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Trigger Warning: free speech is being attacked and downgraded in Anglo-American culture, says Mick Hume
Anorak asked journalist Mick Hume about his new book, which looks at the highly topical issue of free speech…
Your new book is entitled ‘Trigger Warning’. For those not familiar with the phrase, could you explain its origin and its relevance?
A ‘trigger warning’ is a statement stuck at the beginning of a piece of writing, video or whatever to alert you to the fact that it contains material you may find upsetting or offensive. For example, ‘TW: Islamophobic language’, or ‘TW: references to sexual violence’.
Trigger Warnings took off in US colleges (where student activists want classic works to carry them, suggesting for example that The Great Gatsby should have one along the lines of ‘TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence’). They have since spread across the Atlantic and the internet. If you are not familiar with ‘TWs’, they are coming soon to a website near you.
For me the mission creep of trigger warnings symbolises the stultifying atmosphere surrounding freedom of expression and debate today. They are like those ‘Here be dragons’ signs on uncharted areas of old maps, warning students and others not to take a risk, not to step off the edge of their comfort zone, not to expose themselves to ‘uncomfortable’ ideas, images or opinions.
What is the book about?
The sub-title of the book rather gives the game away: ‘Is the fear of being offensive killing free speech?’ To which its unsurprising answer is yes, unless we do something about it.
Trigger Warning is about all the various ways in which free speech is being attacked and downgraded in Anglo-American culture today. It describes ‘the silent war on free speech’. It’s a silent war because nobody in politics or public life admits that they are against freedom of expression; all of them will make ritualistic displays of support for it ‘in principle’, as they did after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. In practice, however, they are all seeking ways to restrict freedom of expression, whilst insisting that ‘this is not a free speech issue’, it is merely an attempt to protect the ‘vulnerable’ against offensive and hateful words.
To that end, the book examines the complementary trends towards official censorship, unofficial censorship and self-censorship in the West today, covering everything from online ‘trolls’ to football and comedy as well as more conventional political issues.
Of these three, the most insidious is the informal, unofficial censorship promoted by Twitter mobs and assorted boycott-and-ban-happy zealots. They are a relatively small minority, but they exercise disproportionate influence by preying on the loss of faith in free speech at the top of our societies.
I describe these people as ‘reverse-Voltaires’, who have taken the famous principle linked to Voltaire – ‘I may hate what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ – and twisted it into its opposite – ‘I know I will detest what you say, and I will defend to the end of free speech my right to stop you saying it’. They do not want to debate arguments they disagree with, but merely to close them down as offensive. Trigger Warning takes on their most powerful excuses in a section entitled ‘Five good reasons for restricting free speech – and why they’re all wrong’.
What is the main message of the book?
The main message of the book – and I fear it is a ‘message’ book, or ‘polemic’ as we pretentious authors say – is twofold, I suppose. That we have forgotten how important the fight for free speech has been in the creation of something approximating a civilised society, and that we are in danger of giving it up without a struggle. It is not so much that we are losing the free speech wars: we are not even fighting them!
Few of the great advances in politics, science and culture over the past 500 years would have been possible without the expansion of free speech and the willingness of heroic heretics to question everything and break taboos. None of the liberation movements of the recent past could have succeeded without putting the right to free speech at the forefront of their campaigns (which makes it all the more bitterly ironic to see restrictions on free speech being demanded today in the name of protecting the oppressed).
Free speech was never a right to be won once and then put on a shelf to be admired. It always has to be defended again, against new challenges and enemies. The big danger today is that so few are standing up for unfettered free speech against the reverse-Voltaires and their like. Where are the young Tom Paines, JS Mills, John Wilkes’ or George Orwells of our age? Instead we have characters like the US liberal professor who just wrote a (pseudonymous) article about how he is too ‘terrified’ of his ‘liberal’ students to raise a potentially offensive idea or even ask them to read Mark Twain. Time to take a stand before it’s too late.
You have been outspoken about the right to offend. But some people seem to believe they have a duty to offend, and we have seen public examples of this recently. How does your opinion differ from theirs?
I have been writing about the right to be offensive for some 25 years, since the crisis over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. It is the cutting edge of free speech. After all, what use is it is we are only ‘free’ to say what everybody else might like? If we defend free speech for those views branded extreme and offensive, the mainstream will look after itself. This is not about offensive language, but opinions – as JS Mill pointed out long ago, the more powerful your opponent’s arguments are, the more offensive you tend to find them!
The importance of that issue was brought into sharp focus by the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre of course. As the book describes, behind the apparent displays of Je Suis Charlie solidarity, the powerful message was that those cartoonists had gone ‘too far’ in offending Islam. Those gunmen might have been inspired by Islamist preachers, but they can only have been encouraged by the loss of faith in free speech at the heart of Western culture.
None of this means, as you mention, that anybody has a duty to offend. The right to be offensive is not an obligation. One problem today is that the response to the conformist culture of You-Can’t-Say-That tends to be a few comedians and others trying to cause offence for the sake of it. That’s infantile and useless. As William Hazlitt wrote, ‘An honest man speaks the truth, though it may cause offence, a vain man, in order that it may”. A good distinction, so long as we remember that the vain man gets the freedom to speak his version of the truth, too.
Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech? is published by Collins.
Mick was answering questions put to him by Ed Barrett
Connecticut teacher fired for reading Allen Ginsberg poem students can borrow from the school library
Censorshsip is on the rise in the US. The ‘you can’t say that’ culture is undermining free speech and free thinking. National Coalition Against Censorship has news: “During an AP class discussion about gratuitous language, a student asked a teacher to read an Allen Ginsberg poem. He did. He’s not a teacher anymore.”
David Olio was sacked for reading a poem? Really?
In February two students complained about an Allen Ginsberg poem that, at the request of a fellow student, was shared in Olio’s AP English class at South Windsor High School in Connecticut. A media uproar followed, and Olio was essentially forced to resign.
Artist Jesse England’s “E-Book Backup” project sees him photocopy his Kindle version of George Orwell’s 1984. He photocopied every page, one by one. He then uploaded the scanned copy to his Kindle.
Hold on your Top Gear hair it’s going to be bumpy ride as we look at Top Gear erotic fan fiction. Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May are away…
This is from a work entitled Clutch:
“At first he thought the taut muscles and slender hips belonged to a girl. But, aroused, he strode closer and recognised the unmistakable frame of his friend Jeremy.”
To mark World Book Day, school children are encouraged to dress up as their favourite book character. Liam Scholes, 11, arrived at Sale High School dressed as Christian Grey, eponymous star of 50 Shades of Grey. He carried a mask and cable ties.
The school duly banned him from participating in themed events and the class photograph.
And that seems harsh given that in the 1930s sad-masochism was the stuff of boys comic books. Indeed 50 Shades of Grey was originally titled 50 Shades of Greyfriars, a work of Billy Bunter fan fiction:
Chick Career: one man’s comic-book crusade for humanity
Are you worried about the growing menace of the Homosexual-Catholic-Islamic-Satanist-Masonic-Alien conspiracy to promote evolutionism, fornication, pornography, pornography, paedophilia, pop music, alcohol and drugs?
Well in that case, it’s high time you got acquainted with Jack Chick – crazy name, crazy guy – and his body of enlightening works.
I first became aware of Jack when I purchased This Was Your Life for a few pence in a Christian bookshop many decades ago. Its primitive and unsubtle visual style intrigued me, as did the way it crudely homed in on the childlike insecurities that lurk within us. Here it is, animated for your convenience (with an extra ending that is definitely NOT in Jack’s original)…
But if the theme of the prodigal son is a familiar one, Jack’s other work takes us to nightmare scenarios far beyond the normal scriptural pastures, where the very existence of the human race hangs in the balance…
So who is Jack Chick? And how did this unlikely evangelist embark on his pioneering cartooning career?
According to his website, ‘As he grew, Jack was constantly drawing, and honing skills that God would later use in a great way.’
A great – some might say mysterious –way indeed.
Jack got off to an inauspicious start: ‘While in high school, none of the Christians would have anything to do with him because of his bad language. They all agreed not to witness to him, convinced that he was the last guy on earth who would ever accept Jesus Christ.’
After high school, Jack studied drama, went in the army, and eventually became an actor.
Then one day his mother-in-law insisted that he listen to Charles E Fuller’s Old Fashioned Revival Hour on the radio, during which Jack fell to his knees ‘and my life was changed forever’.
First he borrowed $800 from the credit union to fund the initial printing of Why No Revival?
Then, while out driving, Jack spotted some teenagers on the street. ‘At the time, I didn’t like teenagers or their rebellion,’ he recalled. ‘But, all of a sudden, the power of God hit me and my heart broke and I was overcome with the realisation that these teens were probably on their way to hell. With tears pouring down my face, I pulled my car off the road and wrote as fast as I could, as God poured the story into my mind.’
The result? A Demon’s Nightmare
Jack’s boss told him that the Chinese people had been won over to Communism through mass distribution of cartoon booklets, and this planted the seed of a plan in his fertile mind.
When invited to speak at a local prison, he prepared a flip chart to illustrate his speech. So successful was his performance that ‘nine of the eleven inmates present trusted Christ as their Saviour’.
The artwork from his talk formed the basis of This Was Your Life, the seminal ‘Chick Tract’ mentioned earlier.
The early tracts were not an instant hit.
‘A lot of the bookstores were really outraged at some guy using these cartoons to present the gospel,’ remembered Jack. ‘They thought it was sacrilegious.’
Half a century later, however, with hundreds of tracts translated into a hundred tongues, Chick claims a combined sales figure of 750 million: ‘His burden has always been to get the gospel into the hands of millions of lost people around the world. He wanted to be a missionary himself, but his new wife wanted no part of missionary life. Her aunt had been a missionary in Africa. While pregnant, she was being carried across a river on a stretcher, when one of those carrying her lost a leg to an alligator. But God had other plans. He wanted Jack to stay home and produce effective gospel literature that missionaries could use to win the lost. As a result, many missionaries love Chick tracts and use them to reach multitudes they could never reach one on one. Today, over fifty years after writing his first tract, God is still giving Jack Chick new gospel tracts. In fact, he is now producing some of his most popular work. As of this writing, five of the ten most popular Chick tracts in stock have been written in the last year or two.’
Jack’s tracts bring new and vivid illustrations of Christian tenets. In The Execution, a murderer is spared the gallows – only to discover (to his horror) that his own mother offered to be hanged in his place, just as Jesus died for our sins. In Flight 144, a Christian couple who have spent 50 years doing good works around the world in God’s name are killed in a plane crash and refused entry to heaven because good works don’t save sinners – only God can. In Heart Trouble, a man visits a cardiologist who tells him that he will die (‘everybody dies’) and that everyone is born with a heart problem: ‘the ugly things down deep in your heart that we can’t see… But God does.’ In Lisa (now no longer available but posted online by Chick’s detractors) a doctor informs a father that he has given his young daughter an STD – then saves his soul by introducing him to Jesus. In Big Daddy? a crazed teacher throws a boy out of his class for questioning the theory of evolution.
And so on. Targets range from the world’s biggest religions, science, abortion and homosexuality through to Santa Claus, Halloween, Harry Potter, and Dungeons and Dragons.
Many people seem to find it amusing to republish the distinctive Chick Tracts online, with amended text that ridicules Jack’s urgent message.
Some claim that Jack is a bigot and a hater. Others, that he is delusional and mad.
The latter share their delight in Jack Chick’s nightmarish visions at The Chick Tract Club.
But for the real thing, and the fount of all such wisdom, visit the home of Chick and count your blessings.
The Daily Star has a story that “300,000 set to get pregnant” as the 50 Shades of Grey film hits the national libido.
(The woman on the left is Miley Cyrus, who is neither in the film nor pregnant.)
The story goes:
50 Shades sparks baby boom: Valentine’s sex-fest predicted to leave hospitals struggling
Measles are for cool kids: extracts from Melanie’s Marvelous Measles (the only book you’ll ever read!)
MEASLES are back. And that’s cool. Measles is the hipster disease.
The great thing about measles is that they are FREE! But even then some mums and dads are too uptight to get with the cool.
But in Melanie’s Marvelous Measles these stiffs can get down (six feet under -ed). The books costs. But it is worth it?
The author/publisher writes on Amazon:
“Melanie’s Marvelous Measles was written to educate children on the benefits of having measles and how you can heal from them naturally and successfully. Often today, we are being bombarded with messages from vested interests to fear all diseases in order for someone to sell some potion or vaccine, when, in fact, history shows that in industrialized countries, these diseases are quite benign and, according to natural health sources, beneficial to the body. Having raised three children vaccine-free and childhood disease-free, I have experienced many times when my children’s vaccinated peers succumb to the childhood diseases they were vaccinated against. Surprisingly, there were times when my unvaccinated children were blamed for their peers’ sickness. Something which is just not possible when they didn’t have the diseases at all. Stephanie Messenger lives in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, and devotes her life to educating people about vaccine dangers and supporting families in their natural health choices. She has the support of many natural therapists and natural-minded doctors.”
The author writes:
This book takes children aged 4 – 10 years on a journey of discovering about the ineffectiveness of vaccinations, while teaching them to embrace childhood disease, heal if they get a disease, and build their immune systems naturally.
Readers on Amazon love it!
Buy now and buy only ONCE!
And don’t forget to rub it all over youir infected kid before passing it on!
Note: She also wrote this:
Sarah Visits a Naturopath
A children’s storybook written by Stephanie Messenger
This book exposes children aged 4 – 10 years, to the idea that they create most of their ill health by the choices they make. It encourages them to listen to the messages their bodies give them. Sarah visits a naturopath to get advice on staying well according to nature’s laws.
A naturopath speaks…
Budding smuggler hunters can study this colouring and activity book from the U.S. Border Patrol Museum, El Paso, Texas.
How To Get A Husband – a guide for woman in the 1880s:
Read it all at Flashbak…
“When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered – this had to mean land! – but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose.” — Elizabeth (Betsy) Dorfman, Bainbridge Island, WA…
The contest challenges entrants to compose bad opening sentences to imaginary novels and takes its name from the Victorian novelist George Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who began his Paul Clifford (1830) with “It was a dark and stormy night.“
On Flashbak, Ed Barrett is building a Bike Shed Library.
First book is No. 1: Chopper by Pate Cave (NEL, 1971):
In the days when Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris was bestriding Stamford Bridge, another Chopper Harris was enthralling the juvenile delinquents of Great Britain with a different brand of violence.
This Chopper was the number two in a London-based chapter of the Hell’s Angels. Or should that be ‘NEL’s Angels’? Because, make no mistake, this bears the classic New English Library hallmarks of lurid sensationalism and dubious authenticity.
Christopher Hitchens talks about booze in his book Hitch-22:
I work at home, where there is indeed a bar-room, and can suit myself. But I don’t. At about half past midday, a decent slug of Mr. Walker’s amber restorative, cut with Perrier water (an ideal delivery system) and no ice. At luncheon, perhaps half a bottle of red wine: not always more but never less. Then back to the desk, and ready to repeat the treatment at the evening meal. No “after dinner drinks”—most especially nothing sweet and never, ever any brandy. “Nightcaps” depend on how well the day went, but always the mixture as before. No mixing: no messing around with a gin here and a vodka there.
Alcohol makes other people less tedious, and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing. The only worthwhile miracle in the New Testament—the transmutation of water into wine during the wedding at Cana—is a tribute to the persistence of Hellenism in an otherwise austere Judaea. The same applies to the Seder at Passover, which is obviously modeled on the Platonic symposium: questions are asked (especially of the young) while wine is circulated. No better form of sodality has ever been devised: at Oxford one was positively expected to take wine during tutorials. The tongue must be untied.
Spotter: Ilia Blinderman
Israel has gone. It was never there. Anyone buying a HarperCollins Middle East Atlas in Jordan, Syria, the Gulf states, Saudia Arabia and Lebanon will find no Israel.
Bishop Declan Lang, chairman of the Bishops’ Conference Department of International Affairs, told The Tablet:
“The publication of this atlas will confirm Israel’s belief that there exists a hostility towards their country from parts of the Arab world. It will not help to build up a spirit of trust leading to peaceful co-existence.”
It could also mean that Islamic State goons see the blank space and think it a fine place to settle. They will march on this barren world and be systematically taken out by an invisible Army.
Publish at will…
Howard Jacobson nails it. Why only Christians can be Nazis. And why Islamofascism is an amplified myth:
‘Christianity is key here,’ says Jacobson. ‘Muslims have needed the Jew less [historically], although there’s a lot of Muslim anti-Semitism now due to the Middle East. [But] Christianity’s had to leave [Judaism] behind, so it’s had to hate it, it’s had to say, we are not that, we are not that anymore, and then to say we were never that – so that’s a necessary hatred.’
‘And then out of that grew a sense of the possibility that all cultures have to have someone to hate. Not just a scapegoat. It’s more essential than that. Who am I, what am I? I am not that. To the degree you know that, you know who you are.’
In Tomboy, Liz Prince looks at growing up, being a girl and what gender means:
“I’ve always thought about gender, as someone who has been categorically ‘gender nonconforming’ for my entire life, I was forced to think about it, but obviously I became more conscious of it as a social issue as I’ve gotten older. And as I’ve met more folks who are genderqueer or trans, it’s been really enlightening to hear their stories, and it got me thinking about my own gender history.
“An unexpected side effect of writing Tomboy is that I have gotten a lot of letters and emails from parents of tomboys, who say that they read the book, and they feel like they understand their children so much better now. I got a really emotional letter from a woman who has a tomboy daughter, who she has in the past tried to force to conform more strictly to a gender norm, and my book made her feel really terrible for doing that, because she understands now that her daughter should be free to express herself the way that is comfortable to her.
“I was really unprepared for receiving feedback like that; letters about how my book has actually changed the way someone approaches their parenting. It’s very validating.”
Thought of the day:
“About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles. But, she added, wouldn’t it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women’s characters and roles…. The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian / Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist / Zionist / Seventh-day Adventist / Women’s Lib / Republican / Mattachine / Four Square Gospel, feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse… The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule.” — Ray Bradbury
Book of the day is the 1979 tome, God’ll Fix It, the divine words of Sir Jimmy Savile.
The chapter How Do I Cope With Sex? , told readers:
Sex at its worst is corruption, as when young people might be corrupted to provide sex.’
The final word is with the Star:
Neal Cassady Shall Be Justified: Read The Joan Anderson Letter That Inspired Jack Kerouac’s On The Road
In 1950 Neal Cassady chocked down mouthfuls of speed and wrote a 16,000 words, 18-page letter to hgis friend Jack Kerouac. In it he recalled a trip to Denver and a dalliance with a Joan Anderson. Kerouac was writing On The Road. After reading Cassady’s letter he began it anew.
WHAT can Babie be? Well, if you melt her down, she could be doorstop, a martial aid part of South Korean car’s dashboard. But to Martel, Babrie can be anything.
Barbie Can Be…A Computer Engineeer.
Live the dream, Barbie! And dig those glasses. You sure must have smarts to wear bins like those.
John Waters hitchhiked his way across the USA. He’s written it up in Carsick.
“I have probably 8,500 books all catalogued and everything. I’m a book collector. The novelizations of movies which no one collects? I collect them. I also collect porn parodies of literature. So yes, I collect all kinds of books.”
The first two chapters of his book are fictional. He wonders what thrills await him, such as giving head during a demolition derby and being murdered by a serial killer with a thing for film directors.
“Some people skip [the introduction] and they don’t realize the first two parts are fiction. They say, ‘Did that really happen?’ Do you really believe my singing anus did a duet with Connie Francis?”
Save it for the movie…
MODERN journalism is much about lists. You make a list and it is news. Things kicked off in 1977, when millions of people (my father mong them) The Book of Lists, compiled by David Wallechinsky, his father Irving Wallace and sister Amy Wallace.
It was a cracking book, a top toilet read. It was a valuable resource when I wrote the quiz questions for the TV show Jeopardy (What is the impossible job?).