Like Tim Lott, I am a “transgressive lefty.” Indeed it would appear that we agree on a fair few transgressive points – I too question how religious beliefs are privileged and protected and how cultures associated with those beliefs can be afforded license to oppress and abuse the vulnerable. I have more than a few issues with aspects of feminist theory and I am more than happy to take an occasional swing at an ideological sacred cow. By and large I believe the best way to challenge ugly opinions is to give them air and shoot them down rather than suppress and repress them.
Believe me, I know what it is like to write something that offends or upsets a section of the left, to wake up to a hundred notifications on Twitter, 99 of which are people calling me rude names or to an email inbox peppered with invitations to die in a fire. Just last week someone (thanks mate, you know who you are!) sent me a link to a six-page long Mumsnet thread entirely consisting of radical feminists debating who was officially The Worst between me and Owen Jones (pretty sure I came out top – in your face, OJ.)
I can joke about it, and must, because it comes with the territory. It comes with the territory for everyone. I’m enormously grateful and rather proud to have some sprinkling of media platforms for my views, but in the grand scheme of things I am a nobody, a pleb, just another voice in the contemporary clamour of open source gobshittery.
But Tim Lott is not thinking of people like me or you in his howl of anguish, something he makes clear in his conclusion.
Nick Cohen, Christopher Hitchens, David Aaronovich, Julie Burchill, Julie Bindel and others have often been at the rough end of this debate, for daring to voice opinions of their own that do not fit the overarching narrative. David Mamet’s admittedly provocative essay, Why I Am No Longer a “Brain-Dead Liberal”, published in the Village Voice, must have cost him a fair few dinner party invitations. This marginalisation is invidious, not only because it violates the principles of free debate
What Tim Lott fails to appreciate is that it is not his pals among the great and the good of the literati who are on the rough end of this debate. There is this myth appearing in recent years that the modern left consists of a massive hivemind of angry young social justice warriors. Twitchforks at the ready, waiting to pounce on anyone who deviates from the agreed consensus of what Lott calls ‘purity.’
It is the precise same myth that lay behind the fiasco of the open letter about free speech on campus and which seems to resurface in one form or another every few months. It is, as I have observed before, Gramsci’s class of organic intellectuals circling the wagons in the most ostentatious, self-pitying way.
So poor David Mamet might have lost a few dinner party invitations? Well boo fucking hoo. I know impoverished, obscure trans activists who have been rewarded for speaking their minds and expressing their politics with extended campaigns of hate lasting weeks and months, including attempts to dox their offline identities, attempts to destroy their livelihoods, or who have had their gender history outed as a political tactic. I know sex workers’ rights activists who have had their mental and physical health all but destroyed by campaigns of vilification and hate. I’ve seen young writers and activists of colour who have dared to challenge the dodgy politics of a Twitter media celebrity and been mocked, demeaned and humiliated as a consequence. I have known disabled activists who have objected to an ableist comment or joke from a famous celebrity and had their objections retweeted to a million vicious attack dogs.
Meanwhile if you are an aspiring writer, blogger or creator who has the temerity to criticise the great and the good, the overwhelmingly Oxbridge and public-school educated coterie who make up the commissioning editors, the staff writers and the columnists, then good luck with that career. You will quickly find that the doors you thought slightly ajar have slammed hard on your foot.
Politics of all types, but especially the to-and-fro of political opinion writing, is a tightly sprung bed of power relations and guess what – power really does not lie with the masses. When we ask which kinds of “transgressive lefties” are marginalised, suppressed, silenced in the current climate are we talking about the sex workers, the disabled, the trans activists, the students? Or do we really think of the likes of Aaronovitch, Cohen and Burchill with their six figure column contracts, their TV and radio shows, their South Bank speaking invitations, and the home numbers of national editors on speed dial? Really?
The objection from Lott is a familiar one. Once boiled down, it is tantamount to a demand for the great and the good to be able to opine from their high, privileged platforms without the inconvenience of being exposed to other people’s reactions. They want to be able to wax lyrical without some uppity kid telling them they are being transphobic or Islamophobic or just plain wrong. So convinced are they that they speak for (in Lott’s words) “compassion, freedom and concern for social justice” that they believe they should be immune from critique, even when others consider their work to be downright antithetical to “compassion, freedom and social justice”.
Most of those people began work in an era when that was still possible – they could write their columns and their books and barring the occasional green-ink missive in the post, convince themselves that their precious pearls of wisdom were being gratefully cherished by the masses.
The world has changed. The world has changed for everyone. There is a real and important discussion to be had as to how we, as a culture, move beyond the often corrosive age of the pile-on, the Twittermob and Twitch-hunt. As Jon Ronson’s new book explains, the most obscure and innocent member of the public can now find him or herself in the midst of a horrendous storm of anger or outrage. But in the real world, those with power, influence, wealth and privilege are the most securely protected and shielded from those impacts. They are the lucky ones. It takes quite breathtaking lack of self-awareness that they consider themselves the victims here.