Whither Clarity

Well here’s an oddity (the air is thick with oddities these days) – someone arguing for more clarity, an end to muddling through, an awareness of tensions and conflicts and the need for hard choices – and doing it by means of surprisingly muddled mushy unclear woolly language. That seems like a peculiar way to argue for clear thinking.

The conflict played out in Birmingham, and elsewhere every day, is between two values – one that liberals have cherished for centuries and another acquired much more recently. The ancient, almost defining liberal ideal is freedom: of expression, of movement, of protest. The newer value is an approach to society’s minorities that aims to go beyond mere tolerance, and reaches for understanding and sensitivity. Today’s good liberal aims to be both. Stop one in the street and ask if artists should have the right to say what they like, and the answer will be yes. Ask if Muslims or Sikhs or Jews have the right to have their feelings respected, their differences understood, and the answer will be yes again.

Bullshit. If Jonathan Freedland stopped me in the street and asked me if artists should have the right to say what they like, my answer would not be yes, and (I certainly hope) neither would a lot of people’s, good liberals and good radicals and possibly even some good libertarians. That’s a ridiculous way to frame the question; he just oversimplifies his own argument in order to make us see it in his terms. But his terms aren’t the right terms. And then if he asked me the second question, if Muslims or Sikhs or Jews have the right to have their feelings respected, their differences understood, my answer again would not be yes. It would be “What do you mean by ‘feelings’? What do you mean by ‘respected,’ what do you mean by ‘differences,’ what do you mean by ‘understood’? And what kind of feelings, on what subjects? And what kind of differences, about what kinds of actions and practices? And why Muslims or Sikhs or Jews? Why not everyone? What are you proposing – that Muslims or Sikhs or Jews ought to have their ‘feelings respected’ while atheists or Buddhists or non-adjectival people ought not to? Why are you asking me such an inane, meaningless question? What about you? Do you think chess players or runners or train-spotters ought to have their feelings respected and their differences understood?”

In other words, Freedland is doing what ‘good liberals’ so often do in this kind of discussion: he’s wrapping his meaning in layers of protective fuzz so that we won’t quite grasp what it is we’re assenting to. In a sense, of course, I think everyone’s ‘feelings’ should be ‘respected’ – in pretty much the most basic uncontroversial empty sense one can think of. Other things being equal, people ought not to be gratuitously or rudely challenged or insulted. As a rule, and depending on the situation, people ought to be treated politely and with forebearance. But those qualifications and stipulations are necessary. Once we get down to specifics, things are not so easy. Some ‘Muslims’ no doubt ‘feel’ that the impending stoning to death of Hajiyeh Esmaelvand is a fine thing and should proceed as scheduled. Do I ‘respect’ that feeling? No. Do I think it ought to be ‘respected’? No. So what is the point of even asking such a damn silly empty meaningless question then? Well, it’s what I said: to make the subject seem simpler than it is, even though the column as a whole is arguing for recognizing the very complexity the wording of those questions works to conceal. Why is that? Have people become so habituated to fuzzy rhetoric that they can’t notice it even when it is their very subject? If so – well, it’s unfortunate, that’s all.

I am having to make some of these awkward choices myself. All of my instincts set me against the government’s proposed move to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. An admirer of America’s first amendment, I start as an absolutist on free speech: let everyone say what they want.

Really? Are you sure? What if somone (part of everyone) wants to say ‘that playwright should be killed!’ Or that novelist should be killed, or that film-maker should be killed, or that apostate, or that whoring woman, or that daughter who dishonored her family by refusing to marry the man her parents told her to marry? Not to mention of course ‘those Croations should be killed,’ or those Kosovars, or those Tutsis, or those intellectuals, or those infidels.

No, he goes on to say that he’s not sure, because he approves of the results of the ban on incitement to racial hatred. But ‘let everyone say what they want’ just seems so simple-minded to begin with. Why begin from there? (Yes, I know free speech absolutists exist, I’ve been arguing with them for years. But I think that’s a simple-minded position to start from.)

If I don’t want the law which effected that change repealed, then logic demands I should want it extended to everyone who needs protection. If it’s good for black, Sikh and Jewish Britons, then it can hardly be denied to Hindus and Muslims. (To say the first group is racial while the latter is religious is to make a distinction that does not fit the real world.)

Everyone who needs protection is just everyone. Period. Just as with the silly question about whether we think Muslims or Sikhs or Jews have the right to have their feelings respected. Other things being equal, everyone has that right. Either everyone does, or no one does. Perhaps that would be the right answer to Freedland’s question for the good liberal in the street. [judicious stroking of chin] ‘Hmm…yes, Muslims Sikhs and Jews, fine, and possibly vegans as well, but not Hindus or Buddhists or Wiccans. That’s my considered opinion.’ Clarity and rigour, indeed. Hmph.

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