Brexit and Trump. Shock results which have defined the past year and will probably define the decade. In a documentary for Channel 4 earlier this year, Trevor Phillips attributed the success of these populist movements to political correctness having gone too far. He argued that our fear of offending minorities has prevented Western states from properly tackling the questions of immigration and terrorism.
I think in part he is right. In our effort to respect minority identities, or those who have previously been discriminated against, we have shut down debates and denied free speech to those with views which we find unpalatable.
I first noticed this a couple of years ago at university, when some of my friends announced they were going to protest the speech that Marine le Pen, leader of the French National Front, was due to give at our Student Union. Some of those present identified as anti-fascists, who believed in using fascist methods to prevent supposed fascists from being able to express their opinions in public. I was confused as to how my friends could reconcile censoring a person’s right to free speech with their supposedly liberal values. “Not all speech deserves to be free speech,” my friend told me.
Both Nigel Farage and Donald Trump seized on this sentiment during their respective campaigns, aligning themselves with the large swathes of the public who felt condemned as bigoted or even racist when they expressed any somewhat controversial view. Trump described political correctness as the “big problem in America” during a Republican primary debate, and managed to repackage potentially campaign-ending scandals into bold statements of free expression. His debasement of women, stereotyping of Mexicans and Muslims and his mocking of a disabled reporter were all offensive, but to his supporters were a form of resistance. Similarly, one of the final images of Farage was of him standing next to a bus plastered with the infamous “Breaking Point” poster, which showed a long queue of refugees waiting to enter the country.
By allowing the championing of free speech to be done by populists and those with discriminatory views, we have emboldened their claims to represent the views of the people. It has not helped that since the electoral victories for Brexit and Trump, attempts to deny free speech have become even more ubiquitous within liberal spaces such as university campuses. American-inspired “safe spaces”, where students can go to find places where their experiences and views can’t be challenged and “trigger warnings” – where professors issue advisory warnings of upsetting content before teaching - have already spread to our shores.
There is a danger of creating spaces where essentialised identities constructed around gender, race, ethnicity or religion are free from challenge. They can lean towards segregation and division, rather than integration, which was how minority groups first sought to use identity. Identity politics originated to end discrimination, to help lessen the disconnect between those with disabilities, different sexual orientations, religions and ethnicities and “mainstream” society. All the progress they made is under threat when the backlash against exclusivity is led by those with the most extreme views.