WHAT DOES A POLICY of “No Debate!” produce? What is the nature of the politics that emerges from such a context? When at least one side of a contentious issue acknowledges absolutely nothing in the arguments of its opponents that is worthy of any other response but vituperation and violence – what happens?
As is so often the case, the Weimar Republic offers us some grim lessons. Its very name tells a story. Born in 1918 amidst the chaos that followed Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the recently proclaimed republic drew up its new constitution in the ancient Thuringian city of Weimar. Why? Because in the German capital, Berlin, running street battles between the Left and the Right made it an unsuitable locale for rational debate.
Extremism also stalked the streets of Bavaria’s largest city, Munich. Students of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich will recognise Munich as the “home” of National Socialism: the city where the Nazi Party’s “Brownshirts” brawled in the beerhalls and roughed up socialists in the streets. Less understood, however, are the political dynamics that made the formation of the Sturmabteilung (Stormtroopers) necessary.
Before it became a bastion of the extreme German Right, Munich had, briefly, been in the hands of the extreme German Left. The city was polarised in ways most New Zealanders living in the twenty-first century would struggle to imagine. Those of us old enough to remember the tensions of the 1981 Springbok Tour might have some inkling but, given that no one was killed in those disturbances, not enough. In short, Munich was a city in which “No Debate!” was the rule – on both sides of the barricades.
It was in response to the standard communist tactic of breaking-up the meetings of their ideological opponents that Hitler and his right-hand man, Ernst Rohm (a former soldier and military adventurer with close ties to the upper echelons of the German Army) took steps to recruit young war veterans to guard Nazi venues and beat-off left-wing attackers. (Their trade-mark brown shirts were purchased as a job-lot by Rohm when Germany, having lost its African colonies, found itself in possession of a warehouse full of useless colonial uniforms.)
As the Nazi Party grew in strength, and the Stormtroopers in number, the tables were turned on Munich’s left-wing extremists. Now it was the Brownshirts who were breaking-up the meetings of communists and social-democrats, or gathering outside left-wing venues to menace and harass anyone foolhardy enough to attempt entry. The extreme Left, which had pioneered the “No Debate!” tactic against “reactionaries”, now found their earlier disruptions repaid, with interest, by the pistol-packing bully-boys of the extreme Right.
Weimar’s judgement on the extremist policy of permitting “No Debate!” with ideological opponents is a harsh one. It drives political groups further and further apart, and makes any kind of resolution of political differences impossible. Deployed against one side, it will be taken up with vengeful alacrity by the other. Political polarisation deepens, and the civil political discourse upon which democracy depends retreats ever further from the public square. Moreover, as the fate of the Weimar Republic makes tragically clear: what the Left starts, the Right is happy to finish.
And the point of this history lesson is – what?
Simply, that the current policy of trans-gender activists to countenance “No Debate!” with feminists apprehensive about how the proposed amendments to the Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Act might impact on the rights of women and girls, has generated an astonishing level of political vituperation – up to and including repeated efforts to deny their opponents both the freedom of expression and the freedom to assemble peacefully.
Just how vicious this “No Debate” fight has become was illustrated when the Otago Daily Times published an advertisement submitted by the Stand Up For Women group. By agreeing to carry SUFW’s message – the dictionary definition of “woman” – the newspaper exposed itself to bitter and sustained attack from trans-gender activists on social media. By allowing their enemies (for that is how “trans-exclusionary” feminists are perceived) to define the meaning of woman, the ODT was accused of taking up position on the wrong side of history.
By upholding freedom of speech and facilitating civil democratic debate, however, the ODT has shown its understanding of history’s “wrong side” to be both deeper and stronger than its critics’.
This essay was originally published in the Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 September 2021.