Public debate ain't what it was. At universities and on social media, strong opinions are more likely to be blocked than debated. Claire Fox tells DW about the psychology behind the desire to control ideas.
DW: Your book "I Find That Offensive!" is in defense of free speech. What is at the heart of the issue for you?
Claire Fox: There's been a spate over recent years of quite aggressive free speech campaigns that aim to close down discussion and debate, particularly on university campuses in the Anglo-American sphere but not confined to that. They have been based as much as anything on students saying that they're offended by certain speakers or ideas or literature. As a consequence, we've ended up in a situation whereby important concepts like academic freedom and open enquiry are really being jeopardized by the feelings of young people. That's what I wanted to explore - how we had got to that stage.
In terms of social media and the internet, do you think our selfie-obsessed, narcissistic digital world encourages this sort of behavior?
I'm rather wary about being over-deterministic about technology. But I do think social media has amplified the trend, and makes it very visible to us. It exacerbates the way one can garner support for personal feelings being offended. The phenomenon of retweeting can mean that when a few people complain about an article as offensive, even though the people might not have read it, suddenly you have a kind of campaign to have the person who has written the article sacked because it's been retweeted by lots of people expressing their outrage. And online petitions, whereby you only have to click a button in order to sign, rather than actively and consciously thinking, "Do I want to sign this?" - if you were stopped on the street. So those things create a more febrile atmosphere.
Psychology of Me, Me, Me...
I think the phenomenon of selfies is more an expression of that, rather than a cause of it. I think that is located more deeply in a corruption of identity politics combined with an educational focus on the individual and the personal, so that people are socialized into believing that they are the center of the universe.
What can you tell us about the psychology at work here? What is the psychology behind students calling for "safe spaces," or "trigger warnings," and using therapeutic concepts to support your arguments? Is it psychology or politics?
Well, I think it's more that politics has become psychologized. So it's a tricky one! Politics in a technocratic era, where ideas around universal ideology and a broader outlook have been replaced by competing truths, rather than the concept of fighting for "the truth." That's had a fragmentary impact. Knowledge itself - the very concept of knowing - has come under assault from the particularities of who knows. So you've got this competing sense of knowledges, and once you've reduced knowledge to a subjective, then everyone can make subjective knowledge claims.
And that's had a big impact on politics, which has had the heart ripped out of it in a post-ideological age. So rather than this idea of "I believe this and this is my belief system," in order to gain authority for their views, people have resorted to siding with any number of these truth claims. It gives you more authority in a technocratic age to say, "My truth claim is based on my ethnic identity, my biology, or my suffering.
I don't think it's psychology that causes it, but there's been a retreat into the self, and as a consequence […] that has the psychological impact of empowering you as an individual through how much you suffer and what claims you can make based on who you are. That's where the therapeutic aspect comes in and why psychology becomes important.
Our human urge to control
We, as humans, like to feel we can control events, that we have access to power and a route to power is through knowledge. There are extreme levels of information in the digital world. We think "Have device, therefore I am." But I wonder whether people feel, while they have this access to knowledge, they can't rid themselves of an underlying feeling that the world is overwhelming and they're so small, and they just can't cope with "privileged white men" telling them how to live. Is there anything in that?
There may be. As you say, really you're drowning in information rather than knowledge. And I think we're denying young people the tools of assessing that information and transforming it into a useful knowledge base. There's been an abdication in educational terms, where teachers will now say, "What's the point of us when everyone has access to all this information at the click of a button?" They will say the role of the teacher is not to pass on knowledge but to give people the skills to cypher.
So on the one hand we tell the young that they have all the knowledge they need because all they need to do is google, but if you do that you realize how little you know. It is overwhelming.
The truth is there is an instinct to have autonomy, an instinct to control one's destiny. That is historically what has led us all to fight for freedom - we want to feel important historically. Now the way people want to have power is to say, "I want to define my identity, I want to define the immediate and intimate around me, and I want to decide what I hear and what I can't hear."
Claire Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas, which she established to "create a public space where ideas can be contested without constraint." She organizes an annual "Battle of Ideas" festival. And her 2016 book, "I Find That Offensive!" is published by Biteback Publishing.