I have been thinking a great deal recently about what has happened to debate and dialectic in modern Western society. This is not to say it has become extinct entirely but something gangrenous and virulent has infected it.
When I first started out in my academic career, discourse felt more experimental. Many of my politics seminars had a distinctly Socratic emphasis to them; we would ask questions and test concepts no matter how outlandish they might seem and regardless of whether we liked the answers. Of course the usual academic orthodoxies intruded but if you had the courage of your curiosity you could work around them. But even then the early signs of this worrying trend were beginning to creep in.
In a brilliant recent article in The Spectator, Brendan O’Neill laments the rise of what he calls “Stepford Students”, a new generation of apparently politically engaged young people more interested in shutting down debate and drowning out unfashionable opinions, than actually engaging with them and having their convictions challenged. This was something shockingly familiar to me – I have seen the transformation among members of my own peer group and certainly in the younger generation.
But, sadly, this is not just some nascent student movement. We have seen this trend spread into public discourse and even high profile media platforms. Take for example the recent “shirtstorm” incident, which I have already covered elsewhere. The incident itself is not a case of shutting down discourse in itself, but the resulting exchanges seem to involve a great deal of people making the case that if you think the attacks on Matt Taylor were unreasonable, you must be harbouring your own gender prejudices and/or subscribing to the view that women at large (rather than the vocal minority in this case) should be seen and not heard.
Another example was Ben Affleck’s total sabotage of Bill Maher’s interview with philosopher and prominent critic of Islam (and religion as a whole), Sam Harris. During the segment dedicated to individual interviews where the broader panel are expected to step back (as is the procedure and etiquette on Bill Maher’s Real Time), Sam Harris made some comments about his issues with Islamic doctrines and their effects in the real-world, whereupon Affleck promptly waded in accusing Harris of racism and equating his comments to spreading stereotypes about African Americans or calling someone a “shifty Jew”. You only have to understand the difference between a religion (a set of beliefs and truth claims) and a race to understand what nonsense Affleck was spouting, as Harris said “we have to able to criticise bad ideas”.
But it is not just about closing off the possibility of conversation. In order to do that, as the Ben Affleck example shows, the most effective way is to first smear your adversary to the extent that it justifies not engaging with what they have to say. It reminds me of a comment from the late Christopher Hitchens, who said that one of the problems with engaging with some people on the left is that they assume that if you disagree with them, it must be for the worst possible motive. In this context, it becomes very easy to justify denying your opponent a platform.
Whether Islam is a repository of bad ideas can and should be up for debate, as it should for any religion or belief system and I assume (perhaps too generously) that Ben Affleck does understand the difference between a religion and a race – but this is how the orthodoxy of political correctness rots discourse and creates a terror of honest discussion about difficult subjects. And this, I believe, is why our students and sections of our media have taken to shutting down debate rather than engaging in it. It has, perversely, become the line of least resistance.
Also Read: Has Feminism Lost Its Way?