Tyranny of certainty stands in the way of change


Martin Shipton is used to writing the news but now he has become the news.

The Western Mail’s chief reporter has been dropped from the judging panel of Wales Book of the Year for a series of tweets about a Black Lives Matter protest in Cardiff.

Shipton, a staple of Welsh journalism for decades, pointed out that this gathering broke the lockdown introduced to control a virus that had cost ‘many more lives than the Minneapolis police’.

He was certainly not defending the actions of officers in the death of George Floyd; indeed, he described them as ‘murder’. Rather, Shipton was arguing that ‘holding a demo in front of Cardiff Castle’ about something that happened half way around the world was ‘politically naive and virtue signalling’. The Twitter Inquisition, which everyone expects at this point, gathered their torches and out a-heretic-burning they went. Shipton, for his part, defended himself in decidedly robust terms, prompting Literature Wales to axe him for ‘aggressive language’.

I have met Shipton and briefly worked alongside him. He struck me as a staunch liberal who took the progressive position on all the big issues of the day. Ironically, I recall him being especially acidic about the uptick of racism occasioned, as he saw it, by the rise of populist politics in Britain and the United States. For voicing the wrong opinion on protest tactics he is now beyond the pale.

He is not the only one. Manx Radio host Stu Peters has been suspended after questioning the doctrine of ‘white privilege’ on-air. When a black caller referred to ‘white people’s privilege’, Peters responded: ‘I’ve had no more privilege in my life than you have.’ His radio station referred itself to the communications watchdog and issued a statement declaring it ‘does not condone racism in any form amongst its staff ’.

That tension is in the air is hardly surprising after the killing of Mr Floyd. From the two post-mortems performed and the video of his arrest, it is clear that his final minutes were filled with terror and suffering. His death was a tragedy but it was more than that: it was an outrage. Thousands have filled the streets to protest peacefully against what they see as police racism but others have rioted, looted and attacked the police.

The potential for turning the peaceful protests into meaningful change is being undermined by a refusal to engage in dialogue. Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey, who is sympathetic to the protests, was booed and heckled out of one rally because he would not agree to abolish the city’s entire police department.

The stoutly liberal New York Times also backs the demonstrators but, among its reams of supportive columns, it published one op-ed by a Republican senator calling for the military to quell the riots. Inflammatory, no doubt, but a stance supported by 58 per cent of US voters. Not 800 New York Times staff members, though, who signed an open letter condemning their own newspaper for running the op-ed, with many insisting that ‘running this puts black New York Times writers, editors and other staff in danger’.

There is a lot of raw, quite justifiable anger over these events, but that is not the root cause of this intense hostility towards different ideas. It has been roiling away for some time now. Entire swathes of opinion that run contrary to progressive thinking are being designated ‘problematic’, then ‘inappropriate’, before those who espouse them are finally ‘cancelled’.

In public debates about mainstream policy and ideas, the object is no longer to beat the other side but to prevent the other side from speaking.

Not all that long ago the Left was the champion of free speech against conservatives who believed it was the state’s place to censor ideas, art and literature the community considered morally harmful. Liberals and radicals said they should be free to say and write and create whatever they wanted.

But in toppling the old moral standards and the establishment that guarded them, progressives have imposed their own standards. Unsurprisingly, the new establishment is just as enthusiastic about suppressing ideas that scandalise its morality as the old establishment was.

This orthodox liberalism, which bears only a passing resemblance to actual liberalism, is rigid, doctrinaire and angrily intolerant of dissent.

It displays a religious, near fanatical, conviction that its opponents are not merely wrong but wicked, sinful, in need of wrathful destruction. Once you convince yourself that those who disagree are evil, you no longer feel the need to listen to them and eventually you decide no one else should listen to them either.

The tyranny of certainty runs through all sectors, from the arts and the media to academia and business. More than 300 Guardian staff penned a letter to their editor condemning Left-wing columnist Suzanne Moore for her views on gender. The Right-wing actor Laurence Fox was denounced by his own actors’ union for expressing his contempt for the concept of ‘white privilege’ on Question Time.

On the university campuses, no-platforming – a tactic designed to counter fascists – is being deployed against radical feminists who assert that sex is a biological fact. Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd was disinvited to an Oxford University society over her handling of the Windrush scandal. The university’s student union council has called for the removal from the curriculum of teaching materials perceived as ‘hateful’.

Even the impeccably liberal JK Rowling is reviled for saying terms like ‘woman’ should not be erased lest it becomes harder for women to speak up for their rights. If you think the Harry Potter author, who has given away much of her fortune to progressive causes, is a reactionary, God help you when you get off social media and encounter the rest of humanity.

The Scottish Government is particularly guilty of this behaviour. Its ‘Dear Bigots’ advertising campaign was justly criticised for trying to place great lengths of the political and religious spectrum beyond legitimate debate. Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf’s Hate Crime Bill does much the same in seeking to regulate speech and even plays deemed ‘abusive’ or ‘insulting’ to certain groups.

Underlying all this is the conviction that views outwith a narrow progressive consensus are more than just wrong, or even wicked, but actively dangerous. There is a theory in international relations called securitisation and it goes something like this: if you want to take an issue out of the realm of politics, you frame it as a matter of national security.

Once a subject has been ‘securitised’ it is not a topic for public debate and must be dealt with urgently by prime ministers, Army chiefs and experts. A commonly cited example is the UK’s involvement in the Iraq War, which went from a national conversation about the merits of joining US forces to a security situation in which Saddam Hussein’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’ posed an immediate threat to British lives and interests.

Progressive censors are trying to apply this technique to speech and ideas of which they disapprove. In making alternative opinions a threat to the security or well-being of particular groups or society at large, they are essentially declaring politics to be finished. People who behave like this do not want a conversation, they are in the business of issuing orders.

This mindset is much more dangerous than the unpopular, obnoxious or reactionary views it seeks to squelch. Once you decide only your side may participate in the public discourse, and those who disagree must be shunned, shamed, kicked off a panel, or fired from their job, there no longer is a public discourse.

There is just you and those who think like you radiating virtue from an ever-narrowing circle of certainty that may one day become too small for you.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk. Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay.

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