As a lifelong atheist I’ve always felt somewhat envious of those with faith; it must be comforting to know oneself to be always on the side of righteousness, to act and feel without a cloud of doubt. But when those in positions of authority use their conviction to justify the suppression of other beliefs, faith begins to look a lot like fascism. This is not just a live issue in the Islamic Republic of Iran, there are those at the heart of the British parliamentary system who sincerely believe debate should be quashed for the greater good. One such zealot is Nadia Whittome MP, who last week wrote in The Independent that the ‘very act of debate’ was ‘an effective rollback of assumed equality and a foot in the door for doubt and hatred.’ Whittome was referring to the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act, which some are concerned will undermine women’s rights.
One might imagine that civil liberties organisations would have something to say about the authoritarian groupthink creeping from the leftist fringes of British politics
In the ensuing social media storm, other serving politicians and public figures leapt to Whittome’s defence. Angela Eagle MP, Jolyon Maugham QC and Guardian columnist Owen Jones were just a handful who all apparently concurred with Whittome’s central argument that ‘we must not fetishise “debate” as though debate is itself an innocuous, neutral act.’ With the grace and benevolence of one who is saved, Whittome then tweeted that ‘unrepentant transphobes’ within her own party ought not to be immediately excommunicated but rather ‘educated’, presumably like those pesky Uyghur.
One might imagine that civil liberties organisations would have something to say about the authoritarian groupthink creeping from the leftist fringes of British politics. But amidst the predictable statements in support of Black Lives Matter it seems Liberty’s central campaign is the possible infringement of rights posed by facial recognition software, rather than the real and present threat to livelihoods and liberty of those with heterodox opinions. Indeed, earlier this year Liberty, Amnesty International UK and Human Rights Watch signed a joint statement arguing that ‘dehumanising discussions and ‘debates’ lead to human rights abuses.’ One wonders how an organisation like Liberty, which claims to ‘challenge injustice, defend freedom and campaign to make sure everyone in the UK is treated fairly’ can fulfil these laudable aims without free and open debate.
Those who have been following these issues will not be surprised. For some years now feminists wishing to discuss the conflict between women’s liberation and the demands of those who identify as transgender have been persecuted both by the state and fellow citizens. Women such as Maya Forstarter have lost their jobs, others including Helen Watts and Katie Alcock have been forced from voluntary positions and some like Kate Scottow have been hauled through the courts and accused of being ‘unkind.’ The grassroots groups formed to challenge the Gender Recognition Act have had to contend with physical attacks, constant harassment and even a bomb threat. At any other time, civil liberties organisations would be fighting their corner; but it seems fundamental rights to freedom of assembly and belief are disposable for those with unpopular views.
The no-platforming antics of censorious students have spilled over from university campuses into the arena of grown-up politics, with serious implications for democracy. The speed at which social shift toward authoritarianism has happened coincides with the advent of social media. In a seminal 2012 essay author Tim Rayner compared social media to Jeremy Bentham’s model of the ideal prison, the Panopticon. The Panopticon is a model prison where prisoners are aware that they might be being observed, the theory is that this knowledge will cause them to modify their behaviour irrespective of whether they are actually being watched. Rayner argues that ‘in sharing online, we are playing to a crowd’ and that ‘social media exposes us to a kind of virtual Panopticon…The surveillance that directly affects us and impacts on our behaviour comes from the people with whom we share.’
Arguably the Panopticon effect is the driver for benign if irritating phenomena such as online virtue-signalling, though it also undoubtedly has a role in the shaming and mobbing of those who venture outside the parameters of what is considered acceptable discourse. The juvenile behaviour of those such as Whittome is borne of the social media Panopticon; the perpetually offended have so successfully narrowed the scope of what can be discussed online that this has fed through to the real world. For those who are keen to seem ahead of the curve and woke, there is currency in enforcing politically correct language and policing behaviour. This is clearly a particular issue for those of Whittmore’s age, at 23 she is the ‘baby of the house.’
An online band of hateful puritans have been given free rein to shame, silence and prevent debate in the name of progress. Instead of mitigating the censorious excesses of social media trends the state itself has been co-opted; the police now routinely sport rainbow epaulettes and tweet about hate crime, and judges see fit enforce the use of preferred pronouns for violent transgender offenders. Ordinary citizens are increasingly living in fear whilst sanctimonious politicians like Whittome and her cronies are busy reframing debate, the very mechanism by which democracy is upheld, as hatred. Those we might look to as a last line of defence for protection from this creeping tyranny are civil liberties organisations. It seems the likes of Liberty, Amnesty International UK and Human Rights Watch are more concerned with playing to their online audiences; they are fiddling on social media whilst Rome burns.
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