In early 2024, LVM Editora will treat Brazilian readers to the Portuguese edition of A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable, the third book by British author Brendan O’Neill. The political editor of the English magazine Spiked, O’Neill is also a columnist for Oeste, providing exclusive texts for subscribers.
The work is a collection of essays by the author, in which he discusses the new tyranny of political correctness (PC), which has been censoring, punishing, and destroying the pilar of freedom that underlies Western civilization. With a focus on the Anglo-Saxon world, the events and phenomena depicted by O’Neill are observable throughout the West, including Brazil.
Brendan O’Neill spoke exclusively to Oeste about his “heretical manifesto”, the “racism of low expectations”, woke ideology, cancel culture, and language manipulation. He recounted the moment he decided to write his new book and revealed his greatest fear concerning this rising trend of authoritarianism.
The analogy between historical and contemporary heretics is pervasive in your essays. Could you tell us more about how and when you noticed this correlation?
A few years ago, I started thinking that cancel culture has some eerie echoes of the Inquisition. Not in every way, of course. No one is being burnt at the stake in the 2020s for what they believe. But the accusatory language of today is similar to that of the past. And the urge to obliterate sinful individuals – socially if not physically – is frighteningly similar too. It was the widespread use of the word “denier” that first made me think we are living through a new war on heresy. You hear that word all the time, most famously in the slur “climate-change denier”. Question any aspect of climate-change alarmism and they’ll damn you as a “denier”. They’ll try to keep you off the airwaves and away from university campuses. They will unperson you. Then I noticed that even if you accept that climate change is happening, but you don’t like some of the proposed policy solutions for dealing with it, they’ll still call you a denier. This time a “policy denier”. During #MeToo, if you raised questions about the trouncing of due process, they would call you a “rape denier”. On and on it went. And of course, that word – denier – was central to the era of the Inquisition. People were dragged to court or the stake for denying the truth of the Bible. They were judged to be living in denial of the light of Christ. It made me think: what else in cancel culture comes from the past? I started to get very interested in the heresy-hunting of past centuries – what motivated it, who was targeted, what justifications were given for it? And I found that so much of what happened back then is happening again today. Once again people are punished for “denying the truth”, for poisoning men’s souls, for being a menace to morality, for potentially driving the masses mad with their dangerous ideas – we call it “inciting hatred” now.
Was it then that you decided to write this book?
What tipped me over the edge was the demonization of women who do not accept the ideology of transgenderism. Over the past five years or so, any woman who “denies” that a man can become a woman – the new religious truth of our morally lost age – is hounded severely. She is branded a bigot, a transphobe, a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist). These insults are spat at those women with the same hate and venom with which the accusation of witchcraft was once made. That is when I thought to myself: witch-hunting is back, public shaming is back, and the war on heresy is back. I gave a speech at Oxford University in 2018 outlining my core heretical belief – that people can never change sex. The response was insane. There were protests. The student newspaper at Oxford condemned me for my “hatred”. One attendee of my talk was so horrified by what I said that she started to hyperventilate and had to be helped from the room. And so I recognized, without question, that ours is a new age of irrationalism, a new age of hatred for free thought. And I decided I needed to write about it.
Do you think there was a turning point when common sense became heretical, and political correctness took its place as the mainstream (i.e. imposed by cultural elites) thought?
This is a very good question. I think about it a lot. I think there is a temptation to look back for the big turning point, the key moment, at which our relatively free societies became “woke” and increasingly illiberal. But actually, I don’t think there was a turning point, as such. I prefer to use the boiling frog metaphor to describe the predicament we find ourselves in. Just as the frog doesn’t realize it is in heated water until it is too late, so I think we have been surrounded by the swirl of political correctness and wokeness for a very long time and we have only realized it recently. Though I am confident we are not too late to do something about it! What is most interesting to me is the way in which authoritarianism went from being a mostly right-wing phenomenon to a left-wing phenomenon. When we think back to the explosions of authoritarianism in the not-so-distant past – McCarthyism, for example, or the religious pressure to censor gay literature or rap music in the 1970s and 1980s – it was mostly conservatives who were at the forefront of those moral missions. But at some point, in the 1970s, the baton was passed from the right to the left. Today, we live under a tyranny of thought control that is almost entirely justified in left-wing language: keeping minorities safe from offence, maintaining peace in a multicultural society, combating hate, etc.
What is “wokeness”?
For me, “wokeness” is a useful word but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I think we are living under an ideology that doesn’t really have a name – not yet anyway. It emerged in stages. First, in the 1970s, progressives start to lose faith in ordinary people. They start to see the masses as easily influenced, especially by Big Media and advertising, and thus they take it upon themselves to limit our exposure to such evils and to try to control how we think and how we behave. The hippies became tyrants. Then, in the 1980s, we have the rise of political correctness: new ways of speaking designed to alter thought itself. And more recently, from the 2000s onwards, we’ve had “woke”, the latest and highest stage of this ideology without a name. In this stage, the policing of language has become ever-more severe. People are now openly blacklisted or banished from social media or even physically attacked for their sin of “wrongthink”.
How has the West, with societies that can be deemed as symbols of freedom, subjected itself to this?
Each stage has built on the last. I fear that among conservatives and genuine liberals, the temptation too often was to make fun of these developments – “political correctness gone mad!” – rather than to take them seriously and subject them to rigorous analysis and critique. People spent so much time laughing at the fact that kids were no longer allowed to sing “Baa Baa Black Sheep” – it’s racist, apparently – that they didn’t stop to think of how extraordinary it was that the new tyranny had reached even unto nursery rhymes. And so, the ideology without a name grew, unchecked, until it was out of control. Even now, many conservatives – certainly the Tories here in Britain – do not seem to appreciate how much of a threat this new ideology poses to our way of life. To liberty, free thought, family integrity and even the social order. We need to understand that woke is not a joke.
I couldn’t help but write down the word “denigrate” when I read it in the book. In Brazil, the verb “denegrir” in Portuguese is often cited as an example of a word with “a racist origin”, which it is not. Are you aware of any words or expressions in English-speaking countries whose meanings have also been distorted, to the point of being obliterated, thus impoverishing people’s vocabulary and making language and thought control easier?
Oh yes, we have had similar incidents here. One of the craziest was when a newspaper columnist was called racist after saying she had a “niggling” worry about Harry and Meghan getting married. “Niggling” has nothing whatsoever to do with the N-word! It just means “a feeling of persistent discomfort or annoyance”. And yet it was interpreted as a racial slur against Meghan – it was completely unhinged. The language around race is severely policed under the ideology of woke. I don’t just mean it is frowned upon to use racial slurs – we all frown on that. I mean that even the “correct” language now changes all the time. We used to say “black people”. Then we had to say “BAME”, which means “black and minority ethnic”. Then we had to say “people of color”. Then “women of color”, “teachers of color”, “nurses of color”, and so on. Who can keep up with all this? It is a very elitist form of speech. The vast majority of ordinary people I know – including, excuse my wrongspeak, black people – do not use the new terms. They find them strange and patronizing. It’s like “Latinx” in the USA. The only people who use “Latinx” are well-educated upper-class whites, not actual Latinos! They are happy to be Latino.
Is this language form elitist?
I find the woke rules on language very Edwaradian, in the sense that it is about demonstrating that you are part of a new elite who speaks correctly, thinks correctly, behaves correctly. Using “correct” language like “people of color”, “gender assigned at birth” or “differently abled” (rather than disabled) is how you signal that you belong to the ideological in-group. That you are a member of the highest caste of all – the new controllers of thought. It is very performative. I far prefer the way that working-class communities speak. It is more raw and more honest. They use words we all understand. For example, they will say “my friend gave birth to a girl”, not “my friend has had her child who has been assigned the gender of female”! I find the intense policing of racial language incredibly paternalistic. The idea that black people and other ethnic minorities require the well-educated, mostly white elites to save them from offence or “harm” is staggeringly patronizing. It is in itself a form of racism, I believe, since it positions the rulers of society as the saviors of supposedly weak minority groups. It rehabilitates the master/servant relationship in the realm of language. It is the racism of low expectations, where many of our fellow citizens are judged incapable of taking part in public life because they might melt if they hear an offensive word.
Today, there’s no need to physically kill someone. Cancel culture can result in someone being socially, morally, and financially ruined. It’s not uncommon for someone to ask nowadays, “How did so many people support or overlook the atrocities committed by the Nazis against Jews and others?”, but we know that Nazi Germany’s propaganda built the “normality” of violence through dehumanization. Do you think there will soon be a time when it’s justifiable for people who claim they are “entitled to hate” to use deadly physical violence against those they deem as “hateful”?
I think it is very possible we will see the violent punishment of “hate speech” soon. In fact, I think we have already had glimpses of it. Think about the massacre at Charlie Hebdo in 2015. Those radical Islamist murderers were in essence the militant wing of political correctness. They punished cartoonists for hurting their feelings. They gave physical, brute force to the PC idea. What I find most terrifying about those recent cases is the unholy alliance between radical Islam and political correctness. The Islamists declare war on “blasphemy” while the woke declare war on “Islamophobia”. But it amounts to the same thing – we are encouraged to believe that criticizing Islam is wrong and deserving of punishment. Some people think the punishment should be losing your job. Others, like the killers of Charlie Hebdo, think the punishment should be more severe. The logic is the same in both instances, though: people are attacked for expressing supposedly blasphemous thoughts, for “speech”. We have also seen simmering violence in the reaction to gender-critical feminists who do not accept that a man can become a woman. Here in Britain such women have been physically assaulted. When Kellie-Jay Keen – a well-known British women’s rights campaigner – went to New Zealand to speak about the problem of transgenderism, she was surrounded by a heaving mob. They spat at her, threw things at her, insulted her. She had to be hurried away by the police. To my mind, this was the woke Inquisition in action, in all its menacing and violent “glory”.
Under what circumstances would such violence be justified?
Censorship always contains at least the threat of violence. If we say words are violence – as the woke say all the time – then we are implicitly accepting that violence is a reasonable response to words. After all, if words hurt us, why should we not hurt those whose words we hate? If words cause us unbearable psychic pain, why shouldn’t we inflict physical pain on “wrongthinkers” in order to protect ourselves from their words? This is where woke is not only annoying and illiberal, but dangerous too. People say free speech is wild and unpredictable and often has destabilizing consequences. But censorship always has worse consequences. Always. Censorship is the midwife of intolerance. It begets violence. When we encourage the new generation to think that their beliefs and ideas are so perfect that no one may ever utter a sore word about them, we train this generation to react with venom and even violence against anyone who dares to dissent from their perfect ideologies. The German poet Heinrich Heine once said that “where one burns books, one will soon burn people”. We should heed that warning. For if we are willing to destroy someone’s livelihood on the basis of his allegedly sinful utterances, why wouldn’t we destroy his actual life too? Cancel culture has unleashed enough evils as it is – it needs to be stopped before it unleashes more.