But of course, we know the PC crowd is not having us on. These are smart people who really mean it. Smart because the PC virus has infected so much of what we do, what we read, how we live and how we think. It's the thinking part that should trouble us the most. By telling us what to think, political correctness is a heresy if we are truly committed to liberalism. And it seeps into so many parts of society, so often without us even paying attention to the aim.
Over the past few weeks, some on the Left have claimed that those of us who have raised questions about multiculturalism, immigration and the relationship between Islam and modernity have blood on our hands for the mass murder in Oslo. Here, murder is used as a muzzle to close down free speech. And this is just the latest addition to a growing list of tactics to curb free speech, and even worse, to stifle genuine inquiry.
Consider the other tricks in recent years. To close down discussion about, say, immigration or border control, you call your opponents racists and point to xenophobia in the community. Opponents are not just wrong, they're evil. Their views should not be aired in a civilised society.
But remember this: the stifling political correctness that rejected an open debate about immigration in the early 1990s helped fuel the emergence and popularity of Pauline Hanson. Another ruse is the victim game. We now live in an age when "feelings" are treated as a measurement of moral values. We live in what author Monica Ali calls "the marketplace of outrage" where groups vie for victimhood status, each claiming their feelings have been hurt more than others.
We have witnessed a familiar opera of Muslim oppression used to shut down debate. It starts with a book called Satanic Verses. Or a silly Danish cartoon. Or a film called Submission. Or a cheeky episode of South Park sending up the fact that Mohammed is the only guy free from ridicule. Then we hear that great aria of all accusations: Islamophobia.
The final act sees the West capitulate, muttering about hurt feelings and preferring the path of least resistance to launching a staunch defence of freedom of expression. And we are left with a new norm of anticipatory surrender and self-censorship.
The victim game works so well because it is augmented by the apparatus of the state. Legal prosecutions are mounting: politician Geert Wilders in Holland, writers Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant in Canada. And in Australia, Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt is defending a claim by a group of Aborigines that he "offended, insulted and humiliated" them in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act.
The PC crowd is clever. They know there are no useful legal tests about hurt feelings and inciting hate. They enact nice-sounding laws, build bureaucracies and wait for them to blossom and bludgeon free speech. They have effectively co-opted Islamic-style oppression to prohibit debate; be it about Islam or anything else they wish to fence off from free speech.
The other trick is to quietly exclude certain people from the national discourse. It is best summed up by a German word: totschweigtaktik. To be totsched is to be subjected to death by silence: books, ideas, people that challenge the status quo are simply ignored.
In Quadrant last year, Shelley Gare wrote that those who are totsched find "their efforts left to expire soundlessly like a butterfly in a jar". When Orwell wrote his 1938 classic Homage to Catalonia, which addressed Stalinist Russia's involvement in the Spanish Civil War, the left-wing literati simply ignored it.
By the time Orwell died in 1950, barely 1500 copies had been sold. As Gare traces, the same death by silence was used to ignore Australian writers such as Chris Kenny, who challenged the secret women's business behind the Hindmarsh Island affair. It was used when author Kate Jennings aimed her fire at the sisterhood, postmodernism and women's studies.
It's used by those who tell us that climate change will destroy us all if we do not act immediately. The sceptics are being totsched. Opposing views? What opposing views? Governments have their own tactics. Those with poor ideas and even worse policies resort to something best described as the bipartisanship racket.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd called for bipartisanship on indigenous policies. In fact, Rudd sought supine obedience to the rollback of the NT intervention. If you disagreed, you were charged with politicising an issue. Just imagine if similar calls from those defending the status quo had managed to shut out the ideas from people such as Noel Pearson. The very last thing we want is bipartisanship when it is used so blatantly to stifle dissent and vest moral authority in one voice.
A similar trick, the consensus con, emerged from Canberra last year. Treasury boss Ken Henry, touting the emissions trading system and the ill-fated super profits tax on mining companies, said he supported the "contest of ideas" but then said there were "occasions on which economists might, at least for a period, put down their weapons and join a consensus".
It sends shudders up your spine. But Henry lost that debate. And that's the point of free debate. It is the single most effective mechanism for disposing bad ideas. Ideas are not finessed through consensus or bipartisanship. If we are serious about defending free speech, vigilance demands that we look out for the tricks and that we test the trickery against first principles. The alternative means more moral disorientation and a weird Western death wish.
The principles are clear enough: free speech is not a Left-Right thing as Mark Steyn said. It's a free-unfree thing. You don't get to cry in favour of free speech just to defend those with whom you agree. And free speech must include the right to offend. If we prosecute offensive opinions, we just encourage ever more ridiculous claims to protection. We fuel that marketplace of outrage. And we end up shutting down the true genius of modern Western civilisation: the contest of ideas.