A Question of Spine
Respect and Fear

An Imaginary Compromise

Over at B&W, Ophelia makes the following point re Shirley Williams’ dismal performance on Question Time and what appear to have been her underlying assumptions:

“What people apparently do with these ‘offended’ claims is reverse engineer: they reason backwards: they look at the magnitude of the ‘offence’ and then assign guilt accordingly - but that's wrong. If that rule held no one would ever criticize or dispute or tease anything because of the risk of ‘offence’ out of all proportion to the intent and to the harm done. Instead what people should be doing is coldly examining the merit of the putative grievance, independent of the quantity of fuss made.”

Indeed. What was curiously missing from Williams’ calculation was whether one party is remotely entitled to such rage, or to anything at all, and whether riots, death threats and howls of indignation are a legitimate response to a novel that hasn’t been read or the knighting of its author. To question the proportion of the affront being claimed, the honesty of the claim, and the assumptions on which that claim is based would risk undermining the premise of this particular manoeuvre.

Shirley_williamsWilliams was, it seems, trying to appear “even-handed” while actually being craven and rather stupid. By which I mean she seems to have imagined that between these two positions there must be some admirable middle point that it must be “fair” to champion. So if you have screaming, tantrums and demented theocrats on the one hand and a rational British novelist on the other, both must be “extremes”, and thus the “even-handed” thing to do is to “compromise” and support some position roughly halfway in between, irrespective of what that position actually entails. Hence Williams’ ramblings about “Muslims” being offended “in a very powerful way” and Rushdie’s knighthood being a “mistake”, “badly timed”, etc. The actual moral issue – of whether umbrage, violence and the threats thereof are justified or opportunist, or even sane – was not a discernible part of Williams’ calculation.

As the audience applause for Williams demonstrated, this is a remarkably common assumption – that the most “fair” and “even-handed” position is halfway between calm argument and homicidal thuggery, or halfway between intellectual freedom and a visceral fear of speaking. Well, that would leave us somewhere near the absurd dissembler, Lord Ahmed, who equated Rushdie’s knighthood with rewarding terrorism. This is the moral calculus favoured at various times by Karen Armstrong and Tariq Ramadan, both of whom “balanced” real intimidation, aggression and murder on the one hand with “tyrannical” free speech and “aggressive” cartoons, published “aggressively”, on the other. By this contorted reckoning, the “compromise” solution is to avoid publishing “aggressive” cartoons, or novels, or films, or plays, etc. And, by implication, to avoid stating inconvenient facts or honouring those who happen to point them out.

And thus the engine of human progress, the testing of ideas – and of bad ideas in particular – grinds to a halt. All in the name of “fairness” and being “even-handed.”