Inglorious U-turn: Fringes of the Left

No, not Lord Carey.

Certainly not Ann.


“U turn” is something of a misnomer. Partial turn. More balanced appraisal of the situation. You know. Something. Words.

See, after the Carey post, several theists talked to me, very civilly and making altogether more sense than I have so far. They argued that there is a phalanx that is infringing on the free speech of the religious, under various left-wing guises. This was interesting, so I thought I’d throw a bipolar and spend the afternoon biting the hand that, if not feeds, at least tends to pat on the back. How muddlesome.

Hugo to the rescue

To clear my concerns up somewhat, I will rest on the shoulders of my superiors’ eloquence – in this case Hugo Rifkind, writing in Speccie. He argues that there is a great pragmatic chasm between accusing our opponents of being ‘evil’ versus being ‘stupid’. Saying someone is stupid is perfectly valid (unless you stray into blatant ad hom territory)– by arguing against them, you are already strongly implying that you think their understanding of the issue, or their solution, is flawed. Whenever you critically examine anyone else’s points and find discrepancy, you are saying they’re stupid. My long lists of biases all condemn the electorate’s stupidity. And that’s fine. One’s opponents tend to have equally strong opinions of one’s own intellect. We are predisposed to thinking that basically everyone else in the world is less intelligent that us in any issue on which we hold a strong view. And that’s fine. That’s what debate needs.

“Evil” is a whole other matter. Labelling someone as ‘evil’ is utterly unconstructive, and tends to only pander to the tastes of those who’d already agree with you. Of course, fluffily postmodern me denies the term entirely, but that’s almost besides the point. Labelling people as ‘evil’ as opposed to argument-wrong [i.e. not ‘morally wrong’] is, if not an actual attack on free speech, then at least a heavy contributor to a climate or consensus that allows the quasi-evilmonger’s opinions to be legislated against. Which isn’t cool.

Now, Rifkind was mostly looking at the problem of dismissing Tories as evil rather than actually looking at what they’re up to, as in:

[Throwing around negative moral rhetoric] means the argument that tax cuts promote growth falls on deaf ears (because evil Tories cut taxes to help their evil friends) and the argument that benefit cuts incentivise the jobless does, too (because evil Tories just hate the poor). It turns every sensible policy on its head. No, Michael Gove isn’t sacrificing Britain’s schoolchildren in order to beat up the teaching unions. That’s what an evil person would do. Rather, he wants schools to be better, and couldn’t give a monkey’s toss about teaching unions. He may be wrong (I don’t think he is wrong), but he is not being sly. See also, the NHS. See everything. There is no soaring, state-slashing, everything-privatising agenda, not for its own sake. None of this is a trick.

He does touch on the Marriage Debate, but he goes a little flippant as he dances around a straw archbishop and ignores Carey’s/Chiver’spoint. Their point was that theists’ views on legal issues were being shouted down in a way that de facto limited free speech. Now, they didn’t argue it very well. Not a single exemplum. Not much discussion on how these limits manifest, and far too much hyperbole on where they might lead. Nevertheless, I have been convinced that they have something of a point, and that elements of the ‘left’ are being hypocritical in their free speech devotion. Let’s examine this.

The basic point seems to be that society’s pro-homosexuality consensus (with which I agree) is creating a “climate of oppression” in which even attempting to argue otherwise is sinful. Not misguided or moronic, but evil. Carey apparently understood Clegg’s deleted ‘bigot’ label as an example of the latter – an example of mainstream theist thought to be only a step away from (illegal) ‘hate speech’. This seems genuinely problematic, especially when there is overwhelming sociological, biological, psychological and interpersonal data we can and do use to support marriage arguments.

It’s especially ironic, given that a number of queer groups oppose the marriage campaign on the basis that marriage itself is a defunct, privilege-inducing institution and that allowing homosexuals into it merely moves one heretofore-unprivileged bloc into the privileged sphere, rather than abolishing the separate spheres altogether, thereby keeping other groups (i.e. polygamous, trans*) out in the cold. Are they evil by virtue of their opposition, however different their reasoning might be from Carey’s?

This ties into the recent spate of prosecutions (or calls for prosecutions) we’ve had for social media offenses (e.g. making jokes about April Jones, the army or Tom Daley), and Director of Public Prosecutions Kier Starmer’s new guidelines. These are conflating the consensus-defined abhorrent with the state-acted illegal. Here, then, is the lacking ‘middle step’ in Carey’s slippery slope. Here, we’re going from admittedly vague insults against the Tweeter to actual legislation defining what is and isn’t ‘offensive’. When theists see this, see social and work stigmatism or ostracism, then think that their own unpopular views are a few steps from being outlawed, I might have been overstating my ‘spectre’ argument. It might well be a form of gaslightingto deny theists’ experiences and future-of-religious-freedom fears. It’s far off, sure. It’s unlikely, sure. But perhaps it’s worth chatting about. Although I still wouldn’t mention the Nazis.

That’s great Jaime, but is there anything concrete? It looks like you’re just convinced by the spectre

Apparently there is, actually. When the Oxford Union tried to host Nick Griffin, and when the BBC had the same man on Question Time, death threats were flung about willy-nilly. Protesters outside the BBC hospitalised a policeman. That doesn’t seem very consistent or responsible of people who are presumably anti-fascist. Apparently any demographic (i.e. pro-and anti-racial separation) has its share of nutters.

This somewhat chimes with my arguments around Rushdie and Islam. It is fundamentally important that, whilst it is permissible to attack the views of others, it is terribly dangerous to censor them. In the marriage debate, then, let us continue to proudly set out how wrong Widdecombe and Carey are. But not how evil.

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6 thoughts on “Inglorious U-turn: Fringes of the Left

  1. Great Blog! Whilst I agree that “evil” is not a helpful word to be throwing around, it seems to make sense to say of Widdecombe and Carey and relevant people on all sides of the free speech discussions that their actions may be unkind or insensitive or some such. What I want to ask is as to whether we could take “evil” as a rather clumsy synonym for something like the above: very unkind? If we were to agree to that, then we might understand “Carey’s speech is evil” (which is (at least to our collective postmodern ear) a pretty limp value judgement) as predicating “Carey’s speech” with “is insensitive” thus saying something worthwhile and apparently identifying an actual problem with Carey’s speech. If our modern use of “evil” is synonymous with unkindness then it does seem to advance the debate, at least in some sense and we might legitimately describe people or actions as evil without fear of ad hominem. (though I think we’re going to need to cash out the evil/unkind value-judgement-distinction in a way that isn’t question begging)

    I may have missed the point entirely (and now fear I have), but I am tired and am too far in to delete anything now.

    • I certainly don’t think you’ve missed the point, but perhaps have extrapolated a little too far for your own.
      1.) It is far from the consensus that calling Carey’s speech ‘evil’ is equivalent to calling it ‘insensitive’ or ‘very unkind’. I tend to read a bunch of related blogs and articles before I write on a topic, and I invite you to do the same and see that a fair number do seem to be accusing the Xians of a moral failing, not a misunderstanding or ill-thought-out manner of speaking. Indeed, if we take the specific ‘bigot’ phantom-example, it would be difficult to argue that (to the majority of vernacular speakers) it was synonymous with either of your descriptors (although with a healthy overlap, given.)

      2.) The English language, as you ably demonstrated, has more explicit terms than ‘evil’ for ‘insensitive’, which those who mean such terms should probably use to avoid the ambiguity and near-pointlessness of ‘evil’.

      3.) Whilst a hypothetical commentator labelling Carey’s speech ‘unkind and insensitive’ might well be more accurate (from my point of view), the second half of this post deals with the specific dangers of a publicly-defined ‘sensitivity’ benchmark creating a very dangerous legal precedent. I.e. if Carey and his ilk were calling for their own views, however outmoded, unpopular, unkind or insensitive, to be Legal.

      • I think I probably agree with you; really my argument was just an attempt to offer a semi-plausible alternative (on reflection though, the idea that evil is synonymous with unkind seems pretty unlikely!).

  2. As a strange sort of leftie myself, it is always important to be self-aware of our own flaws-best example of this I have ever read is Orwell’s ‘Selected Essays’ where he lambasts his left compatriots for stalinist apologism and a complete intolerance of the partial benefits capitalism can bring (though he also kicks entire free-market philosophy’s head in). To be socratic and enlightened in a tolerant society, in any argument that we have about liberatarian issues (european style, not american mind!), we should be mindful that are opponents are not generally immoral, stupid or even stupified people. Mostly, their perspective stems from a wish to make the world better through an application of the ideology which they hold dear. It is genuine, this good feeling, and not to be dismissed by us even when we disagree with their rationale. I would (unoriginally) propose that seeing someone’s point of view, trying to bridge the gap and understand their position, is at the heart of all civilised and worthwhile debate. Not merely to dissect it, but to reach accord and compromise.

  3. Pingback: Archbishop Carey: A Reply | Haywire Thought

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