Out of the dark cupboard

Here’s the thing…It’s illiberal on the face of it to tell people to be quiet, or even to turn down the volume, in a liberal rights-based culture that places a high value on free open frank uninhibited discussion – and one that does so not arbitrarily or as a mere matter of preference but for good reasons, which can be freely openly frankly uninhibitedly discussed. The idea and the value of free open discussion is central to liberal culture, and we all depend on it very heavily indeed, perhaps more heavily than we can realize while we continue to have it. In such a culture there is a presumption against urging people to turn down the volume. That is doubly or triply the case when the subject matter is taken by many to be 1) innocent (not criminal or harmful) and 2) enlightening. So the people who want to say ‘pipe down’ have a heavy burden of justification. The presumption isn’t on their side.

A very strong background assumption in liberal culture is that open free discussion is healthy – is generally a good thing. There are exceptions – certain kinds of discussion of race for instance may be hedged with caution (Ahmadinejad’s speech at Durban II springs to mind) – but even there, caution and hedging are not always seen as the best way to go. Obama said in his great speech on race that we could shut up about the whole subject, but we ought not to. He is the product of a liberal culture; the product of it, an educator about it, a defender of it, an ambassador for it. I think it is one of the better ideas of liberal culture, this idea that we should be able to discuss most things openly, freely, without fear or shyness.

If I’m right about that, then telling people they are discussing something too openly and freely and noisily is inherently likely to antagonize liberals (as opposed to authoritarians). If you’ve followed any of the discussions between Matthew Nisbet and Everyone Else over the past few years, you’ll know what I mean. We’re primed to think that yanking taboo subjects out of that cupboard under the stairs is a good thing, so people who tell us to put it back into the cupboard have a steep hill to climb.

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