How American P.C. Culture Conquered Britain Too

Illustration by Barry Blitt

Illustration by Barry Blitt

When Vanity Fair contributor Christopher Hitchens became an American citizen, a few years before he died, in 2011, he did so for a number of reasons. One was “to escape the British royal family.” He pretty much failed in that one. Shared fascination with Britain’s royal family is what holds the special relationship together. (That, plus McVitie’s chocolate-covered digestive biscuits.) His second reason was that “it was much easier to be an independent writer in a country that had a written constitution and a codified Bill of Rights.”

No doubt that’s true. America has a 200-year-old written constitution and a Bill of Rights. In the crunch, even Richard Nixon didn’t have the nerve to defy a Supreme Court ruling that he had to turn over the Watergate tapes. A few in Britain still hope that the European Union will evolve into a set of institutions with that kind of authority to trump the elected branches of government. But more of them want to get out of the E.U. completely.

As a pretty pathetic Anglophile, I have tried to convince myself that the Brits are entitled to a pass on all this—that is, on the fact that they don’t have a written constitution or a First Amendment protection in an explicit Bill of Rights. They did their bit by producing Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill. When it comes to freedom of expression, Brits wrote the book(s). Voltaire, a Frenchman, is generally credited with the best freedom-of-speech one-liner: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to … ” etc., etc., etc. But, as seems true of most good aphorisms, authorship of this one is apparently contested. “ ‘Forgive us our trespasses.’ Now, where is that from?” says a weary sophisticate in a classic William Hamilton cartoon. (“No, that’s not me, darling,” says Arianna. “The Lord and I are close friends, and I read his marvelous prayer just the other day—in the original Greek, of course. We should get Him to write a blog. Does anybody have an e-mail address for Sally Quinn?”)

The First Amendment is nice to have if you find yourself arguing for free expression in a case before the Supreme Court. And that’s no small thing. But the Constitution isn’t the most important guarantor of free speech for the average citizen in ordinary circumstances. More important is a culture of free expression, where people are encouraged to say what they think, where eccentricity of all kinds is tolerated or even appreciated, and where Voltaire’s aphorism is baked into everyday life.

Keep in mind that the Constitution protects freedom of speech only from infringement by the government. It will not help you if someone is offended by some theory you spin after two or three glasses of wine at a dinner party, or if students decide to picket your lectures because they object to what you say about dinosaurs. That second kind of free speech—everyday free speech—is arguably more important than arcane arguments before the Supreme Court. And, until recently, I would have said that this kind of free expression—a willingness to live and let live, an enjoyment of disagreement—was built into the culture in Britain more than it is in the United States. I would have said that the British toleration of—indeed, delight in—eccentricity and outspokenness of all sorts was an under-appreciated asset when comparing freedom of expression in different countries.

However, recent events have me rethinking the gimme I gave to Britain over freedom of speech. In 2015, for instance, a Cambridge University L.G.B.T. student group raised a fuss when feminist writer Germaine Greer, invited to speak at the university, decried gender-reassignment surgery. She called it a form of “body dysmorphia.” They called her “transmisogynistic.” “Some of us are losing the ability to laugh things off,” observed the prominent British journalist Francis Wheen.

And then there is the matter of Sir Richard “Tim” Hunt, an honorary professor at University College London. Tim Hunt is a Nobel Prize-winning British biochemist who made the mistake of trying to tell a joke at a women’s forum at the 2015 World Conference of Science Journalists, in Korea last June. Here’s the joke: “It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? Now, seriously … ”

Self-censorship is the most effective form of censorship—and leaves no traces.

Bizarre, no? The only reason we can be sure that Hunt intended this as a joke is that he used the official International That-Was-a-Joke Protocol by ending with the words “Now, seriously.” But, joke or no joke, within days Hunt’s distinguished career was in ruins. A British academic named Connie St. Louis had tweeted an accusatory account of the episode, and it took wing. Although the Daily Mail raised questions about aspects of her credibility—a C.V. that didn’t quite pass muster—she has suffered no repercussions. Hunt, for his part, apologized. He was nonetheless pushed out of his honorary professorship. Women he had worked with testified on his behalf, as did his wife, Mary Collins, who is a professor at University College London. She said they had both been “hung out to dry.” The accusation that Hunt was trying to keep women out of science was untrue. In his speech, Hunt had in fact urged women to go into science, saying explicitly that “science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles.”

The rush to judgment against Hunt is indeed shocking. There seems to be no evidence, apart from the published snippet from his June remarks, that Hunt has discriminated against women in his work or that anything he has done indicates that he is a secret sexist. Professors everywhere are self-censoring like mad, to make sure they don’t stray beyond permissible territory, although avoiding Hunt-like infantile sexism does not strike me as a particularly difficult challenge.

There are plenty of reasons why people don’t—and shouldn’t—simply open up their heads and pour out whatever goo is inside. You don’t want to be a bore, or hurt someone’s feelings, or spread inaccurate information. But there are bad reasons for keeping your mouth shut as well. Many of them cluster around the concept of “political correctness,” or P.C. This is an unusual term in that it is used only ironically. If you label a statement or remark—or the avoidance of a statement or remark—politically correct, you are criticizing it. If you label it politically incorrect, you are congratulating the speaker—generally yourself—on having the courage to say it. No one has ever labeled a statement “politically correct” and meant this as a compliment.

Or at least no one since the collapse of Communism. People who accuse other people of being “politically correct” are actually stealing a bit of ancient Communist Party lingo from the 1930s, when it was an approving reference to people who were adhering to the party line. When the term started to reappear in the 1960s, it was a fairly witty recycling of an old, forgotten term. There’s not much humor in it now.

Self-censorship is the most effective form of censorship. When it can be arranged, it leads to a situation in which people don’t want to say what other people likewise don’t want them to say. Self-censorship also has the advantage of leaving no footprints. But I would no longer try to argue, as I once believed, that it is a minor problem in America and virtually nonexistent in Britain. The Public Health department there does not use the word “obese” in its National Child Measurement Programme for fear of “stigmatizing the child.” The BBC recently made available for downloading a number of classic programs from decades ago that don’t meet modern standards of inoffensiveness. As The Wall Street Journal noted, each program comes with a warning label noting that it is “an un-PC product of its time.”

Henry Porter, Vanity Fair’s London editor and a prominent British journalist in the anti-P.C. camp, reported talking to a group of students recently. “I realized,” he explained, “that these kids have very few thoughts on the subject of liberty and far too many on the subject of personal rights and various classes of victimhood.” Porter noted that “this is one reason why the liberties that were accepted as being part of the British tradition, but are not written down anywhere, are so easily being attacked and readily abandoned.”

So, Hitchens may have been right after all. Always write it down.