford notes the striking similarity between a claim commonly made by conservative religious believers—that God and his adherents are harmed by blasphemy—and the “revisionist Left” claim that, say, homosexuals are harmed by John Finnis’s words. This is magical thinking. One almost expects Finnis’s accusers to attribute to him the ability to cause people physical harm by uttering a sort of spell—the kind of thing one sees in a J. K. Rowling novel, not political debate. This thinking contributed in no small part to Europe’s Wars of Religion and feeds Islam’s terrible fissures now. It’s the same disordered reasoning about “harm” that animates people in Pakistan who want to hang Asia Bibi, as though she were somehow capable of infecting the country with “Christian germs.”

Feminists routinely claim that a man looking at a woman lustfully (“objectification”) harms her. Anti-racist activists claim that examining differential crime rates based on race or religion—something Steven Pinker has discussedharms black people or Muslims. By this logic, words in themselves are harmful. That is a harder claim to contest than the other, related argument that certain forms of speech inexorably lead to harm. As Blackford points out, the reason incitement is hard to prove at trial is because it’s extremely difficult to instigate violence by dint of speech.

Having said that, one of the most useful things Blackford does is to document the limited circumstances where there is a causal link between speech and violence. Chief among them is proximity in time and space (Mill’s example of “the corn dealer and an excited mob in front of his house”). Weak central governments unable to prevent violence (Weimar) or an authoritarian state willing to promote violence (Rwanda in the lead up to that country’s 1994 genocide) also make a speech-violence causal link easier to establish. But not often. And all causal claims must be rigorously tested—the onus should fall on those attempting to restrict speech.

Blackford’s suggestions on how to respond to outrage are numerous and should be read and digested in context. Nonetheless, I will flag up two here because they are salient for anyone who wants to defend intellectual freedom.

We should never retract our ideas and words, or apologize for them, merely because this is demanded by a cybermob. That is how mobs enforce conformity. The more individuals and organizations are willing to face down mobs in cyberspace or elsewhere, the more those mobs lose their power. [p.204]

At time of writing, Finnis has not been fired. Per Blackford’s advice, he did not apologize, but defended himself robustly. He also embodied something I learned from him when he was my tutor: we are not golden coins to be liked by all. If gays and lesbians demand to be accepted by everyone, the effect will be to run all conservative monotheists out of the universities on a rail.

As recently as ten years ago, I thought a sincere apology, couched in the right language, would see most mobs off. Having now read Tyranny of Opinion, I have to admit I was wrong. Toby Young’s apology when he resigned from the Office for Students was candid, but it still did him no good:

At this point, the cry for my scalp had reached fever pitch. An online petition calling for me to be sacked from the Office for Students had attracted 220,000 signatures. My daughter was refusing to go to school. My wife said that if one more person came up to her and said “Are you okay?” she was going to hit them. I felt I had no choice but to issue a public apology and stand down.

In one respect, that was a mistake. I had been warned that abasing yourself at the feet of the outrage mob and apologizing would just embolden them. They will take it as a blanket admission of guilt and demand that you be removed from all your remaining positions until you’ve lost your livelihood—and so it proved to be. […]

But I don’t regret apologizing, not entirely, because it was heartfelt. When I saw my puerile tweet on the front page of the Mail on Sunday I was filled with a burning, all-consuming sense of shame. I wanted to crawl into a cupboard and hide. My first thought was: “Thank God my father’s not still alive.”

The second bit of Blackford’s advice I wish to highlight is his injunction (taken from Rushdie) to “defend the text.”

In Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie reflects after two decades upon the early attacks on The Satanic Verses. He says, “The most powerful way to attack a book is to demonise its author, to turn him into a creature of base motives and evil intentions.” He mentions how, when asked by friends what they could do to help, he often pleaded with them: “Defend the text.” That is, he asked for a more specific defence of the literary seriousness of his novel, and the integrity of its author, than could be found in a generic defence of freedom of speech. In the heat of cultural warfare—or worse than that, as with Rushdie’s predicament after the fatwa—much will be said that is not true to the cultural products under attack or to the motives, abilities, and finished achievements of their creators [p.206, citations omitted].

“Defend the text” does two things, at least for those of us who write for a living. It demands critics review the work and not its author, and exposes anti-free speech activists who sound off about artistic creations without reading them, watching them, and so on. Some writers have a policy of refusing to read reviews—whether positive or negative—on the grounds that even the best inevitably view one’s work through a distorted lens. However (and be aware n=1 here), I’ve learnt a lot from erudite and thoughtful commentary on my work even when it’s been critical.

On that (literary) point, Blackford has a beautiful, calm, civil voice. He writes gorgeously, guiding the reader through a great deal of material with expertise and, sometimes, élan. It is a lesson in how to argue, and how to think. The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism is an exceptional book. Anyone who engages in political debate should read it.

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Helen Dale

Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and was Senior Adviser to Australian Senator David Leyonhjelm. Follow her on Twitter @_HelenDale.