The stifling atmosphere that threatens the most vital causes of our time - Businesslive

13 July 2020 - The world was a little off kilter when, hours after Al-Qaeda jihadists flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, British commentator Simon Jenkins sat down to write a sober analysis of what it all meant.

Michael Morris
The world was a little off kilter when, hours after Al-Qaeda jihadists flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, British commentator Simon Jenkins sat down to write a sober analysis of what it all meant.

What he said has a bearing on the steadfastness of sound ideas in any time of crisis that comes to test them. In a very different way, now is such a time — not the health crisis, but the crisis of intolerance born of moral puritanism, and the failure of popular conviction in the merits of argument and of winning adherents by reason.

It is most obvious in the new Inquisition being perpetrated under the Black Lives Matter movement that seeks to compel adherence by punishing dissent.

Smoke still rose from the rubble in Manhattan when Jenkins said of the terror attack that shook the world that, for all its horror, ‘‘it does not and must not be allowed to matter”. He seemed, here, to risk being misunderstood at a point when society felt it had reached a new frontier in the politics of fanaticism.

Not that he misperceived the scale of the event. “It is a human disaster,” he wrote, “an outrage, an atrocity, an unleashing of the madness of which the world will never be rid.” But most important of all was that the “cause of democracy is not damaged ... unless we choose to let it be damaged”.

There would be a temptation, he cautioned, to “put reason in quarantine”, and people needed to recognise “how thin is the veneer of democratic culture” and to resist the urge “to suppress their instinct for justice”.

We can be thankful that similarly sober minds — leading writers and thinkers — have addressed the current threat with the same candour. In a now widely aired letter published in Harper’s Magazine, they warned: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: 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.”

This “stifling atmosphere”, they argued, “will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time”.

“The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.”

One of the signatories to last week’s letter made a telling contribution to the post-9/11 conversation nearly two decades ago. Novelist Salman Rushdie observed back then: “The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his world view, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters.”

His list of what those might be included “disagreement” and “freedom of thought”. Only “by the unafraid way we choose to live”, he argued, would fanaticism be defeated.

If, as Oscar Wilde said, the worst vice of the fanatic is his sincerity, a worse vice is the willingness of others to affirm it through meek acquiescence or fear. This is the test we all face today.

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

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2020-07-12-michael-morris-the-stifling-atmosphere-that-threatens-the-most-vital-causes-of-our-time/

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