No idea is above scrutiny - Businesslive

6 February 2022 - It’s tempting to think the digital age might yet foster open-mindedness on a scale that preceding technologies were incapable of sustaining. But the truth is I keep feeling that in contrast to the generous and argumentative large-mindedness of the 1960s and 70s of my youth, a new ambient morality has made society more tender, parochial and intolerant.

Michael Morris
It’s tempting to think the digital age might yet foster open-mindedness on a scale that preceding technologies were incapable of sustaining. But the truth is I keep feeling that in contrast to the generous and argumentative large-mindedness of the 1960s and 70s of my youth, a new ambient morality has made society more tender, parochial and intolerant.

Across the ideological spectrum, everyone seems more touchy about permissibility, thinking the right thoughts and behaving in the approved way. Of course, sensitivity isn’t always a bad thing — and there’s nothing to be said for wilfully disregarding other people’s feelings. But politesse and humanity sometimes part ways. Spurning openness and debate can risk contributing to the sum of human folly that soon registers in suspicion, fear, hatred and atrocity.

The difficulty is captured in British liberal Maajid Nawaz’s observation that “(in) an open society, no idea can be above scrutiny, just as no people should be beneath dignity”. The challenge lies in seeing Nawaz’s statement less as two strong ideas in contention than as a single strong idea, and recognising that part and parcel of holding that no people are beneath dignity is precisely the conviction that no idea is above scrutiny. It is a way of paying proper attention, of being honest.

But these days it’s not as easy as it sounds. You have only to consider the fallout of the recent unanimous decision by 10 school board members in McMinn County, Tennessee, to remove the Pulitzer prize-winning Holocaust graphic novel Maus: A Survivor’s Tale from the eighth-grade curriculum, citing “rough, objectionable language” and sketches of naked women they deemed unsuitable for 13-year-olds.

Maus, which depicts Jewish people as mice and Nazis as cats, is cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s celebrated 1986 reconception of the experiences of his parents in Nazi concentration camps. Unsurprisingly, the school board vote left Spiegelman “baffled”. 

It’s almost too easy to make fun of small-town America and its quaint and ironic conservatism. As Gareth van Onselen tweeted laconically: “The world really is quite mad these days.” But every bit as mad, surely, was actress and TV personality Whoopi Goldberg being summarily taken off air for two weeks for what ABC News president Kimberly Godwin described as “wrong and hurtful comments” in a discussion about the Maus affair.

Goldberg’s sin was saying on ABC’s The View programme that the Holocaust “isn’t about race” and that “it’s about man's inhumanity”. After co-host Ana Navarro responded: “But it’s about white supremacy. It’s about going after Jews and Gypsies and Roma,” Goldberg replied: “But these are two white groups of people.” But, said the other co-host, Sara Haines, the Nazis “didn’t see them as white”.

This was “missing the point”, Goldberg insisted. “Let’s talk about it for what it is. It’s how people treat each other. It’s a problem.” She subsequently apologised, but got into trouble again for suggesting that the Nazis were fixated on ethnicity rather than race. She had to apologise again.

Most schoolchildren these days, even in Tennessee, could tell you that racial purity (whatever that might mean) was central to the Nazi pathology, and we might have had an important conversation about the meaning of “race”, ethnicity, humanity and history had someone had the intellectual confidence to say: hang on, let Whoopi finish what she was trying to say.

I am not convinced she was being trivial or deliberately hurtful. I do think the opportunity for a smarter debate about race and history was sacrificed to the very contemporary anxiety about permissibility.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2022-02-06-michael-morris-no-idea-is-above-scrutiny/

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