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"Come See the Violence Inherent in the System!!" Why We Can't Agree On What Can Be Sai

Word Count: 2,300

Hopefully many of you reading this will be familiar with the hilarious film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If not, it is a matter of urgency for your general well-being that you do become familiar with it. Anyway, there is a particular scene in the film where at the end, the peasant, Dennis, famously exclaims "Come see the violence inherent in the system!" This in a comical way addresses certain themes I wish to discuss in this post. You can view it here:


Though, comedy aside, now to move onto the main body of what I want to talk about!

Quite recently, the story of Balliol Christian Union being banned from the Balliol Fresher Fair has made both Oxford and national headlines. If you are unfamiliar with the incident, you can read about it here. This event, along with a recent YouTube video I watched by Dr. Jordan Peterson on the topic of political correctness (which you can view here), set me on a train of thought that has inspired me to write down the following thoughts about why we disagree over what should be permitted to be said in the public domain. This post includes themes of no-platforming, speech, and political correctness, and I use the Balliol CU incident as a sort of case study in discussing all this.

This post is aimed at two audiences: the First Audience are those who are left thoroughly bemused by why a liberal Oxford University college like Balliol could see the need to ban a Christian Union from its Fresher’s Fair, especially considering religious liberty is one of the primary principles of liberalism. The Second Audience are those who at least sympathise, if not wholly agree, with what Balliol JCR did. To the First Audience, I want to explain why I believe such an action is not necessarily a contradiction in the other audience’s view. To the Second Audience, I want to explain why I believe those in the first group find such attempts at no platforming and the like so worrying regardless of any potential ‘harm’. My main goal in this post is thus hopefully to generate greater understanding between both sides, allowing both to consider the merit in the other, while also pushing each to critically examine what might be problematic in their own view through seeing matters through the lens of the other side.

In order to do this, we must first investigate the nature of Political Correctness and how it ties into Foucault's understanding of Power. In the video that I recently watched, Dr. Jordan Peterson, Professor of Psychology at Toronto University, argues that political correctness is the culmination of a paradoxical partnership between Post-Modern and Neo-Marxist thinking. Post-Modernism consists of a primary belief which then leads into a secondary belief. The primary belief is that an infinite number of interpretations can result from a finite set of established ‘facts’. The secondary belief that follows, which is incorrect in both Dr. Peterson’s and my view, is that no interpretation should be privileged above any others. It is incorrect because within a set of infinite interpretations, some are obviously nevertheless going to be more valid than others. Marxism on the other hand is a philosophy that sees human history as dominated by a narrative of oppression. In Marx’s day, this was seen in terms of the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat, and all historical events were interpreted in this way. Today, although the traditional bourgeoisie vs. proletariat paradigm has faded away, the Neo-Marxist worldview is nonetheless one that sees the world as that of Oppressed vs. Oppressor. The paradox in the relationship between these two philosophies comes in because one argues that no interpretation should be privileged above any other, while the other endorses a very particular interpretation of the world. The development of this paradoxical relationship is not so surprising, according to Dr. Peterson, considering the great founding thinkers of Post-Modernism like Michel Foucault emerged out of an underlying intellectual Marxist framework in 1960s and 1970s France. As to why the paradoxical relationship formed, Dr. Peterson argues it’s either out the Post-Moderns’ compassion for the Oppressed or their resentment against the Oppressor. This is because Post-Modernism provides the Neo-Marxist with the tool of deconstruction. 'Deconstruction' refers to a method of criticism which is used to destabilise any interpretation posited by an individual or group, that privileges them to a particular position of power and authority. This is done largely by pointing out that your interpretation is just one among an infinite number of other potential interpretations that can instead be taken. Why then should we listen to yours, particularly if it gives you power over us? Indeed, this is what Dennis the peasant uses against King Arthur when he tries to force Dennis to obey him based on his position as King! Why should Dennis obey Arthur just because he is 'King' due to some 'farcical aquatic ceremony'! Thus, Post-Modernism provides the ideal weapon in the universal war of Oppressed vs. Oppressor. So how does all this fit into political correctness, what happened at Balliol, and our two audiences? Well, we now need to look briefly at Foucault’s observations about power. Foucault made two very important and influential observations about power: 1. Power manifests itself as disciplinary control. 2. Power is most acute as a creative, not destructive, force. Tying these two observations together, Foucault stated that power controls and creates what is normal: it “produces reality” (Foucault, 1978). As an example of one of the most prevalent ways a Foucauldian understanding power is articulated today, you need look no further than Feminist insights concerning ‘The Patriarchy’—how male domination has created a society in which all members unwittingly participate in power relationships and structures that privilege men and oppress women. Indeed, Foucault’s observation on power has proven highly insightful in helping people gain a grasp of power relations in the modern world. However, there is an important implication of Foucauldian power that forms what I believe to be the centrepiece of the disagreement between the two audiences I referred to earlier. This relates to its implication on ‘language’ (which I take in its broadest understanding to include what is communicated both by words and actions). This is because, under such a Foucauldian understanding of power, all society becomes filled and permeated by innumerable power dynamics which work unconsciously (and sometimes consciously), through normalisations of speech, action and thought, to keep various groups oppressed. Thus, going back to Feminist observations about Patriarchal Society as an example, the use of relatively common insults like “don’t be such a girl” are not questioned despite the fact they subconsciously affirm a world where girls are viewed as inferior to boys. The Foucauldian is now aware that society is full of these ‘micro-aggressions’ (comments or actions directed toward non-dominant groups which often unintentionally reinforce a stereotype deemed to be offensive or oppressive), and seeks to eliminate society of them. Thus a politically correct society is born. If power is primarily one of world-creation—i.e. the use of language to create a power network that privileges some and oppresses others—then words as power can be considered very harmful. Society must therefore be vigilant to ensure that the power network is policed and that those who use politically incorrect language that reinforces the language of Oppression are stopped, whether directly through no-platforming or indirectly through a culture of public shaming. Now it becomes possible to unravel the apparent contradiction that has puzzled the First Audience so. When you look at the reasons given by the JCR Vice-President, his primary argument for banning the CU from Balliol Fresher’s Fair was because of the “potential harm” the CU’s presence might cause. Indeed, the VP stated that its presence might constitute a “micro-aggression”. If your understanding of ‘Christianity’ is as part of a network of oppression that has dogged Western civilisation over the centuries, as this VP seems to have felt -- which it must be admitted is not without evidence to back itself up, even if it is only part of the story -- then you can understand the perceived need to ban the CU stall. The question becomes whether the JCR should endorse the presence of a stall at its Freshers' Fair that is entwined with a power network that has helped sustain such oppressions as patriarchy, homophobia, racism, and colonialism. Will LGBTQ+ students feel welcomed in Balliol if they know it is supporting the platform of a religion that has such a bad reputation in that community? Will students of other faiths feel undermined if the only religious society represented at the Fair is Christianity, perhaps implying that other faiths aren’t as valid? That the VP stated “this sort of alienation or micro-aggression is regularly dismissed as not important enough to report…and inevitably leads to further harm of the already most vulnerable and marginalised groups” seems to me to indicate that they almost certainly acted out of such fears. This is the point I believe that those in the Second Audience wish those in the First Audience to understand: the language of the status quo is not neutral. Freedom of speech can indeed cause ‘harm’ that isn't reported if it is reinforcing a power network that works to oppress those whose identity is undermined by the current status quo. Now perhaps it is possible to see why those who proclaim a philosophy that espouses religious liberty might also be inclined towards a restriction of it. If religious liberty is held subservient to a world-view by which all of society is marked by power dynamics and where your ultimate goal is ‘progress’ (defined as the overturning of Oppressive power networks and creation of benevolent ones), then it becomes apparent how religious liberty can be viewed in this context as a limited freedom. One that applies only to those religions viewed as part of the oppressed, marginalised minority. Tolerance and liberty are extended to the Oppressed, not the Oppressor (which in the Balliol case included Christianity). However, now to flip the coin. We have seen what I believe to be the predominant aim of those in the Second Audience: to take back control of what is deemed normal and so to use ‘power as creation’ to form a society where more benevolent, non-oppressive power relations are normalised. However, therein lies the problem for many in the First Audience: they perceive the Second Audience’s actions to be authoritarian since they are quite clearly trying to control what is deemed to be the status quo. In so doing, they remove people's freedom to express their views, whether or not they're 'correct'. Isn’t freedom the whole point of liberalism; the belief that no external authority should be able to control what we think, say and believe? Of course, this neglects the point of the Second Audience -- that Oppressive power systems at work mean we aren’t speaking on neutral ground anyway. Nonetheless, is it right that we should be pressurising others to conform to our vision of what an ideal world is like? Isn’t that what was after all attempted by Marxists in Russia and China to devastating consequences? It seems the problem with an Oppressed vs. Oppressor narrative, that inspires attempts to overturn the status quo, is that it ends up creating new Oppressor and Oppressed groups. For instance, in banning the CU from Balliol Fresher Fair, although intended as a means of liberating LGBTQ+ and non-Christian groups from Christian Oppression, hasn’t the VP instead become ‘oppressive’ (though in a light sense of the word) to Christianity? Too often, groups that have been amongst the Oppressed have later gone on to become the Oppressor. The State of Israel, initially viewed by many as a secure haven for an Oppressed Jewish people recovering from the horrors of the Holocaust, for many today is the epitome of oppression. Indeed, looking at Christianity, Christians in the Roman Empire similarly went from being among the Oppressed to being the Oppressors when the status quo shifted in their favour. This to me seems to be the fear of many in the First Audience. The First Audience would rather accept a status quo which, however imperfectly, seeks to maintain freedom and ‘neutrality’ for all sides, rather than become knowingly active in using power to control what people can do, say and think, no matter how benevolent it may appear on the surface. So there you have it. That at least is my observation as to why people can't agree on what we should allow to be said. As the title of my blog suggests, I myself haven’t been able to decide which, if either, ‘camp’ I belong to! Being someone of Christian faith, I do often feel myself more inclined to sympathise with those of the First Audience because I can see how easily holding a position of the Second Audience could lead to my faith becoming censored for not fitting the bill of what others deem ‘correct’. Nonetheless, I also don’t feel entirely comfortable with this since I am aware from first-hand experience that the world we create with our language, in word and action, can lead myself and others to feel uncomfortable, unaccepted and alienated, regardless of whether those using that language (and it has been me doing this to others at various times) are intending and realising they are doing so. Thus I sympathise with the VP’s actions, and can understand the stand they took. If you have found this post helpful or interesting, feel free to let me know (always up for some encouragement!). Conversely, if you don’t think my observations are fair or accurate, then also do feel free to give me some constructive criticism (which at least theoretically I’m always up for! Haha). Thanks for reading.

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