'Just don't go there'

Michael Morris writes on why avoiding hard talk is no safe-mode option in a free society

Avoiding the risk of causing anger is not the same as showing respect -- it could well be the opposite.

‘Just don’t go there …’ is the commonest default reaction to any difficult discussion about who we are and what we really think, as if, by our restraint, we may hope to be counted among the respectful. But is it really respectful to disengage from the hard talk?

The contemporary drift of free speech controversies – in South Africa and elsewhere – suggests that penalising ‘wrong’ thinking, and silencing those who express it, is the surest way of sanitising public morality.

In a world inter-connected on an unprecedented scale – in which, in a phrase, there is no place to hide – the penalties can be swift and severe.

Stumbling into the spotlight of an unforgiving and super alert social media audience can be like disturbing a nest of hornets united by an impulse to ‘sting first, and never mind the questions’.

Typically, the consequences adhere to a familiar pattern: a crescendo of vituperation leads to the public outing of the offender; retraction and apology follow, often coupled with an investigation – sometimes even a criminal charge – and, in the end, a penalty, formal or otherwise.

One or more of these consequences may doubtless be justified, as the near universal cheering amply suggests when the swarm goes after out-and-out racists and bigots.

While there’s no prospect of – and perhaps no virtue in – curbing the mighty magistracy of online opinion, it’s also true that where its zeal is undiscriminating, the tar-and-feather costs of going against the grain – irreverently or even offensively stepping out of the often narrowly defined path of ‘acceptability’ or ‘respect’ – the risk of being outed and stung into conformity places the quality of our national conversation at risk, too.

Even, or especially, where the galled chatter continues unabated, real debate about the merits of a robust cartoon, a provocative image or a testing statement dwindles away, often because challenging or novel ideas are mistaken for toxic ones.

It’s not always easy to tell them apart. And, with our history of bigotry and racism, there is a not unreasonable anxiety that giving oxygen to poisonous (or seemingly poisonous) notions will only encourage them. Isn’t it better to render them impermissible and banish their adherents? And, many wonder, what’s there to debate about hurtful or offensive ideas anyway?

Equally, when people feel strongly about something, it’s no argument to say that they shouldn’t. Feelings matter, not least in the light of Freud’s warning that, far from expiring in time, unexpressed emotions “will come forth later in uglier ways”, a risk not to be trifled with.

-Yet, there is a deficiency in assuming that acknowledging feelings means not talking about them, not exploring their foundations, or, indeed, testing the reach of their validity. This may well seem heretical to some, but is it really?

An indispensable guide to addressing unpalatable or discomforting ideas while retaining respect for all who may be drawn to arguing about them is the long-standing liberal notion more recently captured in British politician and commentator Maajid Nawaz’s statement: ‘No idea is above scrutiny, and no people are beneath dignity.’

This suggests that an attachment to free speech is not separable from regard for people. It is clear that declaring an idea impermissible – if that means placing it beyond scrutiny – will fail the test. But what if it’s a hurtful, offensive or disrespectful idea? How does that accord with the principle that no people are beneath dignity?

The honest answer is: not easily. But the fact that it’s not easy does not annul the virtue of trying simultaneously to scrutinise ideas, and avoid demeaning anyone.

Being honest and candid is a token of respect, where dissembling seldom is, and the same is true of tolerating others’ opinions.

What’s inescapable is that, however difficult it is, free speech is critical in ‘nudging the needle’ of civic life towards freedom and away from fear and silence.

This was the phrase used by the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) earlier this year when it hosted a visit by prominent journalist and free-speech advocate Flemming Rose, no stranger himself to the punitive impulses of the intolerant.

Rose put the case bluntly: ‘Free speech is painful. It’s very difficult to accept that you have to be exposed to speech that you hate – but I think it’s worthwhile.’

Rejecting the idea that ‘free speech is just a cover for bigots to say bad things about minorities’, and that ‘there is tension between freedom and tolerance, and that you have to balance the two’, Rose argued instead: ‘They are two sides of the same coin; there is no tolerance without the right to say things people don’t like, and no free speech if you don’t have people tolerating speech they don’t like.

‘You have to accept that people will say things you find offensive, outrageous and insulting without resorting to violence, intimidation and threats, and without trying to ban free speech.’

As Rose implies, keeping the space open for contending ideas never has been possible without making some people angry – doubtless the source of that common injunction, ‘just don’t go there…’

-Yet avoiding the risk of causing anger is not the same as showing respect. It could well be the opposite.

Not ‘going there’ implicitly rests not only on a presumption that one’s detractors lack the intellectual maturity to engage, but also denies them an opportunity to display it.

What’s more, a reluctance to engage may often obscure – even deliberately conceal – the very sentiments it would be far healthier for society to hear, and contest, openly.

Novelist W G Sebald offers a cautionary glimpse of a not wholly incomparable post-war German impulse in observing, in his On the Natural History of Destruction: ‘And when we turn to take a backward view, particularly of the years 1930 to 1950, we are always looking and looking away at the same time.’

In our contemporary setting, a pretended unanimity – perhaps the worst consequence of habitual political correctness – leaves us with an inauthentic conversation, and a society weakened by the fear of saying out loud what it really thinks, and, particularly, thinking out loud about the history that has formed it.

-The most nourishing arguments are ones we learn something from; they expand rather than diminish understanding, deepen regard, and enrich the heterodoxy that is freedom’s gift to people.

It can be discomforting – but discomfort is nothing like the danger that lurks in what is unexpressed and thus unchallengeable, or the disrespect of assuming that subjects of racism, chauvinism or bigotry are merely to be appeased or patronised because they are victims and, by implication, powerless and voiceless and incapable of speaking on their own account.

 ‘Just don’t go there …’ is not a safe-mode option in a free society.

Michael Morris is head of media at the South African Institute of Race Relations, a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.

This article was first published on HuffPost SA.