Free Speech and Straw men
- July 29, 2011
One of the interesting things about writing on the Internet, as opposed to the printed press, is that you very quickly become aware of the responses to what you have written. This experience is not always particularly uplifting.
Earlier this week I wrote a piece for the First Post online magazine on the Norway killings entitled “What made Anders Breveik quote from the Daily Mail” . It’s a potted version of an earlier post on this website on the “aranoid style in European politics” – which argues that Breivik’s paranoid visions of Muslim immigrant ‘invasions’ and European cultural collapse are not that far removed from the everyday discourse of the right.
Needless to say this piece generated a lot of hostile posts. The general tone is summed up by one commentator, who accuses me of “Gloating over the tragedy of the right” and joining ” the amen corner of shedding crocodile tears for the Muslims.” Another argues that
Clearly the guy is a bit crazed and what he did was unacceptable. However I do understand his point of view that the western world is rapidly being taken over by the religious cultures, and people form [sic]countries who can not even look after themselves.
It’s pretty obvious where most of these commentators are coming from. But it’s a bit much to find myself on the website Crikey described by Brendan O’Neill of Spiked magazine as some kind of anti-liberal authoritarian in an article entitled “Breivik and the right’s right to write”. According to O’Neill
The British terrorism expert Matthew Carr has a pop at the right-wing thinkers who have denounced Breivik’s murderous spree, arguing that “those who propagate fantasies of immigrant invasions and civilisational collapse cannot be entirely surprised that there are those who take such fantasies literally and engage in their own form of war”.
This is a fairly accurate summary of what I wrote, even though I really don’t like the whole concept of the ‘terrorism expert’ and I certainly have no desire to be labelled as one. But then there is the following
Carr reckons European politicians should do something about the “toxic and often delirious bile that Breivik wallowed in and regurgitated in his dumb manifesto. Do what about it? Blacklist it? Ban it? Burn it? Prevent Melanie Phillips from ranting on about Islamists just in case someone somewhere with some screws loose decides to act on what he thinks is the true meaning of her words?
O’Neill then goes on to argue that
I thought us progressives were meant to be against this kind of thing, against the idea that speech causes violence and thus the state must curb and control and rigorously police our speech?
Er, no Brendan. I don’t recommend that ‘the state’ should do any such thing. What I actually said was
Breivik is not the first far-right activist to contemplate such acts in recent years, and unless European civil society and politicians can find the will to recognise, confront and isolate the toxic and often delirious bile in which his fantasies of ‘resistance’ marinated for so long, he may not be the last.
Notice how O’Neill leaves out the reference to “European civil society” to support his straw man “illiberal leftist argues for state prohibition” argument. Nowhere do I advocate banning writers like Melanie Phillips or Mark Steyn, nor would I wish to see them banned. Recognizing and confronting the dangerous and ‘toxic’ lies, subtexts, prejudices and sheer barking lunacy emanating from Phillips et al is not the same thing as banning or blacklisting them.
It means analysing, deconstructing and exposing their arguments in a democratic forum. It means that I would like to see politicians and civil society forcefully articulate a more humane, accurate and inclusive counter-narrative about immigration that does not depict Muslim immigrants as barbarian invaders engaging in ‘demographic jihad’ or multiculturalism as a Trojan horse intended to bring about the cultural destruction of Europe.
In a healthy society such arguments would indeed be confined to the wacky fringes – by argument and debate and a shift in public attitude, not by legislation. At present we are very far from this situation. You may disagree with this perspective. You might, as some of the First Post‘s readers clearly do, think that Steyn and Phillips are fighting the good fight against the enemies of civilisation.
But O’Neill is so determined to make his non-point and present himself as a ‘progressive’ iconoclast that he clearly isn’t interested in engaging with what I actually wrote. Or maybe he was just too busy churning out copy to actually read it, let alone think about it.