Free and open debate | Pakistan Today

Free and open debate

  • Silencing opposing views is wrong, whoever does it

“The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

That letter about Justice and Open Debate, the one that’s due to appear in Harper’s magazine’s October issue, has elicited quite a response, and rightly so. It is an important subject, one that we in Pakistan as much as anywhere else need to understand and address.

The matter under discussion is– to quote the letter– that “wider calls for greater equality and inclusion” across society have “intensified a new set of moral attitudes”, ones that instead of leading to more debate and greater tolerance are tending to weaken them. This letter, signed by many academics and intellectuals including Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker, and authors including Margaret Atwood and J.K. Rowling speaks out against censoriousness, intolerance, “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism” and a tendency towards a “blinding moral certainty” amongst liberals. It speaks of clamping down against free speech and free journalism, of books being banned and professors being dismissed.

In other words, it is a familiar scenario.

The letter says that injustice and discrimination in society has led to protest– which is good, but– the signatories point out, this protest has intensified into a different kind of injustice when some of those with views opposing injustice and discrimination have become equally intolerant and censorious in a way that makes them unjust themselves.

A simple illustration would be of a society in which women are forced to cover themselves and wear burkas. This society includes a set of persons who disagree with the burka and of women being forced to dress a certain way. They feel that women should be allowed to choose and not be forced to do something, which is right enough. But if these people refuse to allow the subject to come under discussion, if they force people who support the burka to recant, and try to force women to remove burkas, that is just as wrong. That is the sort of situation the letter refers to.

The open platform provided by social media is not easy for all to accept. While most of us put up with the different views on social media, it is the first target for those whose power depends on being able to dictate to the public, because not everyone has the patience to persuade, to talk, to listen. Not everyone realises the importance of all sides of the argument being available for scrutiny, with the freedom and security of proponents of all sides ensured.

Turns out that example isn’t imaginary after all. It has happened in Turkey. And in other ways, centering on different issues, it is happening around the world. We have seen and are seeing right here the suppression of debate and free speech and of people being forced out of academic institutions. Even though in this case and in many others it is the right wing or the ‘me-wing’ that censors, the result is the same, the suppression of debate which results in a suppression of individual freedom and rights. That is the natural progression of things: when debate is suppressed the result if always a ‘steady narrowing of the boundaries of what can be said without threat of reprisal.’

Debate is at the crux of freedom. Today, when about 60 percent of the world’s population is online, social media provides an unprecedented platform to any person who is able to express himself or herself. On the other hand it has produced a ‘cancel culture’ which allows people to band together and hold people accountable for their actions or opinions. Usually the person held accountable in this way is someone well known, who people will listen to, someone whose views have an impact.

The case of one of the signatories of that letter, J.K. Rowling, comes particularly to mind here. Rowling who recently wrote something in which she seemed to define only natal women as ‘people who menstruate,’ was subjected to a hail of abuse as a result, with some people responding that ‘transgender men experience menstruation, and transgender women don’t.’

Rowling refuted the criticism leveled against her, saying she felt solidarity with all women, trans and natal.  She explained her reasons for trying to define the difference which were the Scottish government’s decision to go ahead with its gender recognition plan which says that all a man needs to be recognized as a woman is to say he is one. Rowling said she wanted all women, trans as well as natal women, to be safe, but this cannot happen if you throw the doors to bathrooms and changing rooms open to any man who says he is a woman.

Does this sound wrong?

The open platform provided by social media is not easy for all to accept. While most of us put up with the different views on social media, it is the first target for those whose power depends on being able to dictate to the public, because not everyone has the patience to persuade, to talk, to listen. Not everyone realises the importance of all sides of the argument being available for scrutiny, with the freedom and security of proponents of all sides ensured.

The reaction to what Rowling wrote seems to prove this point.

You are free to disagree, and to resist. “But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion.”

Rabia Ahmed

The writer is a freelance columnist. Read more by her at http://rabia-ahmed.blogspot.com/



*

*

Top