Editor’s Note: This incisive piece by Janet Albrechtsen in The Australian, quoting Stephen Fry at length, highlights the nasty depths to which our “civil” discourse has sunk. Identity politics turns people against each other, dividing communities and spewing toxic, damaging words against vulnerable, innocent people who simply have a different point of view. As Chesterton said, “People generally quarrel because they cannot argue.” Instead of using cool logic to debate points of contention, people make ferocious ad hominem attacks against their political opponents and demand utter compliance with their worldviews, which in the end turns moderate fellow citizens against their cause.
“When it does happen, the effect is sudden, deep and lasting. It takes a long time to understand what has taken place. You enter a period of mourning, trying to come to terms with the difference between the child you expected and longed for, and the reality that you now face. But like so many things to do with the human spirit, there is resilience you didn’t know you had. You feel such strong bonds of love, and such desire to protect this beautiful little creature.”
In his new book, For the Record, released this week, David Cameron recounts the birth, the short life and the death of his son Ivan, who was born with a rare neurological disorder that left him severely disabled.
The former British prime minister writes honestly about caring for a beautiful but helpless baby who was drenched in sweat daily after suffering up to 20 violent fits, unable to eat, or ever talk, or walk. In the end, the little boy who arrived into this world to the sounds of Barry White in the operating theatre died at the age of six from massive organ failure.
Within moments of extracts from the book being released, The Guardian labelled Cameron as a man who knew only “privileged pain”. Cameron’s miserable time at boarding school, for example, was waved off as something that comes “with an assurance that only important people can suffer that way”. The newspaper then took aim at his experience with the British health system and caring for a severely disabled son was somehow different. Because Cameron is posh.
This wasn’t a half-baked comment by a half-tanked commentator in a communist rag. It wasn’t an anonymous tweet from a crank. Like editorials at other newspapers, this was probably discussed, tossed around in an editorial conference, then written up, subedited and re-read by more editors. Why didn’t someone along the way say, “Stop, this is wrong.”
The Guardian has since apologised. But some apologies don’t count as much as others. Not when words and actions are carefully considered, with lashings of contempt behind them.
When did we get so nasty? Why are some people so certain in their bile? Why would highly-educated editors use political differences with Cameron to diminish his pain because of his “privilege”?
Last year, Stephen Fry joined with Jordan Peterson in a debate to argue that political correctness is not progress. Fry, a gentle man, challenged his two opposing interlocutors — radio host Michael Eric Dyson and blogger-author Michelle Goldberg — with a killer question: So, how’s it working out for you?
When the Munk Debate, held in Toronto twice yearly, quickly drifted into the morass of identity politics and never escaped, Fry asked the same question of people who share his left-liberal politics: So, how’s that working out for you? That being the ugly maelstrom of identity politics.
The other side didn’t answer. They repeated their arguments, their words fell flat, weighed down with unyielding certainty. Fry had made his point.
The left’s affiliation with identity politics is not going well. It has produced “this strange paradox in which the liberals are illiberal in their demand for liberality”, Fry said, adding:
“They are exclusive in their demand for inclusivity, they are homogenous in their demand for heterogeneity, they are somehow un-diverse in their call for diversity — you can be diverse, but not diverse in your opinions.”
Before we destroy ourselves, Fry implored both sides of politics to reject “rage, resentment, hostility, intolerance, above all, this with-us-or-against-us certainty”.
The evening descended into accusations back and forth. It is hard to recall what the other three said, beyond a rambling performance by the blogger, the preachy Dyson labelling Peterson a “mean, mad white man”, and Peterson wasting time by taking the bait.
Fry’s ideas, his questions and observations have stayed with me. His mind is nimble, curious, generous, uncertain. He cited Bertrand Russell in the hope his wisdom might hover over the evening: “One of the painful things of our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” Fry concluded: “Let doubt prevail.”
We live in a dangerous age of blinding certainty about our own moral superiority. In an increasingly secular society, politics has become infused with an unyielding morality that is driving a new sectarianism. Rich against poor, black against white, one creed against another, men against women, feminism is cracking up under the pressure from the transgender movement. These are not fringe skirmishes. Mainstream politics, and media, are the battlegrounds.
As Fry said:
“A grand canyon has opened up in our world, the fissure, the crack grows wider every day, neither side can hear a word that the other shrieks, nor do they want to.”
That is how a group of well-educated journalists decided that describing Cameron’s pain, during the short life and death of his little boy, as “privileged” would likely suit the tenor of our times.
The Guardian deserves the public shellacking it received. It points to more and more people saying enough is enough, time to mend tensions between groups, not to throw more fuel on the fire.
During the Munk Debate, Fry pointed to ordinary people “in the enormous space in between both sides” trying to get on with their lives, “alternately baffled, bored and betrayed by horrible noises and explosions that echo all around”.
Fry admitted he is “a lefty, a soft lefty, a liberal of the most hand-wringing, milksop, milquetoast variety … I’ve been on marches but I’ve never quite dared wave placards or banners”.
He is a social justice warrior because he doesn’t like social injustice. But he is manning the barricade against his side’s descent into illiberalism.
He said that as much as he loathes the “piety, self-righteousness, heresy-hunting, denunciation, shaming, assertion without evidence, accusation, inquisition censoring” of his side, his basic objection is that he doesn’t think political correctness works.
“Let’s be empirical about this,” he said to those on the opposing team. “The reason that Trump and Brexit in Britain and all kinds of nativists all over Europe are succeeding is not the triumph of the right. It’s the catastrophic failure of the left. It’s our fault.
“My point is not that I’ve turned to the right or anything like that or that I’m nice and fluffy and want everybody to be decent. I’m saying: F..k political correctness. Resist. Fight. If you have a point of view, fight it in a proper manner, using democracy as it should be, not channels of education or language. At the moment you are recruiting sergeants for the right, by annoying and upsetting instead of … persuading.”
More than a year later, the horrible noise of unyielding politics, masquerading as moral certainty, continues. Last weekend, The New York Times tried to slander a US Supreme Court judge, knowing it had no evidence. In a piece drawn from a new book about Brett Kavanaugh, the newspaper ran new allegations of sexual misconduct during the judge’s time at Yale, promoted with a tweet about having a “penis thrust in your face”. The paper did not report two essential facts that destroyed the story — the female student declined to be interviewed and denied any memory of the alleged misconduct.
What has happened to fair reporting, solid evidence and the presumption of innocence — a bulwark against the state, the powerful, the corrupt and the incompetent? The New York Times posted an “editor’s note” correcting the story. But the damage was done. A little note won’t correct the modern propensity to smear people with different views in an attempt to censor their contributions, to shut them up. Last week, indigenous woman Jacinta Price was shouted down at a public event in Coffs Harbour on the NSW mid-north coast.
Price advocates personal responsibility, empowerment through real solutions rather than token gestures and confected cultural allegories. She says “welcome to country” routines are a “modern construct”.
Local ABC presenter Fiona Poole described Price as “someone who has cosied up with the right side of politics”. As Chris Kenny detailed this week, another ABC reporter, Claire Lindsay, quoted from a media release put out by the Gumbaynggirr community that declared Price as “unwelcome” because she spread “racist vitriol, vilifies and ridicules Aboriginal people and cultures”. The local ABC station did not invite Price to put her views against these wild allegations. It admitted it was wrong not to, but only after Kenny and Price raised objections.
The left’s project to civilise is horribly uncivil. Sections of the media act as mouthpieces, deriding a posh white man’s pain, smearing a conservative judge with unsubstantiated claims of sexual abuse, carrying the can for those trying to censor an indigenous woman for not toeing the orthodox indigenous line.
More than rank incivility, the left’s project to civilise is killing curiosity. The blind certainty holds us back, drags us down. It is also contagious, both sides in a dead-end race to the bottom.
Fry said it was a pity the debate was not a shining example of “how people of all different kinds of political outlooks can speak with humour, and wit and a lightness of touch”. He drew from GK Chesterton: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”
Fry said: “We should take ourselves a little bit more lightly — not to be too earnest, too pompous, too serious, and not to be too certain.”
Blind certainty is behind the propensity to smear, to shame, to censor. It will kill progress unless more people with beautiful minds, people such as Fry — driven from their political homes by illiberal madness — steer their own side to a more liberal and a more civil world.
Janet Albrechtsen is an opinion columnist with The Australian. She has worked as a solicitor in commercial law, and attained a Doctorate of Juridical Studies from the University of Sydney. She has written for numerous other publications, including the Australian Financial Review, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sunday Age, and The Wall Street Journal.