Taboo or not Taboo

There was that other demo in Oxford.

Standing at the corner of Mansfield Road, I was proud of the demonstrators who were reminding my university what, at best, it is still about: the pursuit of truth and the defence of reason. Protests against student loans or higher rents – these we expect. But here were students turning out on a chilly Saturday morning to stand up for science.

Yeah – well it’s becoming more and more clear that we all really need to stand up for those – science, the pursuit of truth, the defense of reason. If we don’t they’re going to be eroded more and more, as we’re told to be sensitive and respectful and spiritual and so shut up and obey.

For a few minutes, Mansfield Road, Oxford, was at the front line of a new struggle for freedom that is being fought in many different places and guises. These days, the main threats to freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of association no longer come from the totalitarian ideological superstate…[T]he distinctive feature of this new danger is the creeping tyranny of the group veto.

That’s one of the by-products of communalism. Or maybe not so much a by-product as a central goal.

Here the animal rights campaign has something in common with the extremist reaction to the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, as seen in the attacks on Danish embassies. In both cases, a particular group says: “We feel so strongly about this that we are going to do everything we can to stop it. We recognise no moral limits. The end justifies the means. Continue on this path and you must fear for your life.”…If the intimidators succeed, then the lesson for any group that strongly believes in anything is: shout more loudly, be more extreme, threaten violence, and you will get your way. Frightened firms, newspapers or universities will cave in, as will softbellied democratic states, where politicians scrabble to keep the votes of diverse constituencies.

Damn right they will. Violence and threats have that effect. They work. Theo Van Gogh has been definitively silenced. There’s no magic mechanism that keeps force and bullying and murder from doing what they’re meant to do.

But in our increasingly mixed-up, multicultural world, there are so many groups that care so strongly about so many different things, from fruitarians to anti-abortionists and from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Kurdish nationalists. Aggregate all their taboos and you have a vast herd of sacred cows. Let the frightened nanny state enshrine all those taboos in new laws or bureaucratic prohibitions, and you have a drastic loss of freedom.

Which is exactly why I disagreed with Stanley Fish about taboos. Taboos are bad because they are not reasoned; that is what makes them taboos; therefore they should not be enshrined in law.

If you agree with me so far, and believe that reason requires consistency, then you should want David Irving let out of his Austrian prison and Ken Livingstone let off with a rap over the knuckles. Why? Because the fateful tendency in all this is to reject everyone else’s group taboos while obstinately defending your own.

But that’s where I get off the train. Not because I think Irving should be in prison – I don’t think he should, although I’m not sure what I think about the Austrian law – but because I disagree that what’s operating with respect to Irving is a taboo. I disagree that the cartoons and Irving are exactly comparable. I don’t think reason does require consistency if consistency requires the ignoring of salient differences (which it doesn’t, because that wouldn’t actually be consistency). I think the discussion about Irving is a different discussion from the one about the cartoons (as I’ve said to the point of tedium), and I think it’s not useful to mash them together by calling them both group taboos.

What is sauce for the Islamist goose must be sauce for the fascist gander. What Irving says is horrible, an insult to the Jewish dead, survivors and relatives, but on any reasonable assessment it does not result in a significant threat to the physical safety or liberty of living human beings.

Well, that’s the problem – I’m not confident of that. Genocides have happened too often and too quickly lately for me to feel confident of that. Garton Ash may be right, but I disagree about the ‘on any reasonable assessment’ part. Especially given what just happened to Ilam Halimi, I don’t think anyone can be all that sure that no one listening to Irving will be pushed over that final edge, that no one listening to Irving will be inspired to find a Jew to torture to death. So I think worries about Irving are more than just taboos. Actually animal rights people and anti-abortionists could say the same thing – they also have reasoned arguments. Taboo isn’t really the right word for what Garton Ash is talking about here. But the point about the group veto doesn’t depend on the taboo idea, and it’s a good point.

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