Revolutions invariably eat their children.
It’s an almost inevitable fact of history. The expression was coined by a royalist journalist during the French Revolution, Jacques Mallet du Pan. But perhaps, if tweaking was needed, more often than not revolutions eat their parents. Think Robespierre in France; Trotsky in Soviet Russia; Röhm in Nazi Germany.
So it should come as no surprise that two of the most notable advocates of identity politics from recent decades – Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell – should find themselves ‘de-platformed’ for their (now) transgressive views: Greer for her apparent transphobia and Tatchell for supposed racism and transphobia.
Now, obviously, there’s too much going on here for soundbite responses. But at least one factor here is the question of how to protect the vulnerable from being hurt or insulted. That, at its best, is what political correctness is all about (as I touched on in a couple of articles for GCL a while back).
But the taking of offence at views to which one objects has now become commonplace. It is now a debating tactic. Instead of saying, “I think you’re wrong because… XYZ”, the resort has too easily become “Your views have really hurt/upset/offended me”. It’s ingenious. A grown-up discussion is thus derailed, perhaps permanently. Etiquette demands apologies and contrition. Just for holding a different view. And it puts opponents (regardless of what they are advocating) onto the back foot, which is exactly where you want them before your final coup de grâce.
This derives from one of the key insights of postmodern thinkers: namely that the power of the powerful has prevented them from acknowledging, let alone hearing, the voices of the weak. Thus there is a moral imperative to correct this imbalance, often through being sceptical of the viewpoints of the powerful precisely because of their power. This has now become a crude tool for bludgeoning opponents into silence, especially when they advocate something politically incorrect.
But before I spell out this next tentative step, let me clarify what I’m not saying:
I’m not suggesting that it is acceptable to give offence deliberately – whether by being obnoxious, cruel or vicious. Some (especially at the political, and perhaps even theological extremes) seem to specialise in that. That is, of course, an instance of incivility (not truth).
- Nor is it fair in the slightest to deny the need to give voice to those who have hitherto been silenced or marginalised. But it requires us all to stop this nonsense of refusing opposing views simply because they might be offensive or difficult to hear.
- Nor should it be a means to prevent people calling out genuinely offensive or threatening attitudes.
But can we please try to stop this nonsense of refusing opposing views simply because they might be offensive or difficult to hear. It is a brave person these days who stands against the prevailing winds. They should be heard and debated, not de-platformed and rejected.
So here’s the next tentative step.
Never be offensive (obviously). But always resist the use of being offended as a tactic to silence the opposition.