by Andrew Gleeson
There is a great difference between doing what one does not approve and feigning to approve what one does. The one is the weakness of a feeble person, the other befits the temper of a lackey.
–Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
On 6 July 1535, Sir Thomas More, the great English lawyer and humanist, was executed as a traitor for refusing to recognize Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the English Church. Henry had discarded his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn. This meant defying and finally usurping the authority of the Pope, who would not annul the marriage to Catherine. Henry would go on to confiscate the property of the Church and have six wives. More was confirmed a saint of the Catholic Church in 1935.
In Robert Bolt’s 1960 play, A Man for All Seasons, More exercises all the expedients of the lawyer’s craft to protect himself and his family. His strategy is a studied silence, carefully measuring his words and acts to ensure – until it is unavoidable – that he says or does nothing that can be construed as disloyalty. What makes it unavoidable, on the one hand, is the conspiracy enacted by Henry’s chief minister and henchman Thomas Cromwell to erase the sanctuary of silence by requiring More to swear under oath to the marriage and the headship: refusal is High Treason. On the other is a no less severe master: More’s own conscience. He can remain silent, but he cannot speak words that betray his God. For his refusal to take the oath More is placed on trial. Cromwell draws corrupt men into the plot like the ambitious Richard Rich who perjures himself to secure a conviction, and More’s old friend, the conventional and timid Norfolk, who conducts the hearing. More is trapped by Rich’s testimony and convicted.
Men of the world, and even his friends and family, are mystified by what they see as More’s quixotic, even egoistic, stubbornness in refusing to take the oath. More offers Norfolk this explanation:
I will not give in because I oppose it – I do – not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do – I.
This ‘I’, this ‘you’ or ‘me’, is what More is trying to protect. It isn’t much in worldly terms. When his wife Alice urges him to give in and “be ruled” by the King, More says:
[t]here’s a little … little, area … where I must rule myself. It’s very little – less to him [Henry] than a tennis court.
But this little area is what is most important. And not just to More but his enemies too: they want it. At trial, when he realises further resistance is futile, More addresses Cromwell thus:
What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart. It is a long road you have opened. For first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose Statesmen walk your road.
The distinction More draws between actions and thoughts is important for our present troubles that go under the name ‘identity politics’ or ‘cancel culture’. It is one thing for the state or public opinion to penalise speech that a liberal society would allow. God knows that is bad enough. It is authoritarian. But it is not totalitarian. A country like, say, Singapore is authoritarian without being totalitarian. Speak out against the government and you will be targeted. But so long as you keep your nose out of anything politically sensitive, you are left alone. You can keep your thoughts to yourself and your family and friends. Like More, you have safety in silence. Here, bruised and no doubt cowed, the kernel, the nut in the fruit that is you, can survive, in hope of emerging again someday.
Totalitarianism is a deeper level of hell. Like Cromwell, it wants to control “the thoughts of [your] heart”. By demanding public declarations of loyalty and employing a network of informers – even inside the inner councils of family and friends – totalitarians put your heart under siege. They want you to be like Winston Smith at the end of 1984: to say, and ideally to mean – mean in your heart (in so far as a ghost of a human being can be said to mean anything seriously) – their words. ‘Control’ is too weak a word for this. The totalitarians do not just want to confine you; they want to erase you. They want there to be no more ‘you’. You disappear, absorbed into an amorphous mass-state, the anonymous, mechanical totality of ‘totalitarianism’.
In the play, More extends his silence as far as he can, but when Cromwell resorts to the tactic of demanding a public declaration of fealty on pain of treason, he faces just two options. He can lose his conscience – the ‘I’ or what Bolt calls his ‘self’ – by swearing the oath, or he can lose his head by refusing. But really, he has no choice except in the barest physical sense: morally, humanly, he – not you or I perhaps, but he – has none. His head must go. As he tells Norfolk, who is desperately imploring him to relent:
I can’t give in, Howard … you might as well advise a man to change the colour of his eyes. I can’t.
But so many do. Not all. Beset by cancel culture, there are the Bret Weinsteins and Heather Heyings. There is a Bari Weiss, a Jodi Shaw, a Maya Forstater. Of course, the penalties they have suffered do not compare to More’s; theirs is a courage we can and, ideally, should emulate. However, most of us merely envy it. The consequences of losing jobs, careers and friends, the fear of not knowing how to pay rent, mortgage, and school fees – these things mean people cleave to the path of silence and deft manoeuvring, and hope that unlike More they will not be tested by the prospect of falsifying themselves by pledging others’ words from their own mouths. We honour the few courageous ones. We may despise the rest as cowards if we like, but that is not going to change the reality on the ground. Things are perhaps improving. As the first few speak up, others feel emboldened to follow, fortified by numbers. We can see this in the parental protests springing up in the US against school boards that mandate ‘anti-racist’ policies and class content. Still, keeping the head down is the wide road – it is crowded and until the cost of resistance is rendered low enough it will remain so.
For most people, then, silence is indeed golden, being the means of survival. But today we are told a different message: silence is violence. Those three words declare an ambition to close the wide road. Non-discrimination and equal treatment are not enough. Local councils are expected to fly the rainbow flag and thus declare their subscription to a raft of contentious ideology. Businesses in Portland or Seattle must display a window poster in support of Black Lives Matter or have their property vandalized. The institutions of civil society from your kindergarten to your local medical practice to the military and giant corporations must have mandatory trainings around race, sex, and gender. Public figures and celebrities are under fierce social media pressure to make statements of their support and confess their past sins. This is not about equality. It is about compelled speech and enforced ideology. It is about requiring public declarations of faith so that anyone with doubts, can, by their refusal to make them, be identified and shamed into a public act of contrition – or be ‘cancelled’, a word whose new use has become so familiar we are numb to its ominous potential.
The ‘silence is violence’ slogan expresses the totalitarian aspiration to own you: to crucify your conscience by forcing you to betray it in your public speech and actions. It is what Ibram X Kendi proclaims when he says that you cannot be non-racist, you are either racist or anti-racist. That is, if you are not with us – if you are merely silent – then you are against us; we are not going to allow you anywhere to hide. When Robin DiAngelo says that the question is not “did racism take place?” but rather “how did racism manifest in that situation?” she voices the kindred totalitarian thought that you are guilty regardless of the evidence. When anti-racists tell us that racism is not a personal fault, but a quasi-metaphysical condition called “whiteness” they do not relieve guilt, they make it inexpungeable. Thus “the work [of overcoming racism] is never done” and so the methods and apparatus of totalitarian control are permanently required.
One method is to strangle the private self of its nourishment. It is to our family and friends (real friends I mean, not faux Facebook friends) that we unburden ourselves. Their love and loyalty fortify us against the lacerations of the public world. If we cannot be ourselves here, then the weight on the self threatens to be intolerable. Threats to this citadel should disturb us. Just this year, the Scottish parliament passed a new Hate Crime law. It was partly based on a 1986 act. But a provision of that act which made it a defence that the accused was speaking or behaving inside a private dwelling was omitted from the new legislation. This February then Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf was explicit that he wanted the new law to apply inside the home. A distinction of the public and private for these offences was, he said, “entirely artificial”. But that artificial distinction is one of the most important bulwarks of a citizen’s freedom, the freedom that comes with knowing that one’s home is a refuge from the world of political dissension. No matter how offensive a person’s opinions, feelings and passions might be, if they cannot ever express them, not even in their own home and circle of friends, then they are denied the capacity to live truthfully as who they are with at least some of their fellows. Living truthfully requires the space to make mistakes in attitudes and opinions – serious mistakes – and by interaction with others perhaps to correct them.
For example, the remarkable African American musician Daryl Davis began reaching out to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1980s. He has attended their meetings. He has hosted them at his house. He asked them: how can you hate me when you don’t even know me? Slowly, painfully, conversation began. Today, as a result of Davis’s work, more than 200 people have left the Klan and abandoned racism. (You can hear him talk about his work here.) Many angry and hateful – and hurtful – things were no doubt said in those private conversations: to Davis’s face and likely more behind his back. Whether they would have been said legally if a law like the new Scottish one had been on the books in the relevant jurisdictions is moot at best. But the conversations could not happen without those hateful and hurtful words being spoken, for such conversations must be honest. No matter how enlightened we may pride ourselves on being, any one of us may have acquired hateful attitudes if circumstances had been different, so we all have an interest in preserving a domain of human life in which the ugliest conscience is free. Even the prisoner in jail has generally been free to express his opinions in private conversation, no matter how shocking his crimes. The offence against his soul in controlling what he must think, and not just how he must act towards others, has been intuitively sensed as a greater violation than the deprivation of his liberty of action and even than some punishments of the body.
I am not saying that the Scottish government is totalitarian. But the legislation sets an alarming precedent. The line between man and woman as citizen versus man and woman as husband and wife or father and mother protects the family, the nursery in which new human life and individual personality are created and human society renewed. The family’s sanctity is a model for every other social body – a parliament, a university, a newspaper, a private club – with pretence to be a haven of freedom. If the home falls nowhere else is safe. And at the heart of the family is a sacred bond of parent and child. Those American parents protesting to their school boards about controversial ‘anti-racist’ curricula that in fact inflame racial hostility feel the boards are unresponsive to them. The videos of angry parents confronting the boards make painful watching. The nation’s largest public school teachers’ union, the National Education Association (NEA) has just this month resolved to support these curricula and to combat recent attempts by state governments to prohibit them. Such curricula usurp the place of parents by the state, or by radical activists on the state payroll. If children are taught – or more accurately, indoctrinated into – ideology radically at odds with the beliefs and values of their parents, then the child-parent relationship is poisoned. The intention to carry out such indoctrination is evident in panting passages like this from the NEA which inveighs against “empire, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and” – just in case something should be overlooked – “other forms of power and oppression in the intersections of our society”. This ugly jargon is a kind of Lego-language (‘cisheteropatriarchy’): one word-block is winched into place after another to form a concrete tunnel which thought cannot penetrate (or the writer, and perhaps the reader, escape). Such language is suited to the disconnection from reality apparent in the dizzying scale of the ambition – every possible issue, the whole world, is at stake. What on Earth makes this part of a teacher’s remit or competence?
That disconnection is also evident in the apologies from time to time exacted by furious on-line mobs from their victims. I am going to give one example (without identifying the author):
I am just beginning to understand how I have harmed communities of color with my words. I am learning that my words – my uninformed, careless words – often express an ideology wrought in whiteness and privilege. I am learning that my commitment to diversity has been performative, ignoring the pain the Black community and other communities of color have endured in this country. I am learning that I am not as knowledgeable as I thought I was, not as antiracist as I thought I was, not as careful as I thought I was. For all of these, I sincerely apologize.
I know it’s not anyone’s job to forgive me, but I ask for it — another burden of a white person haunted by his ignorance. To consider the possible hurt I have played a role in, the scores of others whose pain I didn’t fully see, aches inside me – a feeling different and deeper than the tears and emotions I’ve experienced being caught in an ignorant racist moment.
To all communities of color and especially the Black community, I am sorry for causing pain by ignoring yours. I really hate the idea of hurting anyone. I hate that I have done this: if I had not ignored the pain of so many, this article would have never been written. I hate that my students have to carry my ignorant racist energy with them at all times. … I am sorry. I hate the fact that I have hurt my colleagues … and the field of higher education, especially Black scholars whose careers have been spent studying Black lives. I am sorry for ignoring your scholarship. I hate that I have let down my Black friends and friends of color, whom I love.
In his novel Lost Illusions, Balzac has a character remark that “repentance is a virginity which our souls owe to God”. He means that if penitence is genuine, it need only – in fact it can only – be expressed once. In this passage it is expressed five times, counting where the author asks for forgiveness. It is like he is trying to convince himself, as much as others, that he means it. The language is overwrought. It lacks the sobriety and modesty of a genuine apology; it draws too much attention to itself. Everything is grotesquely out of proportion to the offence, which was to have written an article suggesting that college footballers continue to play their 2020 season despite Covid to help unite the country in the face of the pandemic. Since black athletes are highly represented in football this was said to place them at special risk for the benefit of whites, in effect treating them as “white property”. His article was certainly debatable. But whether it warranted an apology is highly dubious. That it warranted this kind of apology is absurd. I suspect the author’s real offence was to have suggested that being American could ever take precedence over being white or black, even in a national emergency. There is no occasion for being just American or even just human: there is just whiteness and blackness, oppressor and oppressed.
Recall More’s words to Cromwell at his trial: “first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts”. Governments or social media mobs who present us with a choice of disclaiming our hearts or enduring worldly catastrophe put our hearts in the devil’s hands. More hides for as long as his conscience will permit, but when finally cornered he proclaims his heart, knowing full the cost, but accepting it. Convicted, he proceeds to “discharge [his] mind” thus:
The King in Parliament cannot bestow the Supremacy of the Church because it is a Spiritual Supremacy! And more to this the immunity of the church is promised both in Magna Carta and the King’s own Coronation Oath!
Cromwell, pouncing, interjects that with these words More has shown his malice to the King. But More replies with the calm dignity of a man at peace with his conscience and his fate:
Not so … I am the King’s true subject, and pray for him and all the realm … I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live … I have, since I came into prison, been several times in such a case that I thought to die within the hour, and I thank Our Lord I was never sorry for it, but rather sorry when it passed. And therefore, my poor body is at the King’s pleasure. Would God my death might do him some good.
The same spirit exists in our own time. Winston Marshall, the lead guitarist and banjo player with the English folk-rock band Mumford and Sons, recently left the group after being pounded on social media for tweeting his praise of the book Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy by American journalist Andy Ngo. Ngo has reported critically on Antifa for several years (and was seriously assaulted by them in 2019). Stunned by the outcry – “tens of thousands of angry retweets and comments” in 24 hours, he reports – Marshall initially apologised, mainly in order to protect his bandmates, who were also feeling the heat (“a black-hearted swarm on them and their families”). But he has now effectively retracted that apology and – over the pleadings of his bandmates to remain – has left the band so that he can speak unencumbered. In a piece you can find here, he presents an apology in the now nearly lost sense of the word as an explanation and defence of one’s actions, of oneself. It is also a nostalgic and happy-sad love song to the band and their time together. But most of all it is the manifesto of a man who, for fear of losing it, will not again disclaim his heart:
I could remain and continue to self-censor but it will erode my sense of integrity. Gnaw my conscience. I’ve already felt that beginning.
The only way forward for me is to leave the band. I hope in distancing myself from them I am able to speak my mind without them suffering the consequences. I leave with love in my heart …
Today many people suffer in their hearts, afraid to speak out, unable to find the courage. More followed that road as far as he could – and given the penalty for doing otherwise none of us can reproach him. More criticized no one. Neither does Winston Marshall. Jodi Shaw, who resigned from a staff job at Smith College in Massachusetts this year because she would not submit to their ‘anti-racist’ trainings and policies, takes a positive approach, to encourage others. Until recently the banner on her twitter account read: If I can do it so can you. She is now on the team of Counterweight, an organisation founded in the UK by Helen Pluckrose to help, without judgment, people victimised by, or in fear of, cancel culture. In 2020, while still at Smith, Shaw produced a YouTube video (here) calling out the college. It isn’t academic, or polemical, or even angry. Sorrow is closer to its tone. It has the same humble bravery we can hear in Winston Marshall’s words. She says at one point:
I ask that Smith College stop reducing my personhood to a racial category. Stop telling me what I must think and feel about myself because I feel like you do that a lot. I know you do that a lot and I need you to stop doing that. Stop presuming to know who I am or what my culture is based upon my skin colour … Stop asking me to project stereotypes and assumptions about others based upon their skin colour, because I feel like that’s what you ask me to do incessantly, over and over again, for the past three years and I’m not going to do that. I don’t think it’s right.
I’m not going to do that. I don’t think it’s right. With those words Jodi Shaw reclaimed her heart, as More and Marshall did theirs. Compare their words with those of the apology about playing college football during Covid. The latter are the words of servility. The former are the words of someone breaking their fetters, the words of free men and women.