"There are some stupid mistakes that only very smart people make, and one of them is the notion that a sensible argument seriously presented can compete with a really good piece of theatre.
Every day, people on the internet ask why I won’t “debate” some self-actualizing gig-economy fascist or other, as if formal, public debate were the only way to steer public conversation. If you won’t debate, the argument goes, you’re an enemy of free speech. You’re basically no better than a Nazi, and certainly far worse than any of the actual Nazis muttering about not being allowed to preach racism from prestigious pulpits. Well-meaning liberals insist that “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” anti-fascists disagree, the far right orders more popcorn, and round and round we go on the haunted carousel of western liberal thought until we’re all queasy.
This bad-faith argument is a repeating refrain of this low, dishonest decade, and this month it built to another crescendo. In the U.S., The New Yorker bowed to public pressure and disinvited Steve Bannon, Trump’s neo-nationalist former chief strategist, from its literary festival. And in the U.K., The Economist chose to do the opposite.
I’m accidentally responsible for a very small amount of the fuss here. I was due to speak at the Economist’s Open Future festival, where Bannon was scheduled to be interviewed by the editor in chief directly after the “future of MeToo” panel I’d be on with journalists Laura Bates and Ally Fogg. My note to The Economist, in part:
> To speak personally, my opposition to Bannon’s place at this conference has nothing to do with wishing to see him silenced — that would be infeasible as well as illiberal.
> I’ve spent much of the past five years hearing out and attempting to debate people like Bannon, and in my experience it only emboldens and legitimizes them. As far as I am concerned, I am not interested in hearing those arguments again.
Bates agreed, writing that “there is a very small minority of cases in which it is justified to refuse to participate on a platform alongside a person because they explicitly and deliberately advocate hatred and harm to groups of people on the basis of their race, sex, religion or other characteristics. It is my belief that Steve Bannon meets this high standard, that his deeply racist, misogynistic, white nationalist views pose real threat and harm to a large number of people, and that it is therefore irresponsible and damaging to provide him with the legitimacy of such a highly respected mainstream platform as The Economist.” Fogg said that “to invite contributions from Steve Bannon, and furthermore to schedule his appearance immediately after a discussion about what happens after #MeToo, directly contradicts the very essence and message of the #MeToo movement. This schedule honors a man whose primary claims to fame are establishing an online magazine that specialized in inciting misogynistic and racial hatred and then maneuvering a self-confessed sexual abuser into place as the most powerful politician on earth.“
To me, refusing to appear alongside Bannon was an obvious choice, as obvious as the protest against Donald Trump’s visit to Britain earlier this year, when millions of people made my country inhospitable to a president who has done nothing to deserve our deference. Bannon, unsurprisingly, disagreed, calling New Yorker editor David Remnick a coward for rescinding his invitation.
We probably should have anticipated the disingenuous firestorm that followed. We should have anticipated the accusations of being the real fascists for refusing to make nice with white supremacists, the harassment and YouTube hobgoblining from self-appointed defenders of free speech, who seem to have forgotten that for Bates, for me, and for any other woman who flashes the merest inch of independent thought online, harassment is nothing terribly new. It’s just Tuesday.
There’s a term for this sort of bad-faith argument: it’s called the justification-suppression model. The theory is that bigots refrain from directly defending their own bigotry but get hugely riled up justifying the abstract right to express bigotry. So instead of saying, for example, “I don’t like foreigners,” they’ll fight hard for someone else’s right to get up on stage and yell that foreigners are coming to convert your children and seduce your household pets.
Focusing the conversation on the ethics of disseminating speech rather than the actual content of that speech is hugely useful for the far right for three reasons. Firstly, it allows them to paint themselves as the wronged party — the martyrs and victims. Secondly, it stops people from talking about the actual wronged parties, the real lives at risk. And thirdly, of course, it’s an enormous diversion tactic, a shout of “Fire!” in the crowded theatre of politics. But Liberals don’t want to feel like bad people, so this impossible choice — betray the letter of your principles, or betray the spirit — leaves everyone feeling filthy.
There’s no way to come out of this convinced of your own political purity. The thing is, though, that establishing your own political purity isn’t what progressive politics are supposed to be about. As Ms. Marvel says: Good is not a thing you are. It’s a thing you do. This is not about censorship. It never was. It’s about consequences, about drawing a line in the sand.
That can be harder in practice than it sounds. The problem with taking a stand within and against respectable organizations is that however righteous you may feel, you create a lot of work for people in that organization — especially people lower down the chain of command who don’t get to make the big ethical decisions. And it takes rather a lot of courage to defy the customs of polite society, especially if it means compromising social capital you yourself have worked hard for. Some people speaking at the Open Future festival are female activists of color whose positions and profile deserve the same institutional recognition that Bannon doesn’t.
The Economist defended its decision to keep Bannon on the program:
> The future of open societies will not be secured by like-minded people speaking to each other in an echo chamber, but by subjecting ideas and individuals from all sides to rigorous questioning and debate. This will expose bigotry and prejudice, just as it will reaffirm and refresh liberalism. That is the premise The Economist was founded on. When James Wilson launched this newspaper in 1843, he said its mission was to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”
I don’t believe that holding this position makes anyone evil or stupid. I understand why people cling to it like shipwreck survivors on a floating door. The problem is that it relies on two pieces of magical thinking: number one, that intellectual ideas are the same as moral ones, and number two, that the sucking ethical vacuum at the center of public life can be replaced with a commitment to the polite forms of a free society..."
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