Published June 11, 2016
Young people today are very reluctant to assume that anything is certain, and this reluctance is revealed in their language. In any matter where there might be disagreement, they will put a question mark at the end of the sentence. And to reinforce the posture of neutrality they will insert words that function as disclaimers, among which the favourite is ‘like’. You might be adamant that the Earth is spherical, but they will suggest instead that the Earth is, ‘like, spherical?’
Whence came this ubiquitous hesitation? As I understand the matter, it has much to do with the new ideology of non-discrimination. Modern education aims to be ‘inclusive’, and that means not sounding too certain about anything in case you make people who don’t share your beliefs feel uncomfortable. Indeed, even calling them ‘beliefs’ is slightly suspect. The correct word is ‘opinions’. If you try to express your certainties in a classroom today you are apt to be looked at askance, not because you are wrong, but because of the strangeness of being certain about anything and the even greater strangeness of wanting to impart your certainties to others. The person with certainties is the excluder, the one who disrespects the right we all have to form our own ‘opinions’ about what matters.
However, as soon as inclusiveness itself is questioned, freedom is cast aside. Students seem to be as prepared as they ever were to demand that ‘no platform’ be given to people who speak or think in the wrong way. Speaking or thinking in the wrong way does not mean disagreeing with the beliefs of the students — for they have no beliefs. It means thinking as though there really is something to think — as though there really is a truth that we are trying to reach, and that it is right, having reached it, to speak with certainty. What we might have taken to be open-mindedness turns out to be no-mindedness: the absence of beliefs, and a negative reaction to all those who have them. The greatest sin is a refusal to end each sentence with a question mark.
As with so many changes in our language and culture in the past 25 years, the aim is to discover, and also to forbid, the hidden forms of discrimination. Almost every belief system that in the past seemed objective and important is now dismissed as an ‘ism’ or a ‘phobia’ so that those who stand by it are made to look like ideological fanatics.
In the 1970s, when feminism began to make inroads into the public culture, the question arose whether there were not, after all, radical distinctions between the sexes, which explained why men were successful in some spheres and women in others. Feminists rebelled against that idea. As a result, they invented ‘gender’, which is not a biological category but a way of describing malleable and culturally changeable characteristics. You cannot choose your sex, perhaps. But you can choose your gender. And that was what women were doing — redefining femininity so as to lay claim to the territory formerly monopolised by men. Thereafter, biology was removed from the picture and gender put in its place.
So successful was this strategy that ‘gender’ has now replaced ‘sex’ in all official documents and the suggestion that sexual differences are fixed has been relegated to the class of forbidden thoughts. Since gender is a social construct, people must be free to choose their own and anyone who implies the opposite is a bully and a fanatic. Even a pioneering feminist like Germaine Greer is forbidden to speak on campus lest her belief in real and objective sexual differences should threaten vulnerable students who have yet to decide which gender they are. Sexual difference has been marked as a danger area, about which beliefs, even those of Germaine Greer, are unsafe.
Just where this will end is anyone’s guess. One by one, all the old certainties are being denounced as ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’. You thought that humans are distinct from other animals? Then you are guilty of ‘speciesism’. You thought that there is a real and objective distinction between men and women? ‘Transphobia’. You thought that attitudes which lead to mass murder are suspect? ‘Islamophobia’. The one sure thing about the world in which we live is that if you believe that there are real and objective distinctions between people, you had better keep quiet about it, especially if it is true.
Roger Scruton is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.