Showing Civility where Others Lose their Minds: A Review of Intellectual Freedom and the Culture Wars

January 2021

Piers Benn, Intellectual Freedom and the Culture Wars, Palgrave Studies in Classical Liberalism, Hardwick & Marsh, series eds., Palgrave Macmillan, 2021; 158 pp., Index.

This volume economically covers a broad range of topics in the culture wars, including controversies surrounding islamophobia, transgender rights, feminism and intersectionality, anti-racism and Black Lives Matter, the clash of political values over Brexit, cultural Marxism, and the ethics of “unfriending” people you fundamentally disagree with – to mention a few. The author deftly moves between philosophical analysis and concrete concerns. His discussions are illuminated with numerous contemporary examples – slightly skewed toward the British experience, but most examples will be familiar to moderately informed readers on both sides of the Atlantic.

While Benn covers a broad range of topics and illustrative examples, he does not delve deeply into them. He sets out the basic arguments on both sides of the debate, makes important distinctions and clarifications, identifies legitimate interests and concerns where there are such, and comes to what most SAFS members will regard as sensible, middle-of-the road conclusions. This book would serve excellently well to initiate discussions of hot-button issues in an undergraduate classroom.

Despite the title of the series in which it appears, this volume is not written from a classical liberal perspective. Rather, the author self-identifies as a “qualified traditional liberal.” Indeed, his left-of-centre political ideology occasionally distracts from (without negating) his main arguments. There is, of course, the de rigueur Trump derangement syndrome. Although Trump has many faults, he does not exemplify every fault; and many of his political opponents and critics are at least as blemished as he is. Benn also beats the drum rather too loudly when he asserts that “There is no reasonable doubt that climate change does require decisive action…” – and puts those who are unconvinced of this on a par with anti-vaxers. This is shockingly naïve about the state of knowledge in this complex and relatively new scientific field.

Benn is confident “…we can all agree that feminism has made huge strides, but that is because the position of women for almost all of history was so outrageously bad.” I’m not sure I do agree. While I wouldn’t want to try to quantify these things, and I’m not an historian who has made a career out of studying them, my impression is that the life of man has been mean, nasty, brutish and short for most of human history, too – “outrageously bad” by contemporary standards. The fact that gender equality movements were sporadic and limited to the upper classes in the course of history might suggests that however bad their lives were, women were not eager to change places with men until recently. I would suggest that perhaps women’s recent strides are attributable to ordinary liberal humanism and advances in knowledge and technology in the 20th century. Feminists have a tendency to engage in self-serving exaggeration and divisive rhetoric that generate a backlash.

“Surprisingly,” Benn confesses, “…I agree that in Western societies, the right is a greater threat to traditionally liberal values than the left.” This is indeed surprising, considering that he consistently finds fault with the more radical positions associated with the progressive left in the culture wars. Cancel culture might have existed since civilization began, but the particular manifestations of it seen today – shaming, shunning, “unfriending,” de-platforming, boycotting, internet bullying, mobbing, divesting, protesting-rioting-looting – are overwhelmingly leftist tactics. I’m with Dave Rubin and Douglas Murray on this one: mainstream conservatives are the new liberals; what they are conserving are the traditional liberal values against an onslaught of emotive, anti-liberal left-wing ideology.

The discussion of topics from the culture wars is book-ended by a defense of intellectual freedom. Benn is committed to both freedom of enquiry and civil debate; but his position should not be confused with that of Wilfrid Laurier President Deborah MacLatchy, who famously professed her commitment not free speech but to “better speech.” Benn is not proposing limitations on expression or enquiry in the interests of civility. Rather, he argues that civil debate is a facilitator of genuine enquiry. We should strive to be civil if we hope to advance the search for truth. That incivility tends to obstruct understanding is hardly controversial (although there may be excuses for occasional incivility, too).

As far as Benn’s defense of intellectual freedom is concerned, a classical liberal will have little cause to quibble. It owes much to J.S. Mill’s four arguments in On Liberty. He distinguishes between offense and harm, rejecting the view that words constitute a form of violence that people must be protected from – with the usual exceptions of incitement, threats, invasions of privacy, and defamation.

Benn reminds readers that the truth of a proposition is not a function of its appeal, moral or otherwise. Confidence in our beliefs should be based upon their pedigree: were they arrived at through truth-sensitive methods, or conversely as a result of social pressures to conform? He makes the standard appeal to reason and evidence as the way to settle differences. Freedom of enquiry fosters the “epistemic virtues” – open-mindedness, humility, curiosity, diligence, rigour – while an oppressive intellectual atmosphere fosters the “epistemic vices” – intellectual pride, negligence, idleness, cowardice, conformity, carelessness, rigidity, prejudice, wishful thinking, closed-mindedness, insensitivity to detail, obtuseness, and lack of thoroughness. (Classical liberals will be quick to make the parallel case for political liberty, which Benn curiously does not.)

Benn addresses the challenges posed by moral relativism and the denial of an objective truth convincingly. I would have gone further by arguing that if an appeal to reason and evidence is itself just a right-wing tactic used by the powerful and privileged to suppress the hitherto voiceless, it would be literally self-defeating for the weak and under-privileged to point this out. If the powerful and privileged could be convinced that there is no objective right or wrong, and that all debate – all communication – is merely a rationalization, a disguised play for advantage, their reaction should be, “So what you are telling me is that you are only trying to manipulate me with your arguments into giving my power and privilege to you, so that you can use it against me in the future. If there is no objective right or wrong, then I will prefer to hold onto my power and privilege.” Reason is really all the weak and under-privileged have going for them, so they had better learn to play it well.

There is an interesting discussion of virtue-signaling toward the end of the penultimate chapter, which associates it with the “vain moraliser.” Benn concludes the book with a summary of obstacles to sound judgment and productive conversations. These include appeals to anecdotal evidence, conformity, guilt by association, ideological hypervigilance, and the normalization of hyperbole.

The beauty of this book is that the author models in his coverage of the culture-wars topics the standards of civil debate he advocates, thereby disarming much of the arsenal that supporters of illiberal positions in these wars bring to the subjects. He not only claims that civility in debate facilitates enquiry; he shows it where others might lose their patience or their minds. This feature alone makes the book an ideal resource for undergraduate teaching of the culture wars.