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Feminist old guard: “Women Against Pornography” march on  Times Square, New York, in 1979 (image: Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

For years a few of us have warned that modern “liberals” would live to regret abandoning the principle that you should only censor speech when it incited violence. We would enjoy our vindication if the unravelling of progressive assumptions was not so extraordinarily menacing.

Political correctness is eating itself. It is abandoning its children, and declaring them illegitimate. It is shouting down activists who once subscribed to its doctrines and turning its guns on its own. Women are suffering the most, as they always do. “Radical feminist” is now an insult on many campuses. Fall into that pariah category, and your opponents will ban you if they can and scream you down if they cannot.

It is tempting to say “serves you right” or “I told you so” to the feminists on the receiving end of the new intolerance. But you will not understand how Western societies have become so tongue-tied and hypocritical unless you understand the human desires behind the feminists’ original urge to suppress, which now lie behind their enemies’ desire to suppress them.

A generation ago, a faction within Western feminism campaigned to ban pornography. They believed it caused harm by inciting men to rape, but couldn’t prove it. Despite decades of research, no one has been able to show that pornography brutalises otherwise peaceful men. So they added the argument that sexual fantasy should be banned because it spread harmful stereotypes that polluted society. Unfortunately, for them, they could not substantiate that claim beyond reasonable doubt either.

“You have no identity, no personality, you are a collection of appealing body parts,” the American law professor Catharine MacKinnon told her followers in the 1980s. Pornography ensured women were assessed only by their looks. It “strips women of credibility, from our accounts of sexual assault to our everyday reality of sexual subordination. We are reduced and devalidated and silenced.”

For all its faults, America has the First Amendment, which protects free speech and freedom of the press. The US Supreme Court duly struck down an ordinance MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin drafted for Indianapolis City Council in 1984 which would have allowed women who could say they were harmed by pornography to sue. It might have killed the law but it did not kill the movement. The impulse behind the original demands drives campaigns against sexist advertising and naked women in tabloids to this day.

Even if you think, as I do, that a wing of feminism degenerated into a puritanism not too far away from the God-given puritanism of the Christian Right, you should accept that debates about free speech are unavoidably ferocious because the urge to suppress is not some feminist peculiarity but a near universal desire.

When he drafted his “harm principle”, which placed liberal limits on speech, John Stuart Mill considered the case of corn merchants. They were the bankers of the mid-19th century, hated and feared by the poor. Radical agitators denounced them for hoarding grain and forcing the masses to choose between inflated prices and starvation. Conservatives feared riot and revolution, and wanted to protect the social order by silencing the agitators. Mill said they could censor only if radicals were inciting a mob to commit a crime: to burn down a corn merchant’s house, or attack him in the street. Incitements aside, radical journalists should be free to write and say what they wanted. Their opponents could test their ideas, and mock, expose and refute them. They could use all the weapons a free society offered to change the public’s mind, but they could not use the law to asphyxiate debate, because in the silence that followed a dreadful conformism would set in.

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May 5th, 2015
1:05 PM
Very good...….I quite like Nick Cohen - even though he is one of those who routinely paints UKIPPERs as racists - as a rational leftie, as opposed to the 'emotional left'. It amazes me how the modern Left, called Thatcher 'dictatorial' and a 'Nazi'……..yet have no problem defending - or even living contently in - the EU, which is naught but an undemocratic, incompetent, corrupt superfluous layer of government. The Left likes the EU because it is a wealth redistributor. The Left likes Islamism because Islamists purport to be oppressed underdogs. What it all boils down to is not PRINCIPLE but POWER…….the emotional Left will say anything (whilst denying others free speech), to obtain and retain political POWER. The emotional LEFT is fundamentally dishonest…….and incapable of rational argument. That is why it will ultimately fail……this is why Ed Miliband and Labour will fail on Friday - people know, no matter what emotional tricks they try to pull, that socialism has attained its goals in western Europe and is no longer relevant. Keep up the good work Nick Cohen……..the Left only has a future if it is prepared to argue its position.

May 3rd, 2015
6:05 PM
Have they started to ban Orwell yet?

April 29th, 2015
5:04 AM
"The tendency of the modern liberal-left to excuse radical Islam is supported by the politically correct belief that liberals should support a religion of the disadvantaged. In the name of liberalism, they fail to fight a creed that is sexist, racist, homophobic and, in its extreme forms, genocidal and totalitarian." Brilliant. However, liberals support islam because both are against the typical western values of financial success, free market, etc. It´s time to stop being politically correct about the left and go straight to the point: they are losers and envious of the others.

April 26th, 2015
6:04 AM
""Radical feminist” is now an insult on many campuses. Fall into that pariah category, and your opponents will ban you if they can and scream you down if they cannot." No that's the wrong way round: it's the rad fems & their allies doing the screaming down. Look what happened to C H Sommers at Oberlin College this last week. Or read up on Gamer Gate.

Ben McDonald
April 17th, 2015
7:04 PM
Interesting article but how do you reconcile the pains McKinnon and Dworkin took to avoid drafting an "obscenity laws" with the notion that their motivations were quasi-puritan? Does the proposition that pornography constitutes "speech" or "expression" not warrant examination, for otherwise any public act not already illegal might be deemed expressive. Why must a general burden of proof of harm bear upon the anti-pornographer? Would a case-by-case demonstration of harm not suffice for libel in each instance?

April 7th, 2015
11:04 AM
In Australia thousands took to the sunny beaches and parks to `Reclaim Australia` and protest the influence of the islamist nutters. It`s on the Pegida UK facebook. In London there were more police than Pegida supporters and so-called anti-fascists. The latter shouting "Nazi scum" at an english WW2 veteran and a Gurka trying to speak. The Pegida female speakers were declared "cunts" by the UAF goons. Surely now is the time for Douglas Murray,Nick Cohen and Standpoint to organise a proper discussion. The Oxford Union has held one already. Some of it`s on the Pegida UK facebook.

April 5th, 2015
7:04 AM
or a Jew confronted with the everyday racism of Islamists and parts of the Left, Or a Palestinian confronted with the everyday racism of Zionist settlers.

March 30th, 2015
2:03 PM
The anti-feminists are all singing "Beware the Devil woman,she`s gonna take you from behind" by Cliff Richard. The so-called Right is holier than the so-called Left? And the More Muslim Than Thou Islamic State nutters circulate their jihad-porn snuff movies on Western social media,making useful idiots of the Western `infidels` and `unbelievers` who re-circulate it. The Pegida UK facebook is an education for the Left and Right . My favourite islamist placard shown is "BEHEAD THOSE WHO SAY ISLAM IS VIOLENT" . The Koran insults 24/7 the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Trinity. So all muslims are possessed by Satan. And all the mosques are for Satanic worship. A sharia Left or a sharia Right ? Some serious philosophising with Zizek is necessary here.

March 30th, 2015
3:03 AM
Replacing the “harm principle” with his “offence principle” can be traced to the impeccable Millian credentials of Isaiah Berlin. In his "Two concepts of liberty," Berlin states: "Political liberty is simply the area within which a man can be unobstructed by others. (...) Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act. You lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by human beings." (pg. 122) Whether the "others" coerce individually or through the state makes no difference. In Berlin's view, any offence limits a person's freedom. "Negative" freedom should be upheld.

March 27th, 2015
10:03 PM
You talk of "...a black man confronted with the everyday racism of parts of the Right.... etc." But what about the people who THINK they've heard something racist or homophobic? What about the paranoid and delusional? What about those who gain their importance in life by railing against imaginary enemies everywhere? What about things like the "Hands up, don't shoot" myth? If you stand up to fiction like that you are to be destroyed by the paranoid racist conspiracy theorists. MOST of what gets tagged as "racist" by right-wingers is the call for black people to stand up, act like adults and do the work necessary to succeed.

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