In the closing pages of Intellectual Freedom and the Culture Wars, Piers Benn writes:
I was motivated to write this book because there was something that mattered to me, that I felt was under attack from people at opposite ends of the social and political spectrum. This was that human wellbeing requires a moral atmosphere, inseparable from an intellectual atmosphere, in which tolerance, thoughtfulness, acceptance of one’s own fallibility, uncertainty, ambivalence, mercy, forgiveness and a desire to find the best in people, can flourish.
Benn situates his argument in what have come to be known as the culture wars and provides a cogent defence of intellectual freedom and free speech against their many detractors. Written in the spirit of John Milton, George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens and many others, Benn’s philosophically rigorous book goes back to first principles and argues for a form of Enlightenment liberalism, whilst being very generous to the arguments against his positions. Benn’s greatest debt is to John Stuart Mill, whose 1859 On Liberty (published the same year as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and John Brown’s assault on slavery) is one of the classic defences of free enquiry and free speech. Benn takes Mill’s arguments and runs with them, testing them out and modifying them in response to objections, as necessary.
Benn does not merely speak in the abstract: he uses the theme of intellectual freedom to untangle various strands of the culture wars, from the transgender debate to biological sex differences, Islam and Brexit. His views on many of these issues are clear enough but are secondary to his main contention: that a “moral atmosphere” of free inquiry is a necessary component of any society that seeks truth and justice. He is aware that this sounds like a platitude—but it is a platitude under siege. Though careful not to exaggerate the threats to free enquiry from the Social Justice mob, he is well aware that there is something deeply wrong with current intellectual culture. And it is not just a problem on the left—the right also engages in cancel culture, hyperbole, shaming and all the rest (the Scott McIntyre case provides one of Benn’s examples of right-wing hysteria).
Over the course of six short chapters, Benn looks at both the abstract and the material. He both preaches and practises the Socratic method of questioning and refining ideas and displays the principles of charity and fairness he recommends throughout. Benn’s temperament is well suited to this task. He repeatedly builds the case against his own view—conscientiously and thoughtfully steelmanning it, before presenting his own arguments against those objections. In so doing, he shows why intellectual freedom is the best way to find truth and provides some perceptive insights into topical issues.
For example, he discusses a rhetorical tactic that has had a truly corrosive effect on public discourse:
One notable, and often irrational way in which we arrive at questionable beliefs is due to the (often false) assumption that anyone who denies them must have dubious normative views. We see this when someone who challenges such a belief is assumed to be “really” defending something outrageous. We often hear the rhetorical put-down: “Ah, so you are really saying X!” The claim that supposedly implies or is a cover for ‘X’ might be some claim about the average behavioural differences between men and women, or a claim about carbon emissions, or a claim about the number of false allegations of sexual assault, or any number of currently contentious things. Someone who says that the finding that women are, on average, more agreeable than men can be partly explained biologically, is easily assumed to be “really saying” that women should be discouraged from being more disagreeable—that female agreeableness is “natural” and therefore good.
We can all think of instances of this. For example: You’re criticising Islam, which means that you are claiming all Muslims are evil or that immigrants are vermin. This is no way to argue—it gets in the way of finding truth and applying justice. I call this the displacement fallacy. If there is no allowable critique of Islam, for example, it will be much harder to remedy injustices perpetrated in the name of that faith and differentiate reasonable critiques from mere bigotry.
In the absence of other evidence, we should treat people charitably—as if they mean precisely what they say and are not secret bigots. Doing so would bring clarity to our ill-tempered debates. Imagine if, instead of claiming that certain feminists are literally killing transgender people, the more extreme elements within trans activism accepted that many of these feminists are simply proposing that we conduct a serious analysis of the notions of sex, gender and sex-based rights because they are genuinely concerned about protecting the latter. Imagine if we did not treat everyone who deviates from the politically correct view on racial disparities as a racist just because there is disagreement over whether such disparities are caused by structural racism or by other factors
The same goes for feminism. Benn discusses Steven Pinker’s stance on sex-based biological differences. Pinker argues that there are some evolutionary explanations for behaviour differentials between the sexes—therefore, assert some, he is really saying that there are natural roles to which men and women must strictly adhere, such as keeping women in the kitchen and men in the factory. That Pinker has never said anything of the kind hardly matters. Many critics have fallaciously and uncharitably extrapolated these extreme positions from his actual views. As Benn points out, Pinker’s understanding of sex differences is easily reconcilable with many varieties of feminism. In any case, there are real questions to be asked here and real arguments to be had. But once the discourse has been so poisoned that even discussing such matters is seen as indicative of bigotry, then all we have achieved is to set back the cause of justice.
Even if one disagrees with the views on specific issues one could reasonably impute to Benn on the basis of this book, the central point is that not only should such arguments be allowed—they are crucial if we are to make any sort of progress. The specific insights that Benn provides are secondary to this point. This is one of the great strengths of this book: it isn’t an argument in favour of any particular position on the issues of the day, but a deeper philosophical, political, ethical and moral argument in defence of free enquiry, which uses controversial culture war battles to elucidate this central stance.
Benn shows us the value of philosophical thinking at a time when it is fashionable among some to say that philosophy is dead. Benn goes back to first principles and clarifies many concepts relevant to the issues he discusses. He discusses at length, for example, moral relativism and absolutism (charitably interpreting both) and the changing meanings of the words sex and gender and their relation to contemporary debates. By doing so, he gleans heretofore overlooked understandings:
One could, perhaps fruitfully, argue that the sense of [gender identity] misalignment really comes from the desire not to be treated in ways that male-bodied people are often treated, on account of their biological maleness, and that the physical transition is seen as the best way accomplish this. This would make physical transition more of a means to the goal and less integral to the goal itself. This certainly should be considered, and perhaps some gender-critical feminists have not taken account of it.
There are many other such examples of philosophical thinking that both greatly clarify things and suggest new ideas that shed light on a number of contentious issues. Benn writes lucidly: this academic book is accessible to anyone even slightly familiar with the arguments. Though he gets into some pretty dense philosophical issues, he does so both shrewdly and intelligibly. The discussions are detailed but concise and perspicacious, the insights many and penetrating. And he coins some nice terms to describe certain phenomena. The epistemological genetic fallacy, for example, is a neat appellation for an error which is committed daily by some culture warriors:
It gains credence when people notice that what has long been regarded as knowledge was imposed by the powerful upon the powerless. As Ernest Gellner crisply points out … it is a historical truth that the intellectual accomplishments of Western thought were transmitted to much of the rest of the world through colonisation. That thinking contained racist ideas, among other bad ideas, that decent people now reject. But it does not follow from the cruelty and injustice of colonial rule, that everything thus transmitted was bad. It is one thing to say that Christianity was spread across much of the globe by colonial powers, but another thing to reject Christianity. Scientific methods and Enlightenment thinking in general were also spread in this way, but for all that, the insights obtained through those things may have been beneficial. Obviously enough, it is mere arrogance to suppose that the West had nothing to learn from the peoples it subjugated. But it is a mistake to think that all customs and claims to knowledge that were acquired though unjust methods must themselves be irredeemably tainted. To reject a way of thinking because it is Western or male is to confuse the way of thinking with the means of its transmission, transferring the objections to the way it was transmitted to the things that were transmitted.
While imperialism was vile and destructive, that does not mean that all the values of the imperialists are thereby discredited. Science and reason are universal and can easily be invoked against the oppressors who supposedly brought them. The master’s tools can indeed dismantle the master’s house—as when the black civil rights movement used the Enlightenment universalism inherent in American democracy to demand their rights to full citizenship.
I have one small issue with the mood of the book, though it is less a counterargument than a difference in temperament. Benn writes that:
Clearly, the moral atmosphere I yearn for requires civility. This means that you usually do not mock people or speak rudely about their beliefs unless this is necessary to shake people out of attitudes or beliefs that are seriously harmful. You do not pick arguments, unless the issue is genuinely important and there is some chance of making sense prevail. You listen, and interrupt only when the other person shows no inclination to shut up, or when the flow of talk contains so many doubtful assumptions that you will forget them unless they stop talking. Civility requires a degree of self-censorship based on consideration for others’ feelings. It is often not necessary to point out someone’s ignorance or likely bias, their dubious reasoning, or their over-emotionality. If people who worry about the free exchange of difficult ideas were worried only about incivility, it would be hard to disagree.
I agree with the spirit of this, especially as a point against cancel culture and the like, but mockery and argumentativeness can also be good things. And they need not imply a lack of civility if we define civility as simply not suppressing enquiry through violence or shaming. Quite often, one has to be harsh and heated in one’s arguments for any understanding to be gained or progress made. As Christopher Hitchens puts it in his Letters to a Young Contrarian:
We know as a law of physics that heat is the chief, if not the only, source of light … On some grave questions, there is no difference to be split … If you care about the points of agreement and civility, then, you had better be well equipped with points of argument and combativity [too], because if you are not then the “centre” will be occupied and defined without your having to helped to decide it, or determine where and what it is.
As Hitchens also says in that book, it is rarely the case that two debating opponents will both be convinced of each other’s point of view, but often they will be forced to modify and refine their positions in response to each other’s arguments. So, generous and charitable as Benn is, and as valuable as this attitude is, especially in times of almost irremediable polarisation, the pugnacious should still occupy a prominent place at the high table of discourse.
I have mostly focused on the left’s shortcomings in this review but Benn deals with the right, too, as when he says that, “Certainly, there are influential strands of postmodern relativism in intellectual left-wing movements, but there is no necessary connection between relativism and the left.” Benn discusses irrationality and tribalism on the right throughout, but he seems to have missed Matthew McManus’s book The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, which I have reviewed for this magazine. I think Benn would find much of interest in McManus’ work.
Benn discusses the First Amendment and the dominant interpretations of it—might I suggest, as another antidote to cancel culture and the rest, that there should be a global First Amendment movement? All countries should have it and all people and private organisations should encourage a culture consistent with it, for its commitment to free speech and enquiry (with some very carefully defined exceptions) seems the sort of thing Benn would like to see given more heft in our discourse. (Credit for this idea should go to Iona Italia, who frequently proposes this on Twitter.) Who would you entrust as censor, to paraphrase another Hitchens point? Would you really trust someone else to decide what you can and can’t hear or what you can and can’t say, discuss or even think?
At the end of the book, Benn expresses optimism that our current “spiritual malaise” can be cured. He recommends the principle of charity, the Socratic method and the right to free enquiry as the antidotes. A postscript on the Covid-19 pandemic, which was beginning just as Benn was finishing the book, is a neat touch, if perhaps a bit too hopeful in hindsight. These arguments are still very much with us and I am glad they are, for the defence of liberty is a battle that must be fought and refought endlessly. It is a task that requires constant vigilance. And it is an honour to partake in the current manifestation of that battle, a battle in which Piers Benn has fired off quite the salvo with this excellent book.