Free Speech

How We Communicate With Abominable Ideas

The Dutch elections are to be held on the 15th March and Wilders may just get the majority of seats. He won’t be leader, but the tension of rising numbers willing to side with him means I’ve been thinking about the way that we as a society debate reprehensible ideas. We tend to feel the theatre of open debate will help, when all that happens is people like Wilders exploit these gaps. Later when opponents concede or ape particular points in a vote chasing effort he can present it as his whole position being secretly correct. It’s an effective manipulation.

There is a weird tendency I’ve seen where someone will argue against a position not understanding why the other person holds it. For instance an individual might argue for “shutting all borders to Muslims because they are terrorists”, and their opponent will argue “we can’t turn away refugees fleeing from wars caused by terrorists”. This is not going to sway anyone who thinks that every┬áMuslim is a problem because it does not get to the root of their argument which is the intertwining of Islam and terrorism. We frame the fault in their statement as a lack of compassion, when really it is a faulty risk analysis and/or pure racist and xenophobic bigotry.

Coupled with this is the inclination to point out that a position is discriminatory, which doesn’t make much difference if discrimination was the point of the speech in the first place. If people are not starting with the same base ideals as us chatting to them as if they are doesn’t magically change their opinion. Nowadays we see how these linguistic tick boxes are used against us, to re-frame arguments so that a racist can slip in ‘human biodiversity’ in lieu of ‘segregation’ and ‘racial hierarchy’.

Wilders himself frequently uses LGBTQ rights to batter the idea of Dutch Muslims, a trick he borrowed from his populist predecessor Pim Fortyn. Lamenting that discrimination against Muslims is wrong when they are arguing that Muslims are the cause of discrimination, or pretending that a nod to our conventions means they are on the right track, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding. They are dragging the discussion over to their frame so that we are left picking holes out of politeness rather than opposing the concept as a whole.

Defending principles on the grounds that they are important enough to be re-articulated without concession is essential, as is not discarding values just because your opponent discards them in an attempt to win them over (I’m looking at you people suddenly now against freedom of movement). Yet having these pointless back-and-forth “debates” in public is just giving these groups the chances they require if they are to expand.

Perhaps the key flaw in a lot of liberal thinking is the idea that concepts we find repulsive will remain fringe if we allow the ideologies to talk themselves out of existence. It assumes others will find what we perceive to be self-evident truths and so these concepts will never gain wider traction. Yet even if that may be the case sometimes, in situations where you risk severe losses to bigoted ideas why even take the risk of exposing more people to them?

Why allow debates about the rights of individuals to be reopened under the guise of public speech when we have already settled the answer? Ultimately it ends up undermining your point by sending a signal that certain principles are negotiable. Giving Fatima an advocate, or letting her speak for herself, in a public debate about whether she should have rights is an abhorrent position to wilfully put anyone in.

Sometimes I suspect that this problematic style of argument develops because our first introduction to political discussions are often with family, where certain conventions of respect are expected to be followed. It’s much politer in conversation to say “I see your point, but here’s the issue” than “That is a ghastly opinion to hold and I think that if you genuinely hold it you are an awful person.” Breaking out from the instinctive response to keep everyone on friendly terms takes work.

In other words proper resistance is the idea that we can’t just get along with everyone, and that there are a fair amount of people who are irredeemably awful. No public institution or talk show is required to host those whose views effectively portray a number of the population as subhuman. Debates are for whether pineapple on pizza is an abomination, or the best way to approach economic policy, and politeness in political talk is for great-aunts. When it comes to people with ideas like Wilders we should not give them the same consideration.