The danger in thinking it is safer to keep your mouth shut

At my age, I am entitled – and eminently qualified – to read a magazine called The Oldie. No-one disputes my right, as it is an easy way to dismiss me as no longer relevant.

These days there is an awful lot of dismissing. It ranges from ignoring news that does not fit a particular world view to ruining the careers of gifted academics who believed it was their role to speak out.

I’ve written before about being dismissed on a variety of charges, most of them beyond my control (Old white man guilty on three of four counts).

Dismissing, in its varying stages of severity and consequence, is another way of saying we have forgotten how to tolerate our fellow human beings.

In the September issue of The Oldie British historian A.N. Wilson (pictured above celebrating his admission to the ranks of septuagenarians, and otherwise known as the Oldie Man of Letters) devotes his column to “The strange death of toleration” and numerous examples of how “over the last generation, free speech has taken a battering”.

His column was prompted by a mind-numbingly stupid act by the 331-year-old Coutts Private Bank, which cancelled Brexit politician Nigel Farage’s account because of his polarising political views. I don’t particularly like Mr Farage or the way he goes about his politics, but I certainly wouldn’t see that as grounds to tear up his savings bank book.

However, the author of The Victorians and numerous biographies including those of Adolph Hitler and John Betjeman was much more concerned about the treatment of the Reverent Richard Fothergill (a real person) who, on a building society’s feedback page, objected to the promotion of trans and gay ideology which conflicted with his religious beliefs. Boof…his account was closed because the building society practiced “zero tolerance”.

Wilson also expressed deep sympathy for academics like philosopher Kathleen Stock (who lost her job after stating that identifying as a woman did not make you a woman), historian David Starkey (vilified for his comments on race), and the late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton (noted for his conservative views and fired from a government post – then reinstated – after being misquoted on antisemitism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia).

Wilson was intrigued by the use of the phrase ‘zero tolerance’, which he says defines the atmosphere of the age. In spite of claims that we live in an age that is more tolerant “than the one in which we oldies grew up”, the atmosphere created by ‘zero tolerance’ is a different matter.

“Any person whose views differ from those of the ‘liberal’ consensus ­about sex, abortion, Brexit or racial politics – can no longer debate their point of view. They must simply shut up or be punished… The point isn’t whether they are right or wrong, any more than whether Farage is right about Brexit, or Stock about the transsexuals. It is whether one is nowadays allowed to have views that depart from the Liberal Elite Agenda. Clearly, one isn’t allowed to dissent. The zero tolerance of current liberal opinion is in its way as relentless and unforgiving as the Spanish Inquisition. In universities, colleges and the BBC, and even in the ‘Right-wing’ journals and newspapers, it’s foolhardy to risk dissent.”

He was writing about Britain but could just as easily be describing the situation in New Zealand.

Just as I have no time for Farage’s views or tactics, I am not persuaded by the views of Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull on transexuals. However, I would not deny ‘Posie Parker’ the right to express her opinions – and they are no more or less than that – in this country. She was effectively hounded out of New Zealand when she attempted to do so and now says she is afraid to return. While her apparent fears for her safety are a publicist’s dream-come-true, it is abundantly clear that she would face protests if she did come back.

Nor should a letter in the Listener “In Defence of Science”, signed by seven University of Auckland professors have raised any more than a considered debate on the magazine’s correspondence page. Instead, the group’s objection to the inclusion of mātauranga Māori in the school science curriculum led to an investigation by the Royal Society of New Zealand and rifts within academia. Spectator columnist Toby Young commented at the time that “in a rational world, this letter would have been regarded as uncontroversial”. I agree. It should have stimulated no more than a lively debate in which the pros and cons of each side of the argument over indigenous knowledge could be tested. And we would all have been wiser as a result. Instead, the standing of a number of eminent academics was called into question.

‘Co-governance’ – incompetently articulated by the Labour-led government – should have been a matter for free and open discussion in which the myths and realities could be explained and debated. Instead, any opinion that does not cede significant control to tangata whenua is slammed as ‘racist’.

Deeply-held faith-based views against the public promotion of gay rights are condemned as homophobic, in spite of clear countervailing rights under the Bill of Rights Act. Section 13 guarantees “the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief, including the right to adopt and to hold opinions without interference.” Section 15 guarantees that “every person has the right to manifest that person’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private.”

Even group discussions on the forthcoming general election have become more measured, hesitant, noncommittal, or non-existent. It has become much safer to shut up and keep to yourself any thoughts that might be marginalised.

And I detect in our news media the same reticence, a ‘better-left-alone’ zone in which to park topics that might prompt adverse public reactions. Better to stick with the current ‘orthodoxy’.

Such reactions may not actually reflect widely-held public opinion (if such a thing exists among an increasingly silent majority) but the atmosphere of zero tolerance to which Wilson referred has two effects. One is to narrow the boundaries of acceptable speech, and that includes acceptable subjects as well as how we express ourselves. The second is to empower the zeal with which members of what Wilson describes as the Liberal Elite pursue those who would transgress.

Zero tolerance is a misguided belief that the potential to take offence must not be tested. It takes long-overdue protection of stigmatised groups to illogical ends. It presumes an inability to respectfully dissent or disagree, and in so doing privileges one group in society over another.

Since the Enlightenment, societies have moved toward protecting people’s rights but have been careful to qualify those rights. For example, we enjoy a right to life but – within the provisions of international conventions – do not punish soldiers who kill in defence of their country.

The foundation of freedom of expression that has been in place for much of my life (and I am only marginally older than A.N. Wilson) was expressed most eloquently by nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty. In it he spoke of human liberty in terms of “liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral or theological.” He regarded the expression and publication of opinion as almost as important as the liberty of thought itself.

He did not, however, see that as a right that could be exercised at the expense of others. One of the most-quoted sentences from that essay is this: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” He believed that the only rightful exercise of power is to prevent harm to others.

In saying that, he is not suggesting that freedom is a zero-sum game – my rights or yours but not both. He is saying that one person’s rights do not extend beyond the point where they encroach on another’s. The expectation is that the rights of both will be accommodated.

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

Mill was comfortable with that concept because, like an earlier thinker John Milton, he believed in the ability of truth to win out in a fair contest.

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race – posterity as well as the existing generation [and] those who dissent from the opinion still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. If wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit – the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

How on earth have we lost sight of that reality? Is it due to the undeniable fact that social media – unregulated, immoderate,  and apparently without consequence – has robbed us of our civility and our ability to engage robustly without offence? If that is the case, we have chosen to remedy one evil with another, one that may have even worse long-term consequences.

If we redefine tolerance as ‘zero tolerance’, the word loses its real meaning. It becomes, in fact, a definition of intolerance.

American philosopher Tim Scanlon, in a book of essays titled The Difficulty of Tolerance, suggests tolerance means we are equally entitled to the rights and privileges of living in a society but no individual’s way of living in that society is uniquely the way of that society. In other words, we respect and get on with each other in spite of our acknowledged differences. Intolerance is the opposite and is a recipe for conflict.

We need to start discussing our differences and our differences of opinion and our approaches to life. There is no better place to start that dialogue than in our news media. However, media  will need to disabuse themselves of the notion that their own staff should have a greater footprint in the public sphere than those within society itself.

The Oldie Man of Letters ended by asking whether we want to live in a society where dissent is simply not allowed. I was reminded of an essay Literature and Totalitarianism by George Orwell. In it he said:

It is important to realise that [totalitarian] control of thought…not only forbids you to express – even to think – certain thoughts but it dictates what you shall think, it creates an ideology for you, it tries to govern your emotional life as well as setting up a code of conduct. And as far as possible it isolates you from the outside world, it shuts you up in an artificial universe in which you have no standards of comparison.

Little by little and topic by topic we may be headed in that direction.

9 thoughts on “The danger in thinking it is safer to keep your mouth shut

  1. There is an important issue here which although not necessarily fatal to your position, deserves careful consideration, namely how do you reconcile the classical liberalism of John Stuart Mill with your work on The Disinformation Project?
    In his 1859 piece “On Liberty” JSM tells us.

    “The opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. Its condemnation may be allowed to rest on this common argument, not the worse for being common.

    While you on November 8th, 2022, in your piece “Alarm bells must bring out disinformation fire fighters” tell us

    “A journalist deliberately leaking information to conspiracy theorists and extremists would be an appalling reflection on the whole profession at a time when it is struggling to maintain public trust….[snip]…Given the implications of the information breach, the investigation should be placed in the hands of New Zealand’s security services. The integrity of communication between journalists and disinformation experts ­– including officials in the security services and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – is vital. There is a basketful of background material – some of it confidential – for every word printed or broadcast on the subject. That background is essential if journalists are to understand the context of what they write or say…and the reasons why some information must be kept under wraps.”

    And this is the part which I thought was the absolute kicker,
    “And, at all costs, avoid propagating disinformation in the name of exposing it.”

    This is you and The Misinformation Project silencing discussion under the assumption of infallibility, treating your own opinions as absolute certainties and assuming for yourself and your class the authority to decide the matter for all mankind (or at least all Kiwis). You want the secret police (or internal security forces if you prefer) to shut down the dissemination of true information about the secret collusion (or confidential co-operation if you prefer) between journalist and the government. Is there any substantial difference between secret information and suppressed truth?
    What would JSM himself have made of all this? He was an odd man in many ways, but I doubt he would have been on your side on this, “at all costs avoid propagating disinformation in the name of exposing it” malarkey.
    ” The Roman Catholic Church, even at the canonization of a saint, admits, and listens patiently to, a ‘devil’s advocate.’ The holiest of men, it appears, cannot be admitted to posthumous honors, until all that the devil could say against him is known and weighed.”
    John Stuart Mill “On Liberty” 1859

  2. Gavin Ellis – Gavin Ellis is a media consultant, commentator and researcher. He holds a doctorate in political studies. A former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, he is the author of Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and White Knights (London, Palgrave) and Complacent Nation (Wellington, BWB Texts). His consultancy clients include media organisations and government ministries. His Tuesday Commentary on media matters appears weekly on his site
    Gavin Ellis says:

    Sorry to undo all if your work here but I am not, in fact, associated with the Disinformation Project. I have written and spoken on the subject but am not a member of that group.[sorry, I was interrupted by a meeting]. My view on not propagating anti-vax disinformation is entirely consistent with Millian and consequentialist ethics relating to harm. Views which have no scientific base and which undermine public confidence in an urgently needed medical response to a pandemic cause harm and therefore lie outside legitimate limits. Please do not respond with an anti vax argument because it will be removed for that reason.

  3. Barrie Saunders – This blogsite was established because of my interest and involvement in the media and public policy going back more than four decades. For 25 years I was a Government Relations consultant retiring from Saunders Unsworth in 2015. Earlier work included journalism in New Zealand, Australia and the UK, public relations roles in Parliament, manufacturing and the meat industry – also in the late 1980s the North American Director of the NZ Meat Producers Board based in New York. I was President of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce 2000-2002 and was Chairman of the NZ Taxpayers Union from 2018 until March 2021.
    Barrie Saunders says:

    Gavin. Excellent piece which Fran O’Sullivan endorsed last night. Today I told Colin Feslier that when it comes to coverage of the Treaty and the proposed Voice in Australia, the NZ media has more in common with Pravda than The Australian. I am near the end of a ten week stay in Oz and have been enormously impressed with The Australian in respect of the Voice. Some of my leftish friends just cannot stomach the idea this Murdoch paper can get at least one issue right.

  4. “I am not, in fact, associated with the Disinformation Project.”

    Well now you’re just dissembling Gavin,

    “The seminars, organised by the Disinformation Project and communicated through the Science Media Centre, were to allow journalists to discuss disinformation with a range of experts…[snip]…Like the Disinformation Project itself, the SMC is a highly reputable organisation (whose advisory board I had the privilege of chairing).”

    So you chair the advisory board of the group that communicates the times place of the seminars of The Disinformation Project, therefore you have access to at least some of their confidential communications, that’s very clearly an association. They discuss matters with journalists and media experts, you are a journalist and expert within the very small media eco-system of New Zealand who has written and spoken on the subject, and you publicly call for “Disinformation Firefighters”.
    You ARE associated with The Disinformation Project.
    I never said you were a member. You could split hairs about if you work “With” them or “For” them, but that’s hardly the crux of the matter. Your particular position in the chain of command maybe obscured from public view but you are all pulling on the same rope.
    Moving on to the Millian consequentialist ethics, which maybe the crux of the matter JSM refutes your desire to shut down public discussion and prohibit certain views from being known on the grounds of ” undermine public confidence ” in Book II of “On Liberty”

    “There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.”

    “the claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society. There are, it is alleged, certain beliefs, so useful, not to say indispensable to well-being, that it is as much the duty of governments to uphold those beliefs, as to protect any other of the interests of society….
    It is also often argued, and still oftener thought, that none but bad men would desire to weaken these salutary beliefs; and there can be nothing wrong, it is thought, in restraining bad men, and prohibiting what only such men would wish to practise. This mode of thinking makes the justification of restraints on discussion not a question of the truth of doctrines, but of their usefulness; and flatters itself by that means to escape the responsibility of claiming to be an infallible judge of opinions.”

    We can still see a great deal of 19th century Britain in 21st century New Zealand. In attempting to declare certain fringe sects heretical and their beliefs beyond the scope of accepted discourse, you, The Disinformation Project and other allied factions are undercutting the very basis ANY of us have for making ANY solid judgements.
    The fact that you are doing so under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s office and with the assistance of the security forces and secret committees just makes it all the more ominous.

    1. Gavin Ellis – Gavin Ellis is a media consultant, commentator and researcher. He holds a doctorate in political studies. A former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, he is the author of Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and White Knights (London, Palgrave) and Complacent Nation (Wellington, BWB Texts). His consultancy clients include media organisations and government ministries. His Tuesday Commentary on media matters appears weekly on his site
      Gavin Ellis says:

      If you are going to accuse me of dissembling and of intellectual dishonesty, I suggest you get your facts straight. I once chaired the Science Media Centre’s board but have not done so for some years. I have no association with the centre. You have run out of opportunities to comment on this post except, perhaps, for offering me an apology.

  5. The existing orthodoxy is a religion but a particularly harsh one.
    Unlike classical religions there is no possibility of redemption as the sinners can’t change the factors that make them unworthy. Age, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education are all origonal sins which can’t be expiated.
    The punishments meted out are loss of prestige, jobs, career destruction, loss of relationships and social isolation.
    Going to be an interesting election, all the sinners can vote

  6. Yes, yes, yes.
    The Oldie mag is a treasure, packed to the gunwhales & I learn something from every page.
    Just finished A.N.’s Confessions and could hardly put it down.
    I won’t draw you on what views of Kellie-Jay K.M’s you aren’t persuaded by Gavin but I admire her courage and was impressed by a first encounter with her in the time of the Lia Thomas UPenn swimming meet when this 6ftplus ‘transwoman’ trounced the women’s field…Kellie-Jay shouted ‘he’s a man’ from the public seats and she’s right. I would’ve gone to hear her & others in Albert Park had I still lived in AK. It was meant to be a women’s rights rally, not a riot, after all.

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