Thursday 20 January 2022

The Totalitarian Impulses Driving “Consequences Culture”.

Hang The “Consequences”! To suggest that it is somehow okay for the Left to punish people for exercising their freedom of expression – because that is what the Right did, and does – is not only nonsensical ethically, but it also strongly suggests that not too far below the surface of the individuals making such a claim there lurk some disturbingly totalitarian tendencies.

THE BATTLE OVER FREE SPEECH is only likely to grow more intense in 2022. If the Labour Government persists with its plans to eliminate “hate speech”, and if its allies continue to expand that highly contentious term’s definition, then the conflict promises to be epic.

At risk will be nothing less than right of New Zealanders to speak and write freely about their beliefs. Should the year end with a broad definition of hate speech written into New Zealand law, then the 2023 Election will be a particularly vicious and unforgiving affair. Regardless of who wins, the essential fabric of civility that protects the practice of our democracy will be rent beyond repair.

Already that fabric is showing signs of serious wear and tear. In a recent comment, uploaded to the Bowalley Road blog, I read with dismay the following sentences concerning “Cancel Culture”:

“Perhaps we should call it consequences culture instead of cancel culture. You say something people don’t like using your freedom of speech, people can react in various ways using their various freedoms to criticise or punish you for it. Grow a pair and suck it up.”

What makes this statement so concerning is the framing of political and/or cultural debate as a rule-free zone, in which participants should not only expect to be criticised, but also punished, for expressing opinions with which others disagree.

Ominously, the gratuitous addition of the unabashedly sexist taunt “grow a pair and suck it up” makes it clear that the incoming “criticism” is much more likely to consist of the sort of vicious personal abuse that typifies contemporary social media, than the rational, informed and elegantly-styled offerings of traditional critical literature.

It is, however, the word “punish” that is most concerning. The idea that one should expect to be punished for expressing oneself honestly and forthrightly, strikes at the very heart of our democratic culture. But, before attempting to flesh out what is meant by that term, let us take some time to examine the philosophical parameters of a “consequences culture”.

In one sense, all cultures are consequences cultures. In all societies there are customs, conventions and laws, the flouting and/or breaking of which inevitably entails consequences. The taking of another’s life without just cause brings retribution in all human communities. Expecting anything else would be entirely unrealistic.

Societies also exist, however, in which the articulation of certain ideas risks the direst consequences. To insult the Prophet Mohammed in a devoutly Muslim country will almost certainly result in the blasphemer being put to death. Attempt to use your freedom of speech in Belarus, especially by questioning the legitimacy of the current President, Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko, and punishment will come hard and fast.

In such settings it is simply nonsensical to speak about the existence of freedom of expression. No one is free who, the moment they attempt to exercise their freedom, is subjected to some form of punishment. Historically, the only leftists who subscribed to such a notion tended to be Stalinists and Maoists of the most extreme kind.

Stalin and Mao’s intolerance of free speech was based squarely on the proposition that their variant of the communist ideology was the closest approximation to the truth of which humanity was capable. To suggest otherwise constituted a crime against the truth, and against all the benefits that flow to humanity from the truth. To attack and defame the disseminators of the truth was tantamount to attacking and defaming humanity itself. To speak thoughts and articulate beliefs in contradiction of the “party line” identified oneself instantly as an “enemy of the people” – deserving of the most severe punishment.

Did the Far-Right behave similarly? Of course it did. Most of the twentieth century was terribly scarred by the horrific human consequences of regimes which arrogated to themselves total power and total control over their peoples’ lives. To suggest that it is somehow okay for the Left to punish people for exercising their freedom of expression – because that is what the Right did, and does – is not only nonsensical ethically, but it also strongly suggests that not too far below the surface of the individuals making such a claim there lurk some disturbingly totalitarian tendencies.

The moral superiority of liberal-democratic nations over authoritarian and totalitarian states is manifested in the political tolerance and civility that constitute their core.

The American artist Norman Rockwell captures to perfection the tolerance and civility crucial to the exercise and preservation of a free-speaking democracy.

With the obvious caveat that no government is obliged to remain inactive in the face of speech and/or behaviour posing an imminent and direct threat to the physical safety of the persons and property of other human-beings, the democratic state declines to designate certain ideas, beliefs and attitudes as either compulsory or forbidden. With the faith in reason and science which their forbears inherited from the Enlightenment, democrats remain firm in their conviction that the truth is what emerges from the free and frank exchange of ideas by people unconstrained by the fear of saying something that will result in them losing their job, being locked-up – or worse.

This all-important faith in the truth-revealing power of free discussion and debate imposes upon the citizens of democratic states a very particular code-of-conduct. People are to be heard respectfully. Any rebuttal of their arguments should be delivered civilly and on the basis of evidence and reasonable conjecture. Under no circumstances should abusive or threatening behaviour be tolerated by those either engaged in, or observing, such debates. Crucially, in the twenty-first century, the rules that apply to these flesh-and-blood debates, apply with even more force to debates conducted on-line.

Consequences culture, or cancel culture? The distinction is more apparent than real. To claim that the most appalling and psychologically damaging personal abuse is nothing more than “criticism”; and to punish those who take an unpopular point of view by pressuring their employers, or boycotting their businesses; is to identify oneself not only as an enemy of the tolerance and civility our democratic system must uphold to survive, but also as a common-or-garden bully.

The haters and the bullies can protest that their motivations are pure and uplifting until they are hoarse. The perpetrators of terrible deeds always justify their actions by claiming they were carried out for the long-term benefit of someone or other. But we have heard these “you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs” arguments forever. At best, they signal a we-know-best infantilisation of the very communities they are purporting to assist. At worst, it’s the cracking of a few eggs that drives them forward. They’re either condescending snobs or psychopaths.

Those are the labels Labour’s caucus risks pinning on themselves if they fail to step back from their ongoing assault on New Zealand’s democratic culture. Only power, and the lust to retain it – at any cost – are located at the top of the social pyramid. Truth, and the freedom it makes possible, are always to be found further down. Forget that, and the consequences for any anti-democratic government are certain to be very serious indeed.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 20 January 2022.


John Drinnan said...

Bravo again Chris Trotter. If only more journalists were doing their job like you are

Odysseus said...

Well I hope the Labour caucus have the good sense to listen to you Chris but I doubt they will. Free speech is not a Left/Right thing, it's about democracy and the ability it affords to effect peaceful change. Most of the Labour caucus however are identity politicians; they owe their position to their race, gender or sexual orientation. Their ideology is murky and continually changes shape with the fashions emanating from American campuses. But the one thing they are not about is "the need to give a voice to ordinary people against established elite interests in order for society to function sustainably" (Sherelle Jacobs, the Telegraph). They are the new elite.

David George said...

Another great essay Chris. I particularly liked the reference to the revelatory aspect of speech: "This all-important faith in the truth-revealing power of free discussion and debate"
There is something worrying about this government, something we didn't see in the conservative liberal governments of Clark and Key: a failure to consider obvious, predictable negative social and practical consequences. A tendency evident in ill considered policies like the gas exploration ban or, more recently, in the extreme tolerance of egregious behaviour of state tenants or the new loan laws. The frightening consequences of the He Puapua program and speech laws don't even seem to register. In this, perhaps, they have more in common than they'd care to admit with the reformers under Lange; although that government, at least, acknowledged the disruptions they were enabling.

“Ideologies are substitutes for true knowledge, and ideologues are always dangerous when they come to power, because a simple-minded I-know-it-all approach is no match for the complexity of existence.”
― Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

Another very interesting essay: How Marxism created the West. Its rotting carcass sprouted every political movement.
Excerpt: "Everyone understands that a person is not wise by virtue of being an accountant, or a therapist, or an immunologist; we all understand that a person can have limited domain expertise, and be a complete fool outside of that area. Moreover, domain expertise is not the same as executive function: the act of governing a society is the act of choosing between competing goods, and this requires virtues like wisdom and prudence. And yet society has become enthralled by the “expert,” the idea of which works in the exact opposite way, suggesting that a person is equipped to make prudential choices between competing goods simply by virtue of possessing technical knowledge in some limited domain. Eventually this denigrates into absurdities, like the “disinformation expert” who is basically a “truth expert.”

John said...

Thanks, Chris, for your clear exposition of what is going on. It's scary!

The Barron said...

"Oppressive language does more than represent violence, it is violence, does more than represent the limits of knowledge, it limits knowledge"
Toni Morrison
Nobel Prize Lecture
7 November 1993

Jack Scrivano said...

Keep on pushing, Chris. The MSM certainly don't seem to be interested.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Wow. Talk about a lot of straw manning here. Let's unpick this a little. Yes I say punish. As I have repeatedly said, private entities can in fact punish you for what you say, if it violates their terms of service. Terms of service which I have mentioned many times you voluntarily sign up to. I'm not quite sure what you don't understand about this Chris, but private entities have no obligation to allow you freedom of speech. Again, are you suggesting forced speech? Forcing people to harbour your opinions on their websites? You yourself censor the weirder among us, is this not punishment? It's not as if I'm advocating flogging or anything.

Remember this?

"The blogosphere tends to be a very noisy, and all-too-often a very abusive, place. I intend Bowalley Road to be a much quieter, and certainly a more respectful, place.
So, if you wish your comments to survive the moderation process, you will have to follow the Bowalley Road Rules."

You've never lived up to this particularly well considering some of the abuse I've had to put up with on your site, but that's the rule and you punish people for disobeying it ... Occasionally.

One particular example might be some of the misogynistic and racist statements you've allowed through in various posts without comment yet for some reason "grow a pair" is regarded as misogynistic. Perhaps it is in your mind, but is a very common expression, particularly on American blogs which I frequent quite often, and often used by women.

I await your singling out of those on the right who comment here to castigate for their language. Particularly those fan boys of Jordan Peterson – the lying hypocrite who started his career as a public intellectual by lying about Canadian laws and has never stopped lying ever since.

I particularly resent the fact that you allowed "capacity for mindless violence" to go through without one single comment – but I guess that was simply racism rather than freedom of speech.

The sheer hypocrisy of yours and the other "Freedom of speech" advocates here amazes me. And to some extent disgusts me. Particularly your refusal to admit that cancel culture belongs on the right as well as on the left. I guess you regard the contributions of the various psycho fan to conservatives who flock around here when you say something like this is more valuable than mine. So be it.

Edward Main said...

The Barron 20 January 2022 at 12:39

That is a very thought provoking quote. Thanks for posting

Chris Morris said...

I agree with the other commentators about your essay. We need more like you pushing back.
One thing that is interesting is the list of those fighting cancel culture. There are groupings that one would have thought impossible even just 5 years ago. And the populous is starting to stir against the woke/ identity. The proponents may live to regret what they initiated.

sumsuch said...

The assault on democracy has nowt to do with this and everything to do with the freemarket plutocrats. Overthrowing democracy in America, major nuisance in Oz and our 5 % dipshit relatives here.

Re information, algorithms and particular sources disallowing alternative views needs to be seriously looked at. The unscrupulous plutocrats need to be sent on their way as Britain did to Murdoch's Sky (or Fox). Keeping out their their shit to folk who don't know an idea from a scone is imperative.

John Hurley said...

That consequences idea comes from Nesrine Malik. Listen to Spoonley a) Radical agenda b) deal with "anxieties" of said agenda (suppress hate speech).
As Isaiah berlins pointed out Spoonley thinks he has the solution in te tiriti futures whatever the cost. Never mind that the (alleged)"myths" may have been a benign form of national self-esteem?

Long Breath Farm 龍氣息農場 said...

Yes, very good Chris, although it's an inverted totalitarianism that's the driving force and the influence of this on national politics.

Archduke Piccolo said...

What's this 'Left'? There IS no 'Left'. Not from where I stand.

The Left was marginalised, silenced and expunged decades ago - almost a century ago in the US; somewhere between 1975 and 1984 in this country. What is called the 'Left' these days is simply just another right-wing faction, with the same right wing attitudes, however different (not so very different) some of their beliefs. That is why I've been calling the Labour Party in this country - and in the other Anglophone nations that have a Labour Party - 'Tory Lite'. And not so very 'Lite' at that, as their attitudes have hardened. I'll pass over the silliness that seems to be entering socio-political discourse - if we can call all that deafening yelling 'discourse'.

You might recall a certain programme on NZTV with the number '1984' in its headline - an audience participation talkfest fronted by one Sharon Crosby. The focus on the programme was, of course, to explore just how far along New Zealand (and the world) had gone down the road towards George Orwell's eponymous dystopian vision.

At one point the audience was asked its view on 'free speech'. The answer (how I wish I could quote it exactly!) was along the lines of 'free speech is essential; you can say what you like ... so long as everyone is OK with it'. To this day I recall Sharon Crosby's startled look when that answer was read out. It perturbed me, and all. I didn't fully realise it at the time, that it meant the 'Left' was dead, and what remained was an effigy 'pour discourager les autres'.

Ion A. Dowman

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Couple of questions which I have asked many times, which no one seems either willing or capable of answering.
1. Given that the right is using censorship to kill free speech all over the world, from cancelling Martin Luther King in schools to killing journalists, why do none of you seem to condemn it?
2. Why do you seem so reluctant to explicitly state your perceived limits on freedom of speech? Do you believe in unlimited freedom of speech? I've been trying to get clarity on this for some time.
3. Do you believe that private organisations should have to put up with speech that either they consider abhorrent, or might lose them money? In other words are you happy with forced speech. (Good luck getting Ha'aretz to publish neo-Nazi content in that case.)
4. Why are my views along these lines constantly misinterpreted and twisted to make out that I am some sort of enemy of the people in this regard?
5. Why is it that there is only protest and alarm when the extreme right are "cancelled", and why are you silent when other people are deplatformed?

Answers would be appreciated, they've been remarkably thin on the ground over the last year or so since this all blew up.

John Hurley said...

I looked up Mari Matsuda who coined the term hate speech

chasms of inequality. I see inequality as a barrier to the very goals that are the gen esis of the First Amendment. If people are not heard because structures of racism or
sexism or homophobia or poverty make it hard for them to project their voices into
the national conversation, we do not have all the ideas we need in the marketplace.
If people do not participate because they lack the means, the education, the
access to effective self-governance, we have a weakened democracy. Equality pro motes speech, inequality limits it. This makes the response to hate speech a problem
for democratic theory. The assault of hate speech affects speech in many ways. It
reduces the quality of speech in the marketplace. Rather than robust exchange of
ideas we have escalating explosions of hatred. It reduces the quantity of speech.
People who are assaulted with hate speech become reluctant to speak out. And to
the extent that hate speech reinforces limitations on opportunity, then the speech of
people who have their opportunities limited loses volume in the conversation.
Let me explain this in less abstract terms by putting it in the university set ting. I support limited restrictions on hate speech on campus because of what I’ve
learned from students – their right to an education, their right to participation, is
infringed when hate speech is considered free speech on college campuses. Their loss
is also the community’s loss-we hear less from them, obtain less in the currency of
active and robust intellectual exchange. Students have told me their stories. A white
woman walking to a moot court practice with a black partner in Texas had the word
“n-i-g-g-e-r lover” yelled out at her from a passing car. A gay student discussing gay
rights issues in a restaurant was approached by a stranger who demanded “are you
a f-a-g?” Anti-gay epithets and a shoving match followed and that student tells me
he’s more careful now about what he’ll say in public places. A Jewish student told
of leaving her library carrel for a break and coming back to find that someone had
drawn swastikas in the margin of her books and her notes.

We seem to have concept creep in light of an extreme agenda. Spoonley says that "for me hate speech has the ability to compromise, to inhibit, a te tiriti based future". And it's one of the challenges we face in having a mana enhancing conversation about this country and it's future"

Eg "stop shoving te reo down our throats" is "racist twaddle" [John Campbell] whereas I see it as an infringement of my right not to be interfered with (negative liberty).

As Isaiah Berlins argues totalitarianism starts with positive liberty where people believe they have expert knowledge about what society needs.

sumsuch said...

You're a great dude GS. Trotter talks for free speech and against 'fake' news. Truth must be reinserted. If even neoliberal Labour can relearn force for the people during covid why not press on. We're for the people and against the powerful who undermine everything. Truth is our oxygen.

David George said...

The ultimate irony?
Even Orwell's 1984 now has trigger warnings.

"Yes, woke hysteria has now reached such a crescendo that even the 20th century’s most famous warning about tyranny is falling victim to its tyrannous habits. RIP satire, you had a good innings. Orwell’s classic book has been slapped with a trigger warning at the University of Northampton. Students are warned that it contains ‘explicit material’ that they might find ‘offensive and upsetting’. These are adults we’re talking about, by the way. People over the age of majority being told by university officials that a novel about the dangerous, dehumanising consequences of censorship might offend them… we’re only three weeks into 2022 and already we have the most 2022 story we’re likely to get."

Guerilla Surgeon said...

FFS David, ONE university has done this – throughout the whole world. This is your typical bullshit conservative method of debating. Find one extreme case and hint that it might be happening everywhere.

Here's a few nutty right-wing ideas just for balance. But first of all, something maybe you should think about.

"Woke is a right wing label like socialist, communist and SJW. They all basically mean 'cares about people I hate' ".

"The only way to reduce the number of nuclear weapons is to use them." ~ Rush Limbaugh

'My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better.'' ~ South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, arguing against government food assistance for poor residents.

'The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.'' ~ Pat Robertso"He is purple - the gay-pride color, and his antenna is shaped like a triangle - the gay pride symbol." ~ Jerry Falwell's warning to parents that "Tinky Winky," a character on Teletubbies, may be gay.

"When I see a 9/11 victim family on television, or whatever, I'm just like, 'Oh shut up' I'm so sick of them because they're always complaining." ~ Glenn Beck

''I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out: Are they pro-America or anti-America?''

—Rep. Michelle Bachmann, calling for a new McCarthyism, Oct. 2008

And finally:
According to the Transparency International UK report, the Tory government displayed “apparent systemic biases in the award of PPE contracts that favoured those with political connections to the party of government in Westminster“.

That latter I think is worse for society than a few trigger warnings.

To be honest though, I wouldn't be surprised if you agree with some of them.