Transcript: Brendan O'Neill
My interview with the British author and podcast host
What does it mean to be a heretic? Why is dissent from the dominant orthodoxies of our age so important? It’s a topic my guest on this week’s program has thought a lot about, as a progressive who frequently questions the thinking on his side of the aisle. And he says that, in fact, we owe much of human progress to the heretics throughout history who have dared to dissent.
Brendan O’Neill is the chief political writer for Spiked, and the host of The Brendan O’Neill Show. His new book is A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Brendan, welcome to Lean Out.
BO: My pleasure to be here.
TH: It’s nice to have you on. I found this book incredibly interesting, and it’s great to get a chance to speak about it today. Let’s start with the concept of the heretic. You write that “an essential task of the heretic is to bristle at orthodoxy, to be suspicious of consensus.” Why is heresy so important? Why is it so crucial that we question the orthodoxies of our age?
BO: I think it’s important to question the orthodoxies of any age, really. There are two reasons I wanted to write this book. The first is to remind people how important heresy was throughout history — and to remind people that pretty much every right and every comfort and every piece of knowledge we enjoy today is the gift of a heretic. It descends from someone who dared to put his or her head above the parapet and say the unsayable. And it’s through that process that orthodoxies are challenged and new ideas emerge, sometimes better ideas. So, heresy has been wonderful for progress. Social progress, political progress.
And then, I think it’s important to have heresy today because I think we live in very conformist times. We live in an era of cancel culture, where it’s quite difficult for people to express themselves freely, where people risk being no-platformed or disinvited or blacklisted in some fashion for holding opinions that would have been perfectly normal 15 or 20 years ago. So, in that kind of climate, I think it’s especially important for people to raise their voices and say what you are not supposed to say.
TH: I’m glad you brought up cancel culture. In this age, we’re not in danger of being burned at the stake. We’re not in danger, in most cases, of being imprisoned. But we are in danger of social ostracism, of losing our livelihoods. On that note, you point out that cancel culture might not be the best phrase for what’s going on right now. That it is actually not strong enough to capture this phenomenon. Why not?
BO: In the introduction to the book, I make the point that I use the term cancel culture all the time. It’s very convenient. People know what it means. So, I don’t want to be sniffy or snobby about it, and make out like I never use that term. But I do make the point that I think it’s not sufficient to describe what we’re currently living through. It sounds too quaint to me — “cancel culture.” It brings to mind occasional cancellations. We can all think of instances of cancellation that have taken place, and usually we disapprove of them. We say, “Let that person speak.” But I think what we are facing today is far graver than that. I think we are living through a reversal of the Enlightenment itself, and an attack on reason, and an attack on freedom of speech.
I think it goes much further than cancel culture. One of the points I make is that cancel culture’s grimmest achievement is not to claim the scalp of a famous person every now and then who makes an off-colour joke or says something un-PC. It’s the trickle-down effect — the chilling impact it has across society. The message it sends to everyone, including mere mortals, who are not rich like J.K. Rowling, or not famous like Dave Chappelle. The message it sends to them, which is that if even these famous, esteemed people can be dragged over the coals for saying something they are not supposed to say, just imagine what could happen to you. Imagine the chaos that could be caused in your workplace, in your life, in your ability to go about your business, if you dare to say the things that they say.
So, it has this chilling impact across society, and I think it’s indicative of an anti-enlightened culture that has forgotten about the gains of modernity, like tolerance and freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, and instead prefers to shut down difficult discussions. So, yes, what we are living through is rather bigger than can be encapsulated in a term like cancel culture.
TH: We’ll come back to the Enlightenment later, but I want to start today with the climate apocalypse chapter in your book. I found that a really interesting read. I was an environmentalist as a teenager. I come from the left; you come from the left too. And one can be concerned about climate change — as I am, very concerned — but also see that there’s a certain hysteria that has come over this conversation, a kind of religious hysteria, which should be troubling for journalists. Anytime you hear the phrase “the science is settled,” that should ring alarm bells for journalists. For those of us tasked with questioning everything. From your perspective, what might a more rational approach to the climate change conversation look like?
BO: That’s a really good question. In that chapter, I basically compare the climate change hysteria of today with the witch hunts of the pre-modern era, the Medieval era. Because I think one thing that lots of people might not necessarily be aware of is that lots of those witches who were burned at the stake were accused of climate change. They were accused of having interfered with the weather, and brought about cold weather in particular, and caused the failure of crops. They were basically held responsible for being climate criminals. If that sounds familiar to us now, that’s not surprising because we hear those terms today. People are called climate criminals. They’re damned for interfering with nature, for causing “weather of mass destruction,” as we call it now.
So, I draw a line between the climate witch hunts of the Medieval era and the climate witch hunting that I think we’re living through today.
In terms of a more rational response, I think the starting point has to be to defend our ability to talk about it rationally. Another point I make in the book is that I’m very interested in the way in which language is manipulated to manipulate thought. This is a point George Orwell made very often — that people who control language are often really looking to control how we think. And I think that’s very clear on the climate change issue, and the way in which the language around it changes all the time. You very rarely hear people talk about climate change now, it’s usually “climate emergency.” That’s the phrase that is used in The Guardian newspaper, for example, now, as part of their house style. I think it’s been adopted by The New York Times; there’s certainly pressure on The New York Times to adopt that phrase. And then other people use “climate apocalypse.”
Of course, the reason this changing language is important is because it’s very difficult to argue in relation to a climate apocalypse that we can be rational and we can solve this problem. Because an apocalypse, of course, is the end of the world. It’s the end of everything. You can’t really put forward a manufacturing or technological solution to an apocalypse. So, the changing language shrinks how we are able to think about this issue, and the solutions we’re able to put forward.
The first step has to be to demand rational discussion of how serious the problem is, and what kind of solutions we can come up with.
And then, I think, my preferred approach is to have an approach to world affairs which emphasizes the importance of alleviating poverty first. Let’s not forget, 3 billion people still live in dire poverty. Growth, the development of energy, the development of industry and infrastructure — I think those are the most important things. And once we’ve achieved some of that, we can talk about how to offset the consequences of those things in a rational way. And what technological means we use to offset our impact on the climate? That’s my preferred approach to this issue.
TH: Going from the climate change conversation to the Covid conversation is a natural progression, in [exploring] this idea that humanity is a plague on the planet. Your Covid chapter was so interesting. You write, “From the start, Covid-19 was both a physical threat and a metaphor, both a real disease and a symbol, both a serious sickness and an allegory for what the elites view as the sickness of human society. In particular, the sickness of unrestrained social engagement, of unchecked speech, of human noise.” You also write that the Covid phenomenon became a kind of parable of human toxicity. Can you unpack that for us?
BO: That chapter is heavily influenced by Susan Sontag. Some of your listeners will be familiar with Susan Sontag, and especially her most famous work, or one of her most famous works, which was called Illness as Metaphor, published in the 1970s. She basically takes a historical look at the different ways in which sicknesses have been turned into metaphors for human society itself. Plagues were often seen as an expression of God’s divine displeasure with humankind. Everyone knows that example. Or, sexually transmitted diseases were often treated as punishment for immoral behaviour, sinful behaviour. So, I take her thesis and apply it to Covid. That chapter is called “Covid as Metaphor.” What I argue in that is that we often see lockdown, for example, as a natural policy response to this pandemic. But I’m not convinced that it was. I mean, I’m convinced that we may have needed restrictions of one form or another. I would have preferred them to be voluntaristic restrictions rather than enforced by law. But the point I make is that I think lockdown was actually an expression of an idea that existed before Covid, which is that human be human beings are pretty toxic people. This is the era of the “safe space,” for example, where we’re often hiding away from difficult ideas or problematic people. This is the era of extreme atomization, where we cut ourselves off from other people. And the language of disease has been flowing through public life for years — long before Covid. You know, we talk about ideas being viral, we talk about parents being toxic. We talk about the disease of problematic thinking, and the impact it can have on the body and self-esteem.
I think all of these things have contributed to a view of people as a plague — firstly on the planet, through the impact that we apparently have on the climate, but also a plague on each other. We’re a threat to each other. And I find that a very depressing illiberal, anti-solidarity idea. As someone, like you, who comes from the left, I’m very interested in solidarity, how people can connect, how people can work out what they have in common rather than what distinguishes them from each other.
So, I argue that Covid really brought to a head all of those preexisting prejudices about human beings, how we behave, how we think, and how we need to be controlled. So I argue that essentially lockdown was a depressing victory for an anti-human idea. And I would prefer that we erred on the side of freedom and choice and encouraging people to take responsibility for themselves, rather than treating us all as vectors of disease who have to be quarantined from each other.
TH: You pointed to that idea of silence during the pandemic — that we all just need to shut up and stop talking. The idea that a lack of speech can help solve the problem of the virus has now transmuted into this idea that there’s an avalanche of misinformation. And that now, speech needs to be shut down online, as opposed to in person. Can you speak to that?
BO: I first noticed this during the first wave itself, in mid-2020, where there were lots of reports saying, “Look, stop talking.” That’s basically what they said. “Stop talking to your neighbours. Stop talking to people you see in the supermarket. Because every time you talk, you are potentially expressing a disease particle.” There were lots of articles around, saying, “The way to solve this pandemic is by shutting up. Just be quiet.” And then, there were other examples, even when things opened up. Experts said, “Don't speak in restaurants. Sit there in silence with your friends, because you might spread disease.” Which is such a bizarre suggestion. Salisbury Cathedral, here in the UK, they did these tests on hymn singing. They tested how far the singer’s spittle was flying when they were singing hymns to God. If it flew over a certain distance, then they would ban hymn singing entirely.
I thought to myself, “Even in a church. You cannot even sing to the Lord. You cannot even express yourself in that way.” Even there, they were demanding silence. So, I think that, again, was a metaphor for the desire to just make people be quiet and to stop exercising our freedom to speak so often. And then it got expressed in the culture around Covid, where very often anyone who criticized lockdown or mask mandates or other policies, they were instantly denounced as granny killers, people who were dangerous and reckless, and they were using their voice in a very problematic way.
The thing that really topped it off for me is that it wasn’t even speech that was done face-to-face that they treated as problematic, but even speech that took place online. Of course, you can’t spread a disease online. That’s not possible. But even there, they talked about “the plague of misinformation,” and “the disease of misinformation.”
So, you had this situation where if you went outdoors and spoke to your neighbour, you might get sick. If you went online and spoke to a stranger 3,000 miles away, you might get sick. The whole idea they were pushing is that it wasn’t only Covid that was a threat. But so was speech, uncontrolled speech, people’s ideas. It all got wrapped up, I think, in that crusade to try to control how people think and how they speak. That’s very often these days wrapped up in the idea of misinformation, and the idea that they have to control misinformation in case it spreads too far and wide.
TH: In this book, you tackle so many difficult subjects. And one of those difficult subjects is in the chapter, “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” You explore the rise of homophobia on the left …