Declaring an idea or opinion to be “problematic” has become the activist Left’s tool of choice for shutting down debate and attacking free speech
I have a real issue with the recent hijacking and misappropriation of the word “problematic” by new generation feminists, trigger warning-toting student activists and the right-on Left in general. You could say that I find it…well, problematic.
Until recently, expressing a right-wing opinion or questioning the inexorable rise of identity culture might have seen you branded by the activist Left as being offensive, racist, sexist or oppressive in some other way. The criticism may well have been a shrill overreaction to a perfectly reasonable and valid point, but at least you knew where you stood and of what you were accused. Today, you are far more likely to be noted and quietly logged by the New Age Censors as being “problematic” – someone possessing opinions which do not properly conform to the current orthodoxy.
Take the insult that is university-sponsored sexual consent classes for fully grown adults, in which lecture theatres full of browbeaten good guys (the few potential future rapists never attend, of course) are made to feel like they are a potential threat to society, and that sexual relations between autonomous individuals should be stripped of their intimacy through the adoption of affirmative consent checkpoints at every stage of the relationship.
Frank Furedi writes in Spiked:
Although those advocating consent classes use touchy-feely words like ‘openness’ and ‘exploration’, they are anything but open to exploring alternative or dissident views. From the perspective of the consent crusader, anyone who deviates from the prescribed script on consent is, by definition, ‘problematic’. The need to adopt a firm and inflexible line is justified on the grounds that the stakes are far too high to tolerate different views on consent. Why? Because the principal aim of consent workshops is to re-socialise the participants, to modify their behaviour, and overturn the social and moral norms that supposedly legitimate the oppression of others, especially women; hence the workshops target so-called lad culture.
And here’s Dan Hitchens in the Spectator, on the efforts by student activists to ban Germaine Greer from Cardiff University because the feminist icon has uttered “problematic” things about transexual people:
In the language of student censors [the word “problematic”] seems to have become one of the harshest terms of disapproval. Opinions are denounced as, say, ‘vile and problematic’, or (as the Greer-banning petition describes her views) ‘hateful and problematic’. What’s problematic about this use of ‘problematic’ is that, until recently, the word was generally used to draw attention to some difficulty, in an understated British kind of way. It is jarring to read it being hurled from the skies as a thunderbolt of judgment.
You also see it in the language of people like American internet activist Laci Green (see video above), who explains:
When feminists say that something is problematic, they are usually referring to words, behaviours, ideas, tropes, stereotypes and so forth that are factually inaccurate and ultimately harm women, people of colour, the LGBT community and so forth.
Which would be vaguely true if you swap out “factually inaccurate” and replace it with “contrary to my opinion”. And also swap out “harm” and replace it with “offend some”. Green continues:
We have to identify harmful behaviours and words to actively discourage them. This promotes a more just and equal world.
But of course Laci Green and her co-conspirators in Britain do not just want to actively discourage the speaking of words and ideas which are contrary to their own worldview. They want to banish them entirely, and do so by holding a gun to society’s head and basically threatening that failing to abide by these new rules will result in social media shaming, social ostracising and complete excommunication from public life.
But here’s the dark heart of the New Age Censors, as revealed by Laci Green:
The truth is, literally everyone and everything is problematic. The search for feminist perfection will cause burnout because there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. All of us have been born into a culture that teaches us toxic behaviours and words that actively harm other people.
[..] To improve, we need to need to encourage unlearning in our dialogue. We have to actively unlearn racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and all manner of oppressions. And that is a lifelong process.
This is dangerous stuff, the propagation of the idea that spoken or written words can cause physical harm. But this is absolutely centrist to what the leftist New Age Censors are trying to do. They are fully aware that controlling the language means controlling public thought, and they aim to bring all of us problematic people into conformity with their own narrow worldview by declaring any dissenting opinion to be “problematic”, and doing their utmost to suppress it.
And by far the best cover for the New Age Censors’ deadly assault on free speech is the wheedling claim that sticks and stones may break their bones, but words might kill them stone dead. As Brendan O’Neill wrote this week:
This idea that words are assault is a recurring one in the arguments of the Stepford Students. ‘Blurred Lines’ has been banned on campuses across Britain because it ‘violates’ rules against ‘sexual harassment’. So hearing a song is like being harassed. Some unions banned the Sun on the basis that its daily Page 3 girls (RIP) ‘normalise rape’. (Blaming young women who strip off for men who rape? Nice. This rehabilitates in pseudo-edgy lingo that old judge’s view that mini-skirted girls had it coming.) The Oxford students who prevented me from taking part in a debate on abortion last year said allowing someone ‘without a uterus’ to discuss abortion would harm their ‘mental safety’.
All of these things were deemed “problematic”. And all were duly purged from university campuses as the closing of the left-wing mind gathers pace.
Laci Green’s casual assertion that “everything and everyone is problematic” is hilarious but also telling, for it reveals how the New Age Censors of the activist Left plan to gain power and suppress free speech in the process.
If everyone and everything is problematic then we are all guilty of committing unwitting microaggressions and oppressive behaviours, all the time. With every breath that we take we actively “harm” another human being with our thoughts and words, goes this line of thought. And therefore we need people to continually tell us what is offensive – what new language is in, what Bad Words are out, who we may have inadvertently mortally wounded with a careless glance or an unpolished turn of phrase.
And that’s where the New Age Censors, the Stepford Students, the resurgent activist Left step in, always watching over your shoulder and always quick and eager to tell you when you have crossed one of the many invisible lines that they are busy drawing across our political and social discourse. Only the telling always seems to take the form of a social media lynching rather than a friendly pointer.
When the rules over precisely what can be said and how it must be phrased become so fiendishly complex that we are all liable to fall over them at some point, it grants enormous power to the gatekeepers, those swivel-eyed young activists at the forefront of modern identity politics. Not only do they get to write the rules, they and they alone get to sit in judgement as to whether those rules have been violated.
And pity the unwitting transgressor who entertains vain hope of ever again being allowed to step onto a British university campus. It doesn’t matter even if you are Germaine Greer and have led the charge for women’s equality for decades. The selfish, virtue-signalling young activists of today – people whose own micro-causes literally stand on the shoulders of people like Greer – will throw you under the bus and Trigger Warning you out of history because you failed to keep pace with the change.
Who knew that the petty tyrants of today would be cherubic-faced, smiley student activists, chanting mantras about keeping us safe as they imprison us in their closed-minded, ideological dystopia?
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Suppose if Germaine Greer had described transgenderism as something akin to paedophilia, cannibalism, or, indeed, something that should be potentially criminalised.
Of course she has never said such things, but an international public speaker named Hamza Tzortzis did with regard to homosexuality.
Tzortzis stated in a blog post, whilst writing on homosexuality in the same breath, “There are societies past and present which accepted paedophilia and cannibalism as normal parts of human life and they would find Western society oppressive preventing them from carrying out these practices”; so as to say that accepting homosexuality would be the inference from accepting “paedophilia and cannibalism as normal parts of human life”.
Moreover he opined that those who would object to criminalising homosexuality are “totally inconsistent as they would have to objectively show that it is wrong” and that “It is a behaviour that negates the Islamic vision of society which is one of extended families connected by marriage between men and women. Hence Islam has viewed the public expression of homosexuality as a crime and as a result has placed a mechanism in which to protect its vision for society” (http://tifrib.com/hamza-andreas-tzortzis/).
What does any of this have to do with Germaine Greer you may ask?
I mention Tzortzis as he was jointly invited by Cardiff University’s Islamic Society and Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society to debate with Dr. Arif Ahmed last year (almost to the day Greer is supposed to deliver her lecture, ‘Women & Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century’) though I cannot, to the best of my knowledge, recall any petitions or attempt whatsoever to obstruct Mr Tzortzis in the same manner levelled against Miss Greer (http://englandevents.co.uk/cardiff-debate-islam-or-atheism-which-is-more-rational/52487).
This is not to say that there should have been, but if we were to use the criteria of the original petition (https://www.change.org/p/cardiff-university-do-not-host-germaine-greer?recruiter=59862098&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=share_twitter_responsive&rp_sharecordion_checklist=control) then surely it would seem obvious as to which speaker had the most “problematic and hateful views towards marginalised and vulnerable groups” whose “attitudes contribute to the high levels of stigma, hatred and violence”?
Even then such an assessment would not be entirely befitting of Tzortziz’s views (as he has attempted to clarify http://www.hamzatzortzis.com/clarifications-and-responses/clarifying-my-views-on-homosexuality/) or Greer’s views for that matter; since the petition provides no link for her alleged “transmisogyny”.
Hopefully this double standard should add to the list of reasons why it is utterly fatuous for Germaine Greer to be ‘no-plat formed’. Amongst the reasons why is perhaps best expressed by a substantial consensus within the media, albeit for naturally various reasons (The Daily Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/11954673/Germaine-Greer-is-a-misogynist-I-dont-know-whether-to-laugh-or-cry.html; The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/27/germaine-greer-transphobia-cardiff-feminism-inclusive; The Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3289366/Silenced-feminazis-disturbing-bitterly-ironic-story-Germaine-Greer-having-voice-snatched-away-feminist-students.html; and The Newstatesman: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2015/10/let-germaine-greer-speak-its-fastest-way-discredit-her).
Know why men don’t have sexual assault issues nor training classes geared specifically towards educating women on men’s issues?
Because unlike women, men are strong and independent by nature. Men don’t blame women for their own shortcomings and vulnerabilities.
We don’t voluntarily put ourselves in positions to be raped or we just shoot or stab people that give it a go. Men don’t need women to solve such problems for men – but women are forever dependent on men to solve most of their issues.
Too bad men and women aren’t equal. It’s sad that men have to be so frequently and unfairly shamed over women’s inability to protect themselves. Also, you should let the ridiculously fraudulent rape and wage stats go. Everyone knows they’re false now. Keeping on with them really makes women look sad.
When you refer to consent classes in “lecture theatres full of browbeaten good guys (the few potential future rapists never attend, of course)” – how can you substantiate this? I suspect it is just your worldview; most of these people are decent, law-abiding types who don’t deserve to be patronised in this way. I would like to agree. Except that, like an awful lot of women I know, I have experienced violence and abuse, some of it from decent-seeming student types, some of whom you may even have known to talk to. I am totally prepared to accept that consent classes may not be the best way to change a culture that allows something so wrong to happen so routinely. But I can’t help noticing that none of the articles complaining about how patronising or demonising these classes are suggest any workable alternatives. Why not?
Thanks for biting, and doing so with a pointed and constructive comment. Neither of my last two pieces touching on “consent classes” have been intended to diminish the scale of sexual harassment or its impact, and I hope that it hasn’t come across otherwise. I’ve tried to stick to the ramifications on free speech and the proper role of the university at all times.
You’re right that most articles do not suggest workable alternatives, but I’m genuinely perplexed as to what these could be. I don’t see any way that an institution – be it universities, students union, the government or charities – can teach what is essentially a question of personal morals (be a gentleman, don’t harass, no means no). If these values have not been instilled by the time someone becomes an adult and goes to university, it’s hard to imagine any corrective “re-education” making much difference. Even if students are then taught the language of affirmative consent and understand the rote theory, they are unlikely to put it into practice when it comes to the crunch – a one-hour lesson simply isn’t going to change an eighteen year old’s fundamental character.
That leaves earlier interventions, while people are still children and still developing their sense of what is right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. But who best to do it? Schools are one option, but they struggle to teach many students basic English and Maths, so it may be overly optimistic to expect them to instil a decent moral code too (though I’m always happy to talk about having a revolution in education to make British schools the best in the world!)
That leaves parents and families. So let’s encourage mothers and fathers to have these conversations with their kids. It probably doesn’t form part of the standard “birds and the bees” talk that most kids get, because most parents don’t think about their little boy (or girl) ever growing up to be a sexually entitled, coercive predator. And most won’t, but if respect for women is a thread that runs through a kid’s childhood then they are far less likely to go wild when set free at universities. So let’s encourage parents to have the conversation, and to ensure that their own lives are a model of good and respectful behaviour to their children – that would be my alternative, I suppose, if I were put on the spot.
I’m certainly not saying we throw our hands up in the air and do nothing when women are abused, sexually assaulted, poorly treated. Far from it. The idea that this goes on – and has happened to you – horrifies me, it does. But I do think that we are seeking an institutional answer where none will work, or at least be very effective.
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It’s tricky – like all questions of how to change a potentially harmful culture. I was pondering options last night… I think the university does have some responsibility, however limited, in a manner analogous to how they deal with excessive drinking, bullying, etc. Oxbridge is (or was) particularly bad for inappropriate behaviour from members of staff, because the collegiate system allows fellows to be moved on quietly without causing a scandal.
One important thing to note is that education in consent – however or wherever it happens – is just as important for women as for men. These classes still seem to get discussed as though women are passive potential victims; in reality, as girls, we get given a plethora of contradicting messages which make it difficult to figure out what to expect and what we should be doing.
I kind of agree that, ideally, these conversations should happen at home. But if they are not happening at the kind of nice,middle-class homes that stereotypically send their kids to university, then where can we expect them to happen? Perhaps the best thing to do is simply make tutors and other pastoral staff aware of this area of student experience, and give them training in how to talk about it and possibly even how to raise it, just so that young adults have someone watching out for them while they make their wobbly transition into independence.