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.” The letter follows former president Barack Obama’s denunciations of “woke” culture and “purity tests.”
Of course, Obama and the Harper’s letter writers are right: 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.
Just look at the relentless campaign of ideological conformity that has swept the Western world. And, no, I am not referring to those mobs toppling statues of historical figures.
A University of Chicago economist recently lost his contract with the Chicago Federal Reserve after he criticised the Black Lives Matter movement. The offending tweet: BLM “just torpedoed itself, with its full-fledged support of #defundthepolice.”
A Boeing executive was forced to resign over an article he wrote more than three decades ago opposing women in military combat.
Actress Halle Berry pulled out of playing a transgender character after an online backlash following an interview that the thought police deemed unacceptable.
A scheduled event starring former Trump adviser Steve Bannon with the New Yorker magazine was cancelled after a Twitter mob backlash.
In Britain and the US, many universities are censoring speakers and suppressing controversial views. Even the brave Somalia-born human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been silenced on campus for questioning Islamic treatment of women.
One contributor to the Harper’s letter has provoked outrage: JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, because of her views on transgender issues. In response, a few signatories have distanced themselves from the letter and pleaded for forgiveness for initially supporting the initiative.
But although they have every right to disagree with Rowling, isn’t the point here that different views should be tolerated?
I have been denounced in these pages and elsewhere for holding unfashionable views – from praising John Howard, Boris Johnson and free-market capitalism to criticising the ABC and millennial socialism and those activists who claim Australia is a racist nation. Crikey, I have even supported a rapprochement with Putin’s Russia!
They are opinions with which many readers disagree, but which I feel I have an absolute right to hold. And credit to the Herald for allowing me to express those views. Alas, the same commitment to diversity of opinion can’t be said for The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times, which recently forced editors to resign over headlines and opinion articles, respectively.
The cancel-culture defenders say attitudes have changed and that marginalised groups are starting to gain equal footing in society. Why, then, are they so afraid of a debate?
The exclusion of views that challenge the consensus can only hurt the activists for the reason John Stuart Mill elaborated in his famous 1859 essay On Liberty: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” Why not, as the Harper’s letter writers put it, try to “defeat bad ideas … by exposure, argument and persuasion, not [by] trying to silence or wish them away”.
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. This mindset is like a disease paralysing the intellect, and one for which we have yet to find an antidote.
Genuine liberals from whatever political or philosophical creed have to expose not just the activists’ ignorance and their unreasonableness, but their immense dangerousness. It is not just that they invite an extremist response from their opponents: think Trump on steroids. It is that if too many people roll over in front of them, we shall damage liberal democracy irreparably.
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies and a presenter at the ABC’s Radio National.