Suppressing free speech has a long and bloody history. To see how violence and intimidation can be used to silence opponents, just look at the record of any tyrannical regime that’s ever existed.
And then there are more subtle methods. ‘Cancel culture’ is spoken of as if it were something new. It isn’t. You don’t need social media to whip up a mob. And as for attacking your getting opponents fired, that too goes all the way back. Administratively competent dictators usually sack their enemies before jailing or killing them. The same goes for ‘no platforming’ — another new name for a very old practice. If you control the public square then you can deny dissidents a voice.
This article is about the less obvious threats to free speech. I’m not referring to the constant bellendery of what happens online (and, increasingly, in the TV studio). Nor is this an article about the way in which spurious accusations of bigotry are used to tear down decent individuals (latest victim: Trevor Phillips).
Rather, my focus is on the tactics used to derail and discredit the practice of debate itself.
What makes these methods all the more harmful is that, at first sight, they appear to be justifiable — even virtuous. The biggest danger isn’t that they might be used against people of goodwill, but that they will be used by them.
Here are ten to watch out for:
1. Declaring ‘no-debate’
As important as argument is to democracy, there simply isn’t time for everyone to debate everything. There are certain issues that people just don’t want — or feel the need — to discuss. They should be under no pressure to do so: freedom of speech includes the freedom not to speak or even to listen.
The best way to deal with cranks and bigots is not to waste your energy dealing with them. After all, the great majority of reasonable people have more than enough disagreements on sensible subjects to be getting on with.
However, there’s a world between ignoring the obvious loonies and declaring certain issues to be settled or beyond question when, in fact, they’re still the subject of mainstream debate. In a free country, it’s not for anyone to take such authority upon themselves.
In any case, if you do declare no-debate, but people keep debating, what are you going to do about it? Any attempt to establish control over the public discourse — whether in the media, universities or the arts — rarely succeeds completely or permanently. For instance, ‘no-debate’ is a constant refrain among some transgender campaigners, but that hasn’t stopped the issue from being very hotly debated.
Nevertheless, by spending so much time on the meta-argument — about the terms of debate — we end-up neglecting the debate itself and thus any hope of progress.
2. Claiming that the science is settled
This one is a special case of declaring no-debate. It rests upon the assumption that questioning the scientific consensus is a potentially dangerous distraction. And on some issues, especially medical ones, that can be the case.
The facile counter-argument is that science is never settled. And, technically, that’s true. From time to time, some aspect of the scientific consensus is overturned. Nevertheless, some facts are so well established that they provide perfectly reasonable grounds for action. To never proceed on the basis of the best available evidence would be crazy.
So to avoid such insanity, should we suppress dissent? A hugely important example is climate change policy. For fear that public support for action might be undermined, do we declare no-debate on any opinion that diverges from the scientific consensus?
No, because such tactics will only backfire, making martyrs out of deniers. Furthermore, we’d risk suppressing legitimate and necessary discussion — for instance over how best to interpret and respond to the best available evidence.
No-debate tactics create an unhealthy dynamic in which people are forced to make a choice between complete compliance with the orthodoxy and entrenched opposition to it. There is no guarantee that the (mostly) right side will win and no space within which honest doubts can be aired and addressed.
In any case, crank science tends to wither away for lack of compelling evidence and credible supporters. Flat Earth debates don’t need to be suppressed: they’ll just become irrelevant because no one sensible turns up.
3. Emotional blackmail
The right to free speech does not include the right to harass and harangue those who have no wish to engage with you.
Of course, there are limits to the right to privacy, too — certainly when it comes to what happens in public.
So-called safe spaces blur the distinction between the public and the private. However, the real threat comes from the idea that claims of feeling ‘unsafe’ can be use to reach out and silence people peacefully expressing their opinions in contexts explicitly set aside for purposes of debate. Consider the attacks on the Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore — who is now the target of a campaign by her own colleagues because she expressed her opinions in an opinion column.
But this sort of thing isn’t limited to the Left. Though Right-wingers don’t really go in for displaying their own emotional vulnerabilities, they don’t mind using the fears of others as emotional blackmail. A prime example is the charge that climate change campaigners are scaring children.
Obviously there’s a problem if the kids are too young, or being propagandised instead of taught by their teachers. That said, there’s no denying that climate change is frightening — but that doesn’t change the facts. Older pupils, who we shouldn’t wrap in cotton wool, need to hear them — and the associated arguments.
Facts and logic, unlike emotion, are objective. They provide a basis on which all arguments can be examined consistently. However, there is no consistency in the way in which different people feel about a particular argument. It’s not that feelings can be kept out of public discourse, but they shouldn’t be allowed to dictate what does and doesn’t get heard.
4. Accusations of gaslighting
Gaslight is a 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman as a woman whose husband tries to convince her she’s going mad. It’s a classic story of psychological manipulation — and the origin of the term ‘gaslighting’, which is when abusers attempt to make their victims doubt their own experience of being abused.
It’s a useful name for an all-too-real phenomenon. And yet it can also be misused — weaponised as an accusation to shut down debate. Argument, by its very nature, is an attempt to get the person you’re arguing with to change their mind, to see things differently, to question their basic assumptions. Because of these parallels, it’s easy to lob in a charge of gaslighting — and thus present the accused as an abuser and to characterise debate itself as a form of abuse.
If you don’t believe me, just do a Twitter search on the word ‘gaslighting’. Most the tweets that come up, including many of those from blue tick accounts, use the term with casual abandon. Pro- and anti-Trumpers are especially fond of describing the claims and counter-claims of the other side as gaslighting, when what they’re actually referring to is argument (albeit of very low quality).
If your opponents are talking a load of rubbish, then, by all means, dispute their evidence; but don’t throw around half-understood, but very serious, accusations of emotional abuse.
5. Accusations of ‘mansplaining’
‘Mansplaining’ is another new word for something that does actually happen. Google it and you’ll find endless examples of men explaining things to women in a patronising and unsolicited manner.
And yet, like gaslighting, the definition has been stretched to breaking point; the word is used to silence people not because of what they’ve said or how they’ve said it, but simply for who they are. The twisted logic goes like this: you’re a man, you’re explaining, therefore you’re mansplaining, therefore shut up.
Last year, the Labour MP Catherine West appeared in a televised exchange with the Green Party politician Jonathan Bartley. West had just argued that Jeremy Corbyn was “green before the greens existed”, but when Bartley tried to interject, West repeatedly told him to stop mansplaining (“I’ve asked you three times”). Well, he is a man, but as co-leader of the Green Party he was perhaps well-placed to dispute West’s statement — especially given that the occasion was a debate between politicians, not a speech from one of them.
Mansplaining has inspired a whole string of other neologisms — ‘whitesplaining’, ‘cisplaining’ etc. And, of course, there are anti-PC mirror-image terms like ‘womansplaining’. It’s a game at which all sides in the culture wars can play — but no substitute for a good argument.
6. Accusations of ‘white fragility’
Further to the above. I should point out that I’m a man who’s just explained what I think about mansplaining. This makes a mansplainer squared, so feel free to disregard.
I’m also white, so bear that in mind as I move on to the concept of ‘white fragility’. This basically means that when white people deny that they’re racist it’s actually proof that they are — because what they’re really complaining about is having their privilege challenged.
When white working class voters in rust belt states got Trump elected, liberal commentators were swift to blame racism (and not just on the part of the Trump campaign). If one assumes racism and regards denial of it as further evidence, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion. And yet the voter realignment of 2016 happened time-after-time in counties (especially in the rust belt) that had voted for Barack Obama in both 2012 and 2016. It’s not that there’s no racism, just that other factors — such as a preference for the candidate offering the greatest hope of change — may be the more important factor.
Incidentally, it doesn’t have to be white fragility. You can put any adjective you like in front of the noun and wave it around as an all-purpose rhetorical weapon. It’s like accusing someone of being defensive — there’s no way they can defend themselves. The ‘heads-I-win-tails-you-lose’ argument doesn’t provoke debate, it makes it impossible.
7. “I’m not here to educate you”
Speaking of rhetorical weapons, here’s another. Its purpose is not to silence your opponents, but to provide you with an excuse not to answer them.
In its proper context, the phrase “I’m not here to educate you” expresses the idea that members of oppressed groups are not responsible for explaining their oppression — and especially not to their oppressors. Quite right too. While it is the right of individuals to advocate for their community, it is certainly not a duty. In any case, the onus is on the people responsible for an injustice to undo it.
Ostensibly well-meant, but intrusive, questions from a member of one culture to another also merit the above reply. No one should be expected to serve as an ambassador for a community just because they happen to belong to it.
The trouble, of course, is that the use of “I’m not here to educate you” has mutated — being used in general argument as a get-out clause (and one that makes the other person look like the fool). If you didn’t want to get into a debate in the first place, then fair enough, but if you did and you’ve been challenged on something you’ve said, then it is your job to stand your claims up or concede the point.
8. Who funds you?
Does it matter who funds a think tank or a publication? Yes, it does.
But if they won’t tell you, and the law doesn’t require them to, that doesn’t alter the validity of their arguments. Facts are facts, and lies are lies, irrespective of who pays for them to be communicated.
So, beyond the quality of the evidence presented, what’s the objection? That those in receipt of undisclosed funds might not personally believe in what they’re saying? If that’s the problem then does that mean we should ban the advertising and PR industries?
“Who funds you?” is a question that’s especially asked of free market think tanks. As believers in low taxes and minimal regulation, they unsurprisingly attract commercial sponsorship. But note that the money follows the ideology, not the other way round.
If the folks spouting off a load of libertarian nonsense about, say, smoking were only doing it for the cash then why wouldn’t they do it for some public affairs company instead, where the pay’s better?
To refuse to engage with their arguments or, even worse, to seek to have them excluded from mainstream public discourse altogether, betrays a lack of confidence in the counter-argument. It’s also a wasted opportunity; if these people really are no more than a front for vested interests, then why pass up on a rare chance to confront their propaganda head-on?
So while “who funds you?” is a pertinent question, it’s a rotten end to a conversation.
9. Alt democracy
In a free society, debate can take place just about anywhere — from the pub to the poshest dinner party. In reality, though, some arenas matter more than others — Parliament, for instance, or the opinion pages of a national newspaper.
Those who wish to devalue the outcome of this high level public discourse (because they keep losing) can always cry foul — pointing to issues like the influence of money on party politics or the ownership of newspapers. The system isn’t working, they say — we need an alternative.
And thus we see proposals for things like ‘democratic control’ of the media or for alternative decision-making bodies such as citizen assemblies. What all these proposals have in common is that they replace bottom-up mechanisms like universal suffrage and letting individuals decide which publications they want to read, with systems in which debate is managed from the top down — and which deny most people a direct say.
This ‘alt-democracy’ might have some peripheral uses — for instance in conducting public consultation exercises, but as a substitute for our established democratic institutions it is a threat to liberty.
If debate is to be curated, it must be by directly-elected representatives that everyone has a chance to vote in or out, or by media outlets that everyone can decide to pay attention to or ignore.
10. The catastrophisation of disagreement
It’s taken a real catastrophe (Coronavirus) to drive Brexit from the headlines. But for most of the last four years, Leave versus Remain has torn us apart as a nation (supposedly).
Indeed, for some people the deep divisions over the issue were as worrying as the issue itself.
But why shouldn’t we have massive disagreements about matters of huge importance? The alternative is to not let people have their say — or, at least, not in any way that might make a difference. To avoid heated debate we must, in effect, let one side win without a contest — either fossilising the status quo or to granting a cultural elite exclusive influence over the pace and direction of social change. That might make for a quieter life, but it isn’t democracy.
We should be concerned if our politics is becoming more polarised, but if that’s really the case it surely makes free and open debate all the more important.