Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Silencing the Opposition or the Odious

There is a certain tactic in play in the modern protest movement or in contemporary politics that I find troubling, and frustrating. In the lead up to a speech by Donald Trump in Arizona protesters blocked a highway to prevent people from attending the event. I have major problems with this from a philosophical point of view. Anyone who reads my blog or my Twitterfeed no doubt has a good sense of my ideological issues with Trump. I think he is a horrendous candidate, but at the same time I am not going to condone people from preventing people from seeing the man speak.

Far too often it seems to be the objective of groups to silence those they don't agree with. Trump is not the outlier, though he may inspire a level of passion we do not normally see. Last year an infamous men's rights activist (and shameless troll/self-promoter) was scheduled to make speeches in a few Canadian cities. Mayors publicly stated he was not welcome and several people called on the federal government to ban him from entering the country. The mayors' interventions are fine, they are politicians expressing their opinions. However, barring a person from entering the country based on their political views is... troubling.

To be clear, it isn't just people on the right. Leftists also have been targeted. Former British Member of Parliament, George Galloway, for his positions on the Middle East and associations was targeted by critics who claimed a person of his views was not welcome in Canada. Anita Sarkeesian, culture critic who largely focuses on video games, has had to cancel events due to threats of violence.

When speakers do get to hold their events it is not uncommon for protestors to heckle, disrupt and shout down the controversial figure. There is a long list of speakers who have had this fate. On university campuses bioethicists and pro-life speakers are particularly vulnerable, as are controversial political figures or politicians.

My idealistic streak tells me that silencing ideas is not the way to win arguments or make change. Debates are won and minds are changed through the exchange of ideas. The level of comfort people have with silencing people rather than countering them is disturbing. We'd rather live in artificially peaceful consensus than contentious ideological and social strife. Censorship is a troubling thing and while the state has largely removed itself from curtailing our speech and assembly private interests seem very willing to create social censorship and declare persons and topics non grata. Some progressives would say that the messages these speakers share are actively harmful and promote existing power structures and oppression. However, ending debate through disruption does not move the needle on broader society, if anything it creates sympathies for the target. More could be done by counter programming, protest, judicious questioning, letters to the editor, and social media responses. In an era where it is easier than ever to speak out it is odd how much effort is put into shutting people up. 


Jared Milne said...

Funny thing-I remember reading Richard Gwyn's 1994 book Nationalism Without Walls: The Unbearable Lightness Of Being Canadian, wherein he discussed this trend among some progressive groups. He noted the extent to which their members could even turn on each other, citing university professors and the emotional wrenching they experienced when they were the ones suddenly targeted with all the venom their fellow-travelers threw at them.

In my mind, anyone who resorts to the kinds of tactics that you describe (trying to stop people from attending rallies, throwing urine bottles at reporters, as happened to a reporter from the Rebel Media last month) has already lost the debate.

SJL said...

While I'm sure some of the origins of this trend could be tied to the political correctness of the 1990s I think it has spread to a general intolerance of opposing views. As to your second set of points, I'm not sure that incident with Rebel Media's personality holds much water under scrutiny. The issue is these battles don't permit a debate to occur at all.