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24 February 2021

The Slate Star Codex saga proves a new blasphemy code is emerging among liberals

What a New York Times report on a popular blog reveals about progressives’ difficult relationship with free speech. 

By Louise Perry

Scott Alexander’s real name is now in the public domain, but I won’t be using it in this column. He worked hard to protect his privacy during his seven years spent writing Slate Star Codex, a wildly popular blog that covered topics including medicine, politics and technology. And he had good reason to do so. For one thing, he is a practising psychiatrist who would rather not have his identity revealed to his patients. For another, he has never invited fame.

Slate Star Codex was recently the subject of an unflattering article in the New York Times that had long been anticipated by fans of the blog. When Cade Metz, the author of the Times report, contacted Alexander at the beginning of last year to tell him that he would be writing a piece, Metz allegedly led him to believe that the focus would be on Alexander’s prescient warnings about Covid 19. But, suspicious of the real motive, Alexander promptly deleted his blog, quit his job and took “steps”, he said, to protect his personal safety. This is a high price to pay for writing a free blog that just happened to have attracted a lot of readers, including many influential writers and businesspeople.

When the Times piece was finally published this month, it was clear Alexander was right to have been cautious. Not only did the article reveal Alexander’s real name, it also drew attention to various examples of his blasphemy in what many commentators have interpreted as a naked attempt to have him “cancelled”.

I don’t mean literal “blasphemy”: Alexander has not been criticised for taking the Lord’s name in vain. Rather, he has committed a modern, secular form of blasphemy, in that he has, at times, been a little too heterodox in his writing on race and gender: in 2017, for example, he argued there are innate psychological differences between men and women, and suggested these differences partially explain the under-representation of women in the sciences. Culturally and (mostly) politically, Alexander is a member of what he has described as the “Blue Tribe”: the Democrat-voting half of the American population. But he strayed outside the boundaries of what you are allowed to say publicly as a Blue Tribe member, and it is for this act of apostasy that he has been punished.

Of course, the Times piece never states this outright. Metz draws some shaky comparisons and casually mentions Alexander’s name alongside those of other blasphemers without proving a link between them. For a piece supposedly intended to explain why the blog is so popular, there is very little included on its actual content, and Alexander’s words are quoted sparingly. Thus the article makes sense only when understood as part of an effort to crack down on blaspheming – or, as the writer Fredrik deBoer put it: “Metz set out to destroy Alexander.”

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[see also: Twitter, the New York Times and why cancel culture is not about free speech]

Of course, the punishment is not nearly as severe as that meted out to other blasphemers in other times and places: a hit piece in the “Gray Lady” is hardly comparable to being burned at the stake. But this incident clearly reveals that, even though the old blasphemy laws have been out of use in the US and UK for the better part of a century, the offence has taken on a new form. We now live with codes that might be less explicit than they were in earlier eras, but they are still powerful.

We ought to be more honest about the continued existence of the blasphemy offence, because very few people are free speech absolutists, and every society recognises blasphemy in one form or another, albeit to varying degrees. You might even argue the code serves an important purpose: perhaps societies need such codes to function effectively, just as Émile Durkheim suggested societies depend on shared religious systems. There is a serious case to be made for suppressing speech, but nowadays you will rarely hear anyone make it. What is more common in this culture war age is to hear members of the transatlantic Blue Tribe pay lip service to the value of free speech, while casting out anyone who disobeys the unacknowledged blasphemy code.

Gary Lineker, for instance, played the progressive innocent when he asked recently on Twitter: “Does anyone in this country, aside from those incarcerated, not have free speech?” Not only is Lineker foolish to ignore the fact that some forms of speech are criminalised in the UK, he is also foolish to neglect the existence of rules that are not formalised but are nevertheless fiercely enforced. I can immediately think of half a dozen things that you definitely can’t say publicly without suffering serious social and professional consequences, and I don’t think I’m especially imaginative.

It is more unusual for Blue Tribe members to come out and say, as Layla Moran did recently on Question Time, that protecting free speech – for example, on university campuses – should “absolutely not” be a priority for the government. It may be jarring to hear this stated explicitly, not least by a would-be leader of the “Liberal” Democrats, but I must give Moran credit for honesty.

In fact, we could do with more of it. I would have liked to read Cade Metz, or anyone else at the Times, stating baldly why Scott Alexander needed to be exposed. Is there a purpose to our new, furtive blasphemy code? And if so, what is it? What exactly are we not allowed to say, and why not?

Twenty-year-old Thomas Aikenhead, the last person executed for blasphemy in Britain, wrote in a final letter, dated 8 January 1697, that “it is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to the truth, and to seek for it as for hid treasure”. It is a hopeful, beautiful sentiment, expressed by a young man facing a terrible fate – but, I’m sorry to say, I don’t think it’s true. 

[see also: Why debates about banning online anonymity miss the point]

This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks