Opening Space for Discussion – Against the New Puritanism

With the news that Rachel Meade, a social worker who was suspended by Westminster Council after sharing gender critical beliefs online, has won her claim against her employer for discrimination, the question of what is acceptable to both believe and discuss in public has been clarified. In Meade’s case, this was in relation to the principles of biological reality, and her so-called gender critical views. Any confusion in relation to holding and expressing that belief has now been cleared up and made explicit and tangible in this judgement.

As a result of the Meade judgement, which now stands in employment and human rights law in the UK, the expression of legitimately held beliefs, such as gender critical ideas, such as those that are critical of assertions that people might be born in the wrong body, or that people can change sex, should not be subject to action that amounts to discrimination by employers or professional standards bodies.

The judgement noted that respondents to the claim of discrimination, made by Meade, did not strike a “fair balance between the claimant’s right to freedom of expression and the interests of those who they perceived may be offended by her Facebook posts.” The judgement noted that it is incumbent on employers to do more than just take the complainants view as gospel, and that they must acknowledge that a range of views exists on different topics, and that they should not respond to only one set of views, such as those proffered by lobby groups, such as Stonewall.

Are there any lessons for broadcasters, journalists and media producers from this? If employers and professional standards organisations are now bound by this president, will broadcasters and broadcast regulators also now be expected to consider the wider human rights concerns of individuals who are expressing their legitimate beliefs in the media, regardless of how problematic or inconvenient some people may claim them to be?

As community media content producers, we often don’t have the resources to process complex editorial matters, and then defend them when questioned about them. Community radio content producers are, however, bound by the Ofcom Broadcast Code, which imposes the same responsibilities on independent community groups, such as those running community radio stations, as it does for the BBC, ITV, GB News, and all other commercial and corporate broadcasters. In matters of public controversy, it is incumbent on broadcasters to give due prominence to all sides of a debate regarding matters that are of concern to the public, and to do so in a duly impartial and accurate way.

The question follows, then, is are community media programme makers shying away from discussing topics of public concern and controversy because they lack appropriate resources to tackle issues in a way that are editorially justifiable? Moreover, and as a result, is the public being undermined by having debate stifled because there is a limited capacity for community media producers to defend themselves from claims of bias and a lack of impartiality?

How can community broadcasters ensure that the content they make and share is objective and impartial? Is this so difficult to achieve, given the general lack of resources that community media makers can call on to check and review their content? Meade’s case was not unusual, as she expressed her views on Facebook, as many other people have done in the past. Many other people have been criticised for expressing supposedly unpopular or unfashionable views on their chosen social media platforms, which they do as individuals. As a result, they often must suffer the consequences of cancellation and exclusion alone and by themselves, unless they join organisations like the Free Speech Union.

Articulating personal views on social media does not come with any special protections, unless you can persuade Elon Musk, who runs X/Twitter to support you. The only protection we have is our fundamental human rights, founded in the European Convention on Human Rights, and the provisions made in the Equality Act. Broadcast media regulation also provides some form of protection, in the form of the Broadcast Code. The code is often considered to be a burden, but it is also a shield for broadcasters because it enables discussion of controversial topics to be held in a managed and arbitrated form. Many feel that media regulation is a burden, though in fact the Broadcast Code offers protection to broadcasters if they use it well.

In his book, The New Puritans, Andrew Doyle gives us a critical examination of the modern-day social justice movement. The book is described as a passionate and erudite exposé, highlighting the flaws and hypocrisies of a social and cultural phenomenon, otherwise known pejoratively as ‘wokeism’. Doyle views this phenomenon through the lens of religion, likening the fervour of social justice activism to religious orthodoxy, and particularly the famous Salem Witch Trials at the end of the seventeenth century. Doyle also uses well-known examples from literature, like the Thought Police from George Orwell’s “1984”.

Doyle argues that the social justice movement has profoundly altered vital institutions of civic social life, including schools, homes, and workplaces, by nudging out the central tenants of liberal civic and political freedoms – the freedom to hold and articulate a belief in a liberal democracy being the most prominent. Doyle provides numerous examples of how the anti-ideology of social justice has influenced workplaces, universities, the media and society in general, from identity politics to the vilification of certain public figures, such as J. K. Rowling.

The book is not just a critique of this phenomenon, but also a call to arms, whereby Doyle urges readers to embrace their individual capacity for critical thinking over herd-like identity politics. Despite its critical tone, “The New Puritans” can be described as a work of reason and compassion. It is recommended for anyone seeking to understand the culture war and the rise of the social justice movement.

In The New Puritans, Doyle presents several key arguments critiquing the modern social justice movement:

  • Moral Absolutism: Doyle suggests that the social justice activists often treat political debate as a form of warfare, viewing political differences in terms of moral absolutes. This leads to a tendency to shut down debate with accusations of bigotry rather than engaging in constructive dialogue.
  • Influence on Institutions: He argues that the social justice movement has significantly altered the functioning of key societal institutions such as schools, homes, and workplaces, often based on theories that originated in academia but have since become mainstream.
  • Clergy for a Godless Age: Doyle describes the proponents of the social justice movement as a new form of clergy, presiding over a “dreamscape of their own making,” and rewriting language, history, and traditions to fit their ideology.
  • Language and Reality: The book outlines how the culture war is largely about language and who gets to define the meanings of words. Doyle posits that many people have capitulated to the new puritans because they do not understand their aims.
  • Systemic Racism and Cultural Corruption: Doyle challenges the belief held by some social justice advocates that Western society is systemically racist and that culture corrupts individuals. He provides examples to argue against this view and suggests that this ideology has made the world more racist and intolerant.
  • Wokery as a Heresy: Doyle starts with the claim that Wokery is a social heresy, focusing on victimhood and oppression narratives, but then deviates to draw on his expertise in Renaissance literature and other areas to support his arguments.
  • Manichean World view: He criticises the descent into a Manichean world view where people are divided into angels and devils, which he sees as a disturbing new reality.

Doyle contends that while the movement began with obscure left-wing theories in academia, it has since entered the mainstream and is characterised by a binary world view of sinners and saints, with a tendency to assume the truth of its claims without requiring evidence. Doyle uses humour and analysis to critique the movement’s flaws and hypocrisies. He likens the social justice ideology to a religion, complete with its own language, rituals, and an eagerness to root out sinners through cancel culture.

The author does not deny the existence of issues like racism, homophobia, and sexism but criticises the current progressivism for being at odds with genuine social improvement. Doyle’s work is presented as a call to arms to embrace individuality over identity and to reinstate liberal values. It is intended as a guide for those looking to understand the heated culture wars and is written with a combination of reason and compassion. 

The next steps in this critique, in my view, have to be much clearer about what we mean by ‘ideology’. This is a term that is used as a cover-all to explain a social phenomenon that feels coherent and unified, around a specific set of beliefs.  Marx’s critique of capitalism, for example, was a collation of different philosophical and historical ideas into a methodological process for the analysis of modern industrial economies, which was worked-up into a quasi-religious set of ideas that were articulated as a so-called ideology. I’m interested in understanding how this process works, and how identity politics has produced these beliefs, particularly as they are antithetical to many of the post-modern ideas and assertions on which they are supposedly based.

I gave up considering ‘ideology’ as a useful benchmark for the understanding of human nature and social interaction years ago. As a pragmatist, I consider ideology to be a form of magical thinking that can be used to explain issues and problems that are more likely to be explained by other processes. This is what we now need to do with ‘wokeism’ and social justice extremism. We need to ask, what do these forms of ‘ideology’ indicate about our collective consciousness, and why do they take root so easily in contemporary Western societies?

It’s essential that we allow sceptics, like Andrew Doyle, to articulate and develop their views because we must understand that groupthink, as history has proven, is more of a threat to our social order than anything else that might come our way. The forms of groupthink that capitalism is either inherently good or bad, for example, must be resisted. Instead, we have to look at, challenge and consider the evidence. In an ideological mindset, the tendency is to see all things as being equal. In real life, that is never the case, and the consequences of applying a single set of explanations will lead to our doom.

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