Today’s Orthodoxies Put Quotation Marks Around ‘Freedom’

by Theodore Dalrymple

Professor Kathleen Stock

How revealing a little punctuation mark may be! A recent headline in the left-leaning, once liberal newspaper, the Guardian, ran a story with a headline as follows: “University defends ‘academic freedoms’ after calls to sack professor.”

The university was Sussex and the professor was Kathleen Stock, a feminist philosopher. She was accused of the thoughtcrime of transphobia by an anonymous group, which demanded that she be sacked from the university.

The vice-chancellor, Professor Alan Tickell, was forthright in his response—alas, untypically so for persons in his position: “We cannot and will not tolerate threats to cherished academic freedoms and will take any action necessary to protect the rights of our community.”

Professor Stock’s thoughtcrime was to have thought and said openly that you cannot change your biological identity simply by wishing to do so and by taking a few drugs or having a few operations.

Your identity is not determined wholly by what you feel that you are, or what you would like to be: some things are given, among them sex. Reality places limits upon us.

A person who undergoes sex-change procedures as they are currently practiced is only metaphorically a person of the sex opposite to his or her original biological sex.

One day it may be possible for science to go further than the current crude methods permit, but that day is probably a long way off. For the moment, as Robert Burns put it in another context, “a man’s a man for a’ that.”

Until this call for Professor Stock to be sacked from her chair of philosophy, I confess that I did not know anything about her. But these days it is easy to familiarize yourself with someone’s work, at least in outline, and it is clear that she is not an extremist of the kind who would, say, call for the removal of trans-gender persons to prison camps, or anything remotely similar.

She is concerned mainly with the untruth of the claims made by some activists who use untrue claims to influence public policy. Whether or not you agree with her is hardly the question, though in fact she couches her arguments in the language of rationality and without stridency.

She is accused of transphobia: these days activists of many kinds reduce those who disagree with them to the mental level of those who are irrationally afraid of spiders, though with the connotation not only of irrationality but of moral defect. And, of course, moral defect is a good pretext for shutting people up. After all, why should bad people be allowed to speak?

Those who called for her dismissal were in effect saying that no one who holds her views should be allowed to teach in a university. Only those with certifiably “correct” views should be permitted to do so. As Fidel Castro put it fifty years ago, “Within the revolution everything, against the revolution nothing.”

The Guardian’s headline was interesting because of the quotation marks around the words “academic freedoms.” These quotation marks were meant to imply that the very notion of academic freedom is fictitious or worse, a kind of smokescreen for permission to express reactionary ideas and put them into practice.

The theory of knowledge that this implies is that of Marx: that a person’s beliefs are but a reflection of his economic and social interests (apart, of course, from his own), and that no one considers a question from a purely intellectual or disinterested point of view.

Thus, those who defend academic freedom are really defending their right to intellectual and economic hegemony. There is really no such thing as academic freedom, there is only the expression of power.

What is necessary, therefore, is merely to replace one hegemony with another—that of virtue and justice, as interpreted by the Guardian, for that of bourgeois privilege. The newspaper’s utopia is a world in which everyone agrees with its editorials and acts upon them as if they were holy writ.

This intolerance of any opinion but one’s own had been growing and is now stronger than at any period that I can remember in my lifetime. I should have seen it coming.

About thirty years ago, before the advent of the so-called social media (today while walking in the street I saw a young man, not the kind of whom I would willingly ask directions, who wore a T-short with the legend, “My local anti-social social club”), I published an article, admittedly not in altogether emollient terms, against the point of view of a certain pressure group.

Representatives of that pressure group contacted the hospital in which I worked and asked that I should be dismissed. The chief executive of the hospital at the time wrote back to the representatives and said that he was sorry that they were upset by what I had written, but that it was a free country and I could write whatever I liked.

Peace be upon him and honor to his memory! At the time I little thought that his forthright response would soon come to appear extraordinary and brave. On the contrary, I thought at the time that it was perfectly banal and almost self-evident.

But nowadays, practically no person in his position (with honorable exceptions such as the vice-chancellor of Sussex University) would dare to write in such a fashion, for fear himself of falling under suspicion of having incorrect and impermissible thoughts.

The National Union of Monomaniacs has understood the principles of intimidation, as well as of informing and denunciation: things of which the Guardian, which in its better days was a defender of freedom, is now a handmaiden—not that it would ever understand so patriarchal a term as handmaiden.

The great former editor of the Guardian, C.P. Scott, once wrote that comment is free but facts are sacred. Now he would write that the facts are free but current orthodoxy is sacred.

The quotation marks in the Guardian’s headline reveal a totalitarian mindset that is, however, far from unique to the newspaper. It is being actively inculcated in our children, on the old Jesuit principle that, if you have a child by the age of seven, he is yours (in this case, the latest orthodoxy’s) for ever.

First published in the Epoch Times.