Perhaps every political generation is fated to be appalled by the one that succeeds it. In the 1960s, longtime socialist intellectuals were horrified by the anarchic energies of the new left. Then some of those new leftists reached middle age and watched, aghast, as new speech codes proliferated on college campuses during the first iteration of political correctness. I was in college then and am now in my thirties, which means it’s my turn to be dismayed by a growing left-wing tendency towards censoriousness and hair-trigger offense.
It’s increasingly clear that we are entering a new era of political correctness. Recently, we’ve seen the calls to #CancelColbert because of something outrageous said by Stephen Colbert’s blowhard alter ego, who has been saying outrageous things regularly for nine years. Then there’s the sudden demand for “trigger warnings” on college syllabi, meant to protect students from encountering ideas or images that may traumatize them; an Oberlin faculty document even suggests jettisoning “triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.” At Wellesley, students have petitioned to have an outdoor statue of a lifelike sleepwalking man removed because it was causing them “undue stress.” As I wrote in The Nation, there’s pressure in some circles not to use the word “vagina” in connection with reproductive rights, lest it offend trans people.
Nor is this just happening here. In England’s left-wing New Statesman, Sarah Ditum wrote of the spread of no-platforming—essentially stopping people whose ideas are deemed offensive from speaking publicly. She cites the shouting down of an opponent of the BDS movement at Galway University and the threats and intimidation leveled at the radical feminist Julie Bindel, who has said cruel things about trans people. “No platform now uses the pretext of opposing hate speech to justify outrageously dehumanising language, and sets up an ideal of ‘safe spaces’ within which certain individuals can be harassed,” wrote Ditum. “A tool that was once intended to protect democracy from undemocratic movements has become a weapon used by the undemocratic against democracy.”
Call it left-wing anti-liberalism: the idea, captured by Herbert Marcuse in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” that social justice demands curbs on freedom of expression. “[I]t is possible to define the direction in which prevailing institutions, policies, opinions would have to be changed in order to improve the chance of a peace which is not identical with cold war and a little hot war, and a satisfaction of needs which does not feed on poverty, oppression, and exploitation,” he wrote. “Consequently, it is also possible to identify policies, opinions, movements which would promote this chance, and those which would do the opposite. Suppression of the regressive ones is a prerequisite for the strengthening of the progressive ones.”