No people can long be free that doesn't want to be free or cares little for its own freedom. But the greatest threat to liberty nowadays is from powerful and important groups within society that actively seek, in the name of virtue, to limit the freedom of others.
We should never forget that the pleasures of puritanism are never greater than when causing misery and discomfiture to the supposedly wicked: Such malignity is its own reward.
A minor politician in South Wales, a town councillor called Rob Jones, has been suspended from the Labour Party because, in private, he called a Welsh nationalist politician, Bethan Sayed, a cow. His exact words were, “Bethan Sayed, the cow that she is.” He uttered this sentiment at a private meeting of his party which, unbeknownst to him, was being secretly recorded and would be broadcast (more than a year later) over social media.
The comment was said by Sayed to have been “despicable.” It's true that it could hardly have been pleasing to her. Jones immediately issued a groveling apology, at the same time alleging that the recording had been edited to make him appear all the worse and saying that “the contents of the recording do not reflect the values I hold as an individual or those of the Labour Party, nor do they meet the standards of accountability required of a public representative.”
His weaselly and insincere words (who will believe that he doesn’t still think that Bethan Sayed is a cow?) sound like those of someone prophylactically denouncing himself for fear of torture under a Maoist regime. Only someone in a state of blue funk would claim that the contents of a recording “do not reflect the values I hold.” He called Sayed a cow because that, for whatever reason, was what he thought she was. He clearly didn’t like her.
As an insult uttered in private, however, it was really rather mild and commonplace. At any rate, I can think of far worse insults, and I am by no means a habitual or practiced insulter of others. Insult is not my genre.
By far the most sinister aspect of this little story is the willingness of someone to record a private conversation or meeting without the permission of the participants and then use it much later to the detriment of one of them.
What kind of person would do such a thing? Alas, there are more than a handful of such persons: The history of Nazi Germany and occupied France suggests that anonymous denunciation is a joy to hundreds of thousands if not millions of people.
In communist countries, it was assumed that everything you said might be recorded and anyone to whom you spoke might be an informer. But now it is we, the people, who are in the process of creating a totalitarian atmosphere for ourselves, thanks to smartphones and social media. We are becoming—some of us—a population of digital snitches.
When suspects were arrested by the police in England, they used to be cautioned, “You do not have to say anything, but anything you do say may be taken down and used in evidence.” If we're not careful, that's how we'll have to live our entire lives, as if under perpetual police caution—without, of course, our alleged offense being known in advance.
The situation is made all the worse in the modern world by the speed with which what is morally absurd or unthinkable becomes morally obligatory, so that one has to consider not only what is unsayable now, but what might become unsayable in five or 10 years’ time.
In these circumstances, honesty is not the best but the worst policy; silence is wisest and failing silence, utter blandness and complete acquiescence with the moral enthusiasm of the moment, whatever it might be. Under no circumstances, even in the privacy of your home, should you say what you think: It might get you into trouble later on and ruin your career.
Sayed thought that what Jones called her was “despicable.” It was nothing of the kind. It was common verbal abuse such as the vast majority of us sometimes resort to and was all the less despicable because it was said in private and not for public consumption.
It would have been despicable if, instead of calling Sayed a cow, Jones had alleged without any evidence whatever that she had embezzled public funds. To call someone a cow or a bastard (metaphorically not literally, for in the not very distant future the majority of the population will be bastards in the literal sense) is not a definite allegation but an expression of dislike. And dislike is not a crime or even necessarily a moral failing.
There is no decisive test of whether a woman is a or is not a cow, in Jones’ sense of the word; one man’s cow is another man’s angel; but if he had alleged that she was an embezzler, the allegation is a matter of fact and not of taste or opinion, and there ought to be definite evidence to substantiate it, without which it would be despicable to allege it.
It's sinister that a political party can suspend a member merely because he has uttered a commonplace insult, as if politics were normally a delicate exercise in etiquette and deportment.
We laugh at our unsophisticated predecessors who washed out the mouths of children with soap and water if they uttered a profanity or a forbidden sentiment, but we are worse in that we are willing not merely to cause a child a bad quarter of an hour but to destroy the reputation and livelihoods of people because of a casual remark made a long time before.
Increasingly we must live as if our lives were evidence in a forthcoming trial by as yet unknown accusers.
The internet, smartphones, and social media were supposed to liberate us by allowing us all to have our say at last, but, as Shigalyov puts it in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel “The Devils,” “Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism.”