Progressives Must Not Become the New Bigots 16 February 2015
A reflection on the etiquettes of disagreement by Andrew Grey.
Fast-forward to 2014, and journalist Brendan O’Neill finds himself unable to take part in a debate in Oxford on abortion – even to make the pro-choice argument – because of students protesting that the debate would threaten women’s mental safety. It was claimed that neither Brendan, nor his opponent Tim Stanley, had any right to debate the topic, by virtue of their gender. By attempting to debate how abortion might affect wider society, they risked causing offence.
Reluctant as I am to admit it, I’m starting to believe that Peter Hitchens may have had a point. Being on the progressive, revisionist side of many debates – e.g. same-sex marriage, contraception, capital punishment – it’s not easy for me to imagine what it could be like to have my moral opinions excluded from vocalisation, or to be shouted into silence because my views didn’t match those of a particular group. Furthermore, I can well understand why many conservatives do get called bigots, when they dismiss anyone promoting rights for gay people as “the gay lobby” with their militant agenda, or spout meaningless rhetoric that they’ve read in a right-wing newspaper.
But I will not be on the “correct” side of the debate in every case, and I wonder what will happen to me if I dare speak against a popular progressive cause in the future? Will I be dismissed as a bigot, whatever case I try to make for my claims?
It’s clear that not every view is bigoted. Indeed, by definition, an argument which contains some rational argument cannot be bigoted. We may not like a justification; we may think it’s based on false premises or reasoning – but we cannot simply dismiss anyone with whom we disagree. Those who do this are in fact, as Peter Hitchens points out, the true bigots.
The tragic thing about the reaction to the proposed abortion debate is that there was lots of potential to protest pro-life views with rational argument. Indeed, at Oxford, humanities students are taught to construct arguments, to challenge them, and to build strong defences based on proper reasoning. Such arguments should be their currency in discussing any issue of moral significance.
There may well have been a legitimate argument against the pro-life points raised at the debate. There may even have been something to the argument that men are less qualified to debate the topic – if that point were supported by gender theory and observations about identity. Students with this view could well have provoked a genuinely interesting and meaningful discussion.
Instead, however, they tried to shut out debate with no voice whatsoever, and this is deeply worrying. Faith communities have been guilty in the past of shutting off debates very quickly – it has taken decades for LGBT communities to finally be asked for their testimonies in the Church of England discussions around sexuality, for instance. In moving forward, it is truly important that progressives do not treat those with conservative views as they were once treated themselves: ignoring, deriding, refusing to treat them as having any potential to contribute something meaningful.
One thing is clear: issues like abortion matter because, to people on both sides of the debate, the matter is of moral significance. Whether the concern is the obligation of women to preserve the life of a foetus, or of society to provide women the liberty to terminate a pregnancy, the issue matters. Morality matters.
But moral arguments cannot be solved by silencing people. I have been won over in many discussions, at least in part – by reasoning; by shifting interpretations; by drawing on my experience and that of others. Never in my life, however, have I been persuaded that my view was wrong simply because I was told to shut up.
I may not like many conservative views – theological, social or economic – but the debates cannot be won by silencing or suppression. In a liberal democracy, all arguments must be heard and disputes must be won by reasoned discussion. This is the only way to ensure that progressive opinions are seen as respectable, credible, and potentially persuasive. And this they must be; lest we risk the silenced conservative voices shouting all the more loudly in frustration at their suppression.
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