Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table. 3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.
You know we live in a strange world when classical liberal think tanks, such as the Centre for Independent Studies, are forced to draw comfort from the statements of Noam Chomsky. The left-wing radical was among 150 esteemed artists, authors and public intellectuals who this month signed a letter that condemns ‘cancel culture’ for stifling freedom of expression in journalism, higher education, philanthropy and the arts.
Writing in Harper’s magazine, the ideologically diverse group says: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” They go on to bemoan “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
As the prominent British historian and columnist Simon Heffer argues in the new CIS Occasional Paper, Moral Terrorism, it is abominable that, effectively, a bunch of blinkered, self-righteous activists are dictating to the rest of us how we should feel about certain issues. Blacklisting people because of what they sincerely feel and believe, and terrifying people into confessing their unorthodox thoughts in the hope they might achieve some sort of redemption, is not how liberal democracies are supposed to work.
This is a matter of grave concern that goes to the heart of liberal society. As Professor Heffer argues, by eroding free speech, the activists seek “not simply to create a certain orthodoxy of view, but to punish those who do not subscribe to that orthodoxy, even to the point of seeking to deny them a livelihood.” What the activists who run the ‘cancel culture’ don’t understand is that you can disagree with them without wishing to obliterate them; though they seem to wish to obliterate their opponents.
To be sure, the trends of illiberal tolerance are more evident in the US (as a recent Wall Street Journal editorial) and Britain (as Prof Heffer makes clear) than here. However, as Peter Kurti explains in a forthcoming CIS research paper, we are kidding ourselves if we think Australia is immune to these disturbing developments. Indeed, there is enough evidence to show that a small but highly vocal and zealous minority here are already using social media and parts of the mainstream media to seek to force their opinions and attitudes on everyone else.
All this is why genuine liberals — from whatever political leaning or creed — have to expose not just the activists’ ignorance and their unreasonableness, but their immense dangerousness. It is not just they invite an extremist response from their opponents. It is that if too many people roll over in front of them, we shall damage liberal democracy irreparably.
The fight against Covid-19 is a conundrum replete with knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns — as Donald Rumsfeld might have said — but policymakers don’t have the luxury of waiting for greater certainty and have to make choices here and now.
Some of the choices are reviewed in our analysis published online by the CIS this week, Policies against Covid-19: Reflections on the way in and the way out.
We conclude that ongoing or on-off reliance on heavy-handed lockdowns and shutdowns is unsustainably costly to jobs and living standards. It also produces downsides for other health outcomes, so the net impact on health over time is questionable. Such policies deliver declining benefits, but rising costs, as shuttered business are driven past the point of no return.
Australia’s Covid objectives are now unclear. Having more than ‘flattened the curve’ of infections by mid-April below intensive care capacities that have been almost tripled, at least some state governments seem to have adopted an implicit objective of eliminating Covid — and this option is now being canvassed more openly. But even if this could be achieved at all, it would be at an unsustainable economic and social cost.
The policies that worked best to reduce Australian infections to manageable levels were external border controls and quarantining of arrivals from overseas from early February, increasingly broadly and firmly applied through March. But as the situation in Victoria demonstrates, this policy has to be rigorously administered with no slip-ups.
With transmission from abroad shut down, keeping domestic transmission manageably low requires effective quarantine of the domestically-infected and isolation of their contacts. Contact tracing has to become speedier and interactive with testing to isolate new infections quickly.
Support for sensible social distancing has to be strengthened, relying on well-informed self-interest rather than heavy-handed proscription of business activity and customer restrictions. Providing growing evidence on the benefits of social distancing and the character of ‘superspreader’ events harnesses individuals’ self-interest and businesses’ entrepreneurship to sustain low-cost behaviour change and improve personal risk management.
This approach still involves costs. But they are lower relative to the benefits — and more sustainable than a continuation or return to the high-cost, low-benefit policies of business shut-downs and domestic lock-ins.
The culture war — and its current battlefront ‘cancel culture’ — is exacerbated because the opposing sides are not speaking the same language .
Depending on your beliefs, cancel culture is either “[a] ‘woke movement’ [akin] to those of Chairman Mao’s Red Guards” or a myth spread by the privileged “in their war against accountability” — accountability’ being an equally malleable term.
As Simon Heffer has written, in a free society, the “normal accountability that has always gone with freedom of speech…is an accountability to the rest of society.” But ‘accountability’ today can mean firing and publicly shaming people for what they say, which is more akin to retribution.
Refusing to put limits on ‘accountability’ suits the cancellers because they can justify all action by simply saying the cancelled were “just being held accountable.”
The debate arena is filled with similar polarised interpretations.
Apparently there are no rioters or looters; only ‘peaceful protestors’ and — as the ubiquitous placard reads — the real violence is silence. ‘All lives matter’ is no longer a universal truism, but seen as ‘a racist dog-whistle.’
These diametrically opposed definitions serve a nefarious purpose.
As Orwell wrote in Politics and the English Language words such as “democracy” and “freedom” have several irreconcilable meanings, but this suits many because “words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.”
But consciously using language to deceive creates confusion and division. Ending racism no longer means judging a person’s character but involves tearing down the system. That’s why you can see a white women yelling at black cops that they are “part of the problem.”
As academics and prominent hoaxers Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay argue in their critique on Critical Social Justice, the movement “relies on a specific conception of the world: it does not understand or interpret reality in the same way as the rest of us…”
Endlessly reinventing, and inverting language allows a dishonest speaker to confuse and manipulate the hearer — ensuring “lies sound truthful.”