Tim Farron, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, the party considered to be the liberal voice of BritainFELIX PECKHAM

On the 30th of March, Varsity published an article by Michael Reiners entitled ‘The relevance of Orwell’s Newspeak in 2018’. In it, he argued that the language used by left-wingers has led them into a stuffy, conservative mindset, while the right has drawn radical purpose from their appropriation of the discourse of ‘élites’ and popular sovereignty. Reiners makes some good points about the nature of the new right and about the slightly arcane nature of common left-liberal terminology. But his article is a demonstration of liberal centrists’ perennial lack of imagination and self-criticism.

Reiners’s idea that the weird languages used by both radical left and far right contort their ideas and strip them of rational content is a common liberal complaint. The implication is that liberal language is apolitical; thus to be a centrist is to think critically and without bias. This is pure conceit. Liberal language is equally politicised, but more perniciously so, precisely because it does not recognise its own political content.

‘Leftie students’ are an easy target, especially for those student commentators looking to glide seamlessly into the Spectator

Take the category ‘freedom of speech’, the usual totem of liberal students. It is a phrase riven with contradictions. Officially, it is an individual right, necessary to provide the subject with the space to define their own good life. Yet it does not function like this within the liberal discourse. This is evident in the hypocritical and dense debate over no-platforming, supposedly a violation of free speech. If it did violate free speech, then I would be able to march into the Union and demand a platform to talk about my extensive collection of twentieth-century coins, and if they didn’t give it to me or no-one turned up, that would be a violation of my free speech. The argument against no-platforming is not based on individual rights but on a sense that as a polity, we have a collective duty to hear controversial points of view. In other words, a small number of right-wing provocateurs should be given an amplified voice because it is healthy for society to hear them. The individual speech rights of left-wingers who show up to agitate against these speakers are dispensable, thus these people are very often silenced. This is no neutral individual right: it is a political programme that consists in increasing the prominence of right-wing voices. A ‘freedom of speech’ must surely be a ‘freedom to speak’, for the marginalised as well as the powerful. Yet liberals treat their self-contradictory version of free speech as if it were somehow objective.

Reiners writes that the use of terms like ‘white male’ allow people to “discredit someone’s speech by their identity”. This, again, is dressed up as a simple struggle between liberal free debate and the radicals’ self-indulgent irrationalism. But consider this proposition logically. Identity matters because it shapes one’s experiences of the world, particularly at a place of such seismic contradictions as Cambridge. If you are poor, gay, female, or black, you have an outlook on our university, and on life, that you do not if you are none of these things. You cannot understand the world, you cannot critique it rationally, unless you take these differing experiences into account. The appeal to identity is only an attempt to shut you up if you’re accustomed to talking all the time.


Mountain View

The relevance of Orwell's Newspeak in 2018

Liberal language consistently deploys normative terms, without any self-awareness, to discredit radicals. This is the mentality that insists teaching children that they can resist the gender roles assigned to them is ‘politicised education’, whereas telling girls to play with dolls and boys with soldiers is normal and neutral. It castigates safe spaces, in which marginalised people gather to share their frustrations with the only other people they can rely on to be sympathetic, as violations of free speech, while treating the lack of female and black and brown writers in the curriculum as natural. It claims that it is ‘common sense’ that a generation should be saddled with back-breaking debt for the ‘service’ that the university provides - but it is ‘political’ to ask where the university invests the money it takes from us, ‘idealistic’ to demand education as a right.

‘Leftie students’ are an easy target, especially for those student commentators looking to glide seamlessly into the Spectator. But the complacent ‘centrists’ criticising them for trying to make change ought to examine some of their own preconceptions, and ask themselves just how rational and critical they are truly being. The terms they use are just as politicised as those used by the left and right, except theirs serve to maintain an unjust status quo. As the Brazilian radical Paulo Freire wrote, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

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