On Justice and Open Debate

I support free and open debate. I support what the authors of A Letter call “good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.” What I don’t support are threats, harassment and abuse. And I oppose people who use their power and privilege to oppress the less powerful and less privileged.

I don’t think it’s too fine a distinction. Arguments are not hard to spot; they are based on reasons, ideally on evidence, and they support some point of view. The other sort of discourse looks nothing like this. It is – at best – dogma supported by more dogma. More often, it’s just a stream of verbal attacks. It is a pernicious form of dialogie, and it ought quite rightly to be censured.

Let’s just for the moment take the following as a given:

“Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts.”

Let’s think about what this means. Voices that have been silenced, often violently, in the past have now finally reached the point where they are being heard, and where some of the reforms they are proposing are actually being enacted. These arguments are based on concrete evidence, not the least of which was video of a man being murdered in broad daylight by the police.

But there’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there?

“But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”

I think we can agree that it has awakened a new set of moral attitudes, among them including things like “‘driving while black’ is not a crime”, “it is wrong to simply look away from sexual abuse and rape”, and “advocating for white supremacy is not acceptable”. From my perspective these are long past due, but in some circles of society, they have taken a lot longer to take root.

But these new norms, and others like them, do nothing to weaken our norms of open debate. There are and always have been many many things you simply cannot advocate and expect to keep your job or your publishing contract. Try selling some child pornography and see how your career fares, for example. Advocate for the use of hard drugs, and see what the reaction is. Support and campaign for communism. Call for the defenestration of the wealthy. Deny the Holocaust. You get the idea – nobody does or would support any of these things, and we would not be surprised if people did not vigorously respond, if not throw you in jail outright. And for good reason.

In recent years there has been enough evidence to convince people that this list should be extended, if for no other reason than that the right has been acting as though no such rules apply. From the Bush doctrine that (among other things) legitimized pre-emptive war and sanctioned torture, to the Trump doctrine of sanctioned racism, extrajudicial violence, recognition of Nazis as “good people” and a “grab her by the pussy” ethic, it has become clear that a fundamentally immoral set of values has taken hold in our elite.

I think the case against invasion, torture, racism, fascism, sexism, and LGBT rights opposition has advanced far beyond “ideological conformity”, because I think there are no longer (if there ever were) any good faith arguments to be made in favour of those positions. What the events of the last few years have shown is that support for them is based in nothing more than blunt assertion of power and privilege, and not reason and argument at all. And that opposition to them is an equally blunt – and morally just – rejection of them.

Jessica Valenti offers a nice recap of the behaviours that are being defended by the authors of the Letter. The professor who was investigated was a white teacher at UCLA who used the n-word repeatedly in class. The editor who lost his job ran a piece advocating the use of military force against peaceful protesters. An author published bigoted ideas and debunked myths about trans women. Another editor published an essay by Jian Ghomeshi, who has been accused by more than 20 women of sexual assault.

None of these constitutes a good faith argument. They are all, respectively, attacks on their targets of hate. They are incitements to violence, to social reprisals against the victims of these attacks, simply because the victims pushed back. As Valenti writes, “The only speech these powerful people seem to care about is their own: They want to be able to say whatever they want without consequence, and to paint themselves as the victims even as they wield more institutional and systemic power than anyone criticizing them.”

The push-back is not against dialogue or discussion, but instead against a wall of hard-right propaganda that seeks to undermine the fundamental principles of democracy. There’s no reason why we should accept that in a democratic society; being offensive isn’t the same as offering an argument in favour of it. It’s not that the proponents are arguing in favour of fascism, they are fascist, and expecting us to recognize that as acceptable. They are racist, they are misogynist, they are intolerant. And when we run up against them in the office or on the street, we won’t turn away, but we will confront them, and refuse them the power and the privilege they desire.

And let’s be clear, also, that none of the so-called ‘reprisals’ against those referenced by the authors of a Letter come close to actual illiberalism. Look at what the responses are – an editor loses his job, a writer doesn’t get a book published, a journalist is told not to write about something, professors are investigated, a researcher is fired, heads of organizations are ousted. These pale in comparison to actual illiberalism practiced by their ilk as recently as, well, this week.

The writers of the Letter cannot have it both ways. They cannot argue that they should have carte-blanche to write and behave in any way they please, without regard to the people they harm, while at the same time saying that the people being harmed should not write and behave in ways that defend themselves against that harm. If they really think illiberalism is the danger, then perhaps they should look in the mirror. They are the danger.

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