Civil discourse

It has been fascinating watching the “debate” about Google sacking an employee who made disparaging comments about women coders and the fuss about the BBC allowing Nigel Lawson air time to deny climate change. Many are saying that Google shouldn’t sack someone for expressing their views and as many are saying that the BBC shouldn’t have given Lawson air time.

Lots of strongly expressed “shouldn’t”. But where do we end up if we try to silence people we disagree with – even if we feel justified in doing so? If they haven’t broken any laws what gives us the right to shut them up? And if we shut them up where do we stop?

The historian Mary Beard faced a bewildering degree of online aggression triggered by the argument over whether or not Britain’s roman conquerors were from different ethnic backgrounds. In cases like this there are some positions that seem so bizarre and illogical that the temptation is to shut them up and make them go away. But to do so has consequences that go far beyond the initial incident. Once you start silencing dissenting voices where do you stop, and who decides? Isn’t it better to give people who take extreme positions the rope to hang themselves (metaphorically speaking!)? To let their views be seen and scrutinised, to open up the, often very slight, possibility that they might come to change their views.

In his book Free Speech Tim Garton Ash repeatedly makes the point that we all have a responsibility to cultivate effective, civil discourse online. His book is like a much longer version of my aphorism that “we all have a volume control on mob rule”. Expecting someone else to sort out people we find challenging is problematic. Introducing legislation is incredibly difficult and likely to cause unforeseen consequences that do wider damage than the original incident.

We need to find a way to engage with those we find difficult and to seek mutual understanding. It is far from easy, and can seem weak or overly liberal, but there is no other way. The alternatives are much worse.

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