BOGOTÁ — There is a curious new twist to a longstanding political phenomenon, and we see it popping up around the world. Provocation and outrageous behavior is switching sides.
Crossing the line has been a part of culture since poets like Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, with their disheveled hair and shabby clothes, used to challenge the bourgeois customs in the 19th century. Avant-garde visual artists and political activists alike have used their skills to mock the establishment, whether it was Spanish painter Salvador Dalí, a master of undermining the status quo, or the Yippies who fielded a pig as a candidate for the 1968 U.S. presidential elections.
Counter-culture messages were always easy to spread when there was agitation in the air. Anything making waves or changing the natural order of things is news, and the media would naturally gaze, in fascination or horror, at these phenomena that shock our routines. It wasn’t surprising then that cultural rebels were always in the news.
But while these strategies of provocation used to be a tool for the Left, they have now been usurped by the far-right.
I am thinking of that gray member of the European parliament, Poland’s Janusz Korwin-Mikke, someone we would never have heard of were it not for his Nazi salutes in the chamber and his primitive remarks about women. Or take the Spanish Catholic group, HazteOír (Make Yourself Heard), of dubious far-right provenance, which has about 50,000 local fans after plastering anti-transgender messages on a traveling bus. Or the polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos, a kind of muse for the Trump era, who was until recently a regular guest at gatherings of conservative student societies where he would put his reality TV skills on show, speaking his mind and its misogynist and racist inanities.
The angle from which far-right parties are mounting their attack.
This shift in roles shows that Western societies have changed. Those who used to need to make noise to be heard are now running museums, universities, parliaments and media companies. They won the cultural war against moral rigidity but have left the field wide open for loud provocation and political diatribe that the far-right has usurped.
It is no coincidence that various xenophobic European parties bear the word “Freedom” in their names. The Left's cultural triumph has given legitimacy to sexual freedom and have censored expressions of contempt for difference. That’s precisely the angle from which far-right parties are mounting their attack. Their discourse, left out of mainstream political debate and institutions, is charging back with counter-culture slogans and by lambasting the establishment.
But at this moment, let us remember a central lesson of the past and not give in to the temptation to use censorship against the tactics of provocation.