Wheaton’s Law

Alt-right, alt-left and freedom of speech…

TL:DR – everyone can be lovely: try not to be a cock.

About 28 years ago, I was a hick from the sticks, recovering from too much organised religion and – just – escaping into city mentality (okay, Exeter, but you know what I mean). I’d never been in a room with more than about three people who didn’t share my ethnicity. I thought that sex before marriage was – more often than not – unfair on any children it might produce. I’d never met a lesbian who was open about her sexuality.

I met a chap at university who was involved with the anti-fascist league. I did know that Exeter had a BNP presence. The chap was organising an anti-fascist demonstration where they intended to shout down a BNP rally (or something similar). I told him that I didn’t agree with his actions because he was interfering with their freedom of speech. He replied that, whilst he believed wholeheartedly in freedom of speech, the people he would be protesting against would use that freedom for arguing against those freedoms for others. I suggested that he was doing precisely the same thing: he was all for that freedom except when it belonged to people he disagreed with. He smiled, shook his head and – well – I wasn’t the sort of person who thought he could be wrong that often, I suspect that I was rather smug, and so I carried on beating my head against his argument. There might have been beer. Actually, there might have been a lot of beer. I probably stopped making sense fairly early on.

But I’m fairly sure he had a point. And I didn’t. This is why.

I disagreed violently with the ‘fascists’ who, in their turn, violently disagreed with me. As much as I disagreed, I presumed that this issue was a matter of opinion, pretty much: I thought they were wrong and they thought I was. We could both argue our cases – a lot of the theoretical stuff was the same in both. If I asserted that they were wrong and shouldn’t speak, then they could argue the same back. From a logical point of view, this is an impasse.

But the two stances are not ‘equal but opposite’. One side is primarily inclusive: everyone is valued, everyone can speak, everyone can listen, every one can decide. The other side is primarily exclusive: not everyone is valued (‘white supremacy’, ‘these streets are ours’, ‘faggots go home’ etc), not everyone can speak, not everyone can decide. One side would deny the other a chance to speak because of what they are saying: the other would deny the other a chance to speak because of who they are, and not just deny them a chance to speak, but a chance to do an awful lot of other things, too.

Shouldn’t everyone have a chance to speak so that others can listen and decide what they think and believe? Absolutely! But only if everyone has the facts, those facts are indisputable, the arguments are presented rationally and cogently, everybody listens to everything, nothing is spun by a media with a vested interest, everyone is capable of looking at those facts from an unbiased perspective and so on. Which just isn’t possible, it seems, not even in the late 80s and much less so now.

Surely, though, letting everyone speak would be, at least, the best position out of a lot of poorish alternatives? I suspect not – and this might have been the Exeter chap’s point. The ‘right’ makes the ‘left’ (shorthand here, folks) uncomfortable because of what they think – thoughts are contextual, they can change, they are not dependent on who you are. The argument isn’t personal. The ‘left’ makes the ‘right’ uncomfortable because of who they are, not what they think – and who you are, those broad brush strokes which ‘identify’ us, aren’t contextual, they don’t change: female, male, black, white, straight, LGBTQI+ and so on. Its argument is intensely personal. In other words, the ‘left’ is attacking ideas and the ‘right’ is attacking people. There is a way for everyone to live together happily in the ‘left”s world and there is not a way for everyone to live together happily in the ‘right”s. The ‘left’ wants to challenge ideas. The ‘right’ wants to challenge people in general. No one should be challenged for who they are, and everyone should be allowed to exist peacefully in their world without being challenged for who they are (issues of legality notwithstanding – different can of worms, although the same brand, at least).

The ‘left’ thinks that everyone should be heard regardless of who they are – and the ‘right’ does not (regardless of how much it pretends it does). The ‘left’ thinks that the only people who do not deserve that right are those who will not extend that right to everyone – and yes, there is a cheeky paradox in there. But the ‘right’ thinks that lots of people do not deserve that right, and that they’re relying on those very people’s ideas of freedom to proselytise against them, is much more than a little cheeky and much more of a paradox.

In other news, the weather continues charming.

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