Brendan O'Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for reason.com. O'Neill, who calls himself a "Marxist libertarian," writes about free speech, environmentalism, and other issues at the nexus of politics and culture. In December, Reason TV's Nick Gillespie sat down with the 41-year-old Londoner.
Q: What do you think is the biggest enemy or opponent of free speech today?
A: I don't think it's the state. It used to be the state—it would smash its boot down on any ideology it thought was dangerous. That still happens, particularly in Europe. We have hate speech laws which have seen religious people being arrested and critics of Islam being fined. But the real threat, I think, is conformism and cowardice. A reluctance among ordinary people to have the debate out, to take risks intellectually, to express what's in their minds.
Q: But it seems like just as political correctness and tenured radicals took over the university, American politics went very much to the right.
A: I think political correctness is quite right-wing. This is the great myth. I would say this, as a sort of lefty libertarian old-school Marxist, I suppose, but I think political correctness is a very conservative idea in that it's about stamping down on risky ideas, anything that might rattle the apple cart. If you think of the radical left of the '60s and '70s, they spoke entirely in the language of "liberation." National liberation, women's liberation, gay liberation. It's only quite recently the left has adopted the language of being anti-liberal, pro-state, wanting to squash dangerous ideas.
Q: You've critiqued left-wing environmentalism as really puritanical.
A: It's my least favorite ideology. It's an apology for poverty, a justification for unequal development across the world. But you can't come out and say, "I oppose economic development in Africa," because that would be a bit racist. So instead you have to doll it up in these P.C., acceptable-sounding terms like "saving the planet." But it is about preventing people from growing, from progressing, from having the industrial leap forward that we in the West enjoyed 200 years ago.
Q: What do you do to stop Muslims in Europe from being radicalized?
A: I think it's not so much the lure of the Islamic State as it is the push of our own societies. Western Europe has lost any sense of how to make [the next generation] feel part of a liberal, democratic, enlightened Western project….The punishment of Islamophobia, the clamping down on anyone who criticizes Islam, that actually fuels the victim mentality among some young radical Muslims.
Think about the Charlie Hebdo massacre—everyone thought, "This was some foreign attack." But I think it was actually a very French attack. This is a country in which it's potentially against the law to criticize Muslims. Charlie Hebdo itself had been taken to court for "religious hatred." These guys who killed the cartoonists grew up in a country that told them, "It is really bad for people to offend your religious faith." And then we wonder why they acted the way they did.
Q: So do you see terrorism in the West as a problem with the West turning its back on the Enlightenment?
A: Yeah. I think the Charlie Hebdo massacre—that was the armed wing of political correctness. These are products of a society that has abandoned the idea of freedom of speech, abandoned the idea of democracy, abandoned the idea of real robust debate, and tough luck if it hurts your feelings. And in that climate, you give rise to groups who are super-sensitive [and] who think everything that goes against their way of life should be crushed.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Armed Wing of Political Correctness".