It used to be called being ‘sent to Coventry’. It meant social ostracization, being ignored and snubbed in company – a well established form of passive aggression which has taken multiple forms in today’s world. We know it as no-platforming, blocking, muting, unfriending or cancelling. Some forms are more exclusionary than others of course. If you are ‘muted’, you are probably completely unaware that someone on your list of contacts has ‘switched you off’, perhaps temporarily. I have done that myself to someone not because of the content of their posting but because of the sheer, incontinent volume of it. At the more severe end of personal editing is the digital shield that prevents people from engaging in an online conversation. This was used by the Repeal Campaign during the referendum of 2018 to repel unsettling arguments or bigoted barbs, depending on your point of view.
It’s a free world and there is no issue with choosing your company online or off. We create our own social spaces, decide what cultural and ideological bubbles we are happy to live in. However, there is something to be said about the experience. In this week’s Spectator magazine, writer Lionel Shriver, writes an open letter to a long time friend, a very well-established left leaning novelist whom she intriguingly does not name. This friend announced to her, by email, ‘nothing as human as a telephone call,’ that she was ‘stepping back’ from their friendship following Shriver’s appearance on BBC’s Question Time where Shriver expressed views that might be described as ‘unwoke’. This ‘stepping back’ was code for a complete freeze both online and off.
Of course being ‘cancelled’ by an actual friend rather than a mere twitter or Facebook ‘friend’ is a bigger deal than being unfriended by someone who has never spoken to you face to face, whose face you may not actually recognize if you passed on the street. Nevertheless, it is frustrating to be cut down in the middle of a thread when you feel your argument is really going somewhere. This happened to me last week. I joined a conversation on twitter between Sunday Times columnist and Iona Institute director, David Quinn and Irish Examiner columnist and former head of Barnardos in Ireland, Fergus Finlay. David Quinn had posted that the immense contribution of the Catholic Church is forgotten amid the scandals and that virulent anti-Catholicism in Ireland and beyond is responsible for that state of affairs. It was suggested on the thread that other organizations, Barnardos included, get treated differently despite having their share of scandals too. Various links were posted. Amongst other failures, it was revealed that Barbados in Scotland had systematically destroyed records in children’s homes where abuse had been reported. If this was the Catholic Church, there would be calls for a systematic review of the organisation’s activities everywhere. The postings pointed out Finlay’s double standards.
The conversation paced up. My final contribution was to ask Fergus Finlay if Bardardos ‘survivors’ can claim redress in the same way as survivors of abuse in the Catholic Church. I was immediately blocked. Frustrating obviously but very revealing too.
Instead of addressing arguments, Finlay first went on the attack against ‘innuendo’, then asked for grounded statements to be withdrawn, something that usually carries a whiff of legal threat. That wouldn’t work with some of the people concerned so his final move was to block.
This was no burning off of a ‘troll’. This was a repel shield to control a conversation. David Quinn was also blocked and very likely other opposing contributors as well. Fergus Finlay has on occasion taken aim at journalists like David Quinn for complaining their viewpoints are under-represented on mainstream media. One experience alone can shoot down his assertion. During the referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment in 2018, Fergus Finlay used his Irish Examiner column to push his pro repeal stance over and over. He was joined by other columnists in both that newspaper and others to promote the cause. As an occasional contributor to the Examiner, I was given a single column to make my pitch on the issue. That was not in uncontested space but in a special referendum supplement where two contributors lined up on each side of the argument. One of those was another regular Examiner columnist who frequently used her weekly column to push the Repeal case. Over a third of the electorate still voted against repealing the 8th Amendment. It is reasonable to observe that their views were were not given proportionate coverage on mainstream media during the campaign or the long build up to its launch. It is also reasonable to ask if those views might have won more support had the playing pitch been level.
The really worrying thing is that many of the people who erect these glass partitions on social media, who organize digital pile-ons to no-platform speakers, are just as likely to call for the professional destruction of their ideological enemies. They don’t just want to send people to the proverbial Coventry – they want to criminalize opinions they hate and have have them publicly branded as ‘hate’ speech to be punished under newly emerging ‘hate speech’ legislation. They are already notching up hard to credit victories. Tax expert, Maya Forstater, who worked for a think tank that campaigned against inequality and poverty, lost her job because of her expressed view that a transwoman could never be the same as an actual woman. She appealed but her appeal was rejected by a Judge who ruled that she was ‘absolutist in her view of sex’. Many people would say that was a better description for the intransigent views of her opponents. The blatant irony of his words would be risible if they did not carry such power or if there was not so much at stake for Forstater.
A woman with little to lose, Harry Potter author, J.K.Rowling, came to Forstater’s defence and repeated on social media the view that Forstater paid such a high price for expressing. However, even JK Rowling is not above the reach of the ‘Thought’ police. A punctuation point in the ‘wrong’ place or syntax call could have landed her in even more trouble than Forstater.
But the emergence of established liberals like JK Rowling, Germaine Greer and more recently Selina Todd as allies of the new oppressed marks a hardening of battle lines, not a softening. Lionel Shriver noted in her response to her unfriending friend that ‘antagonisms flare up between the ideologically proximate’ with as much fury as between the ideologically poles apart. Perhaps even more so as their defection and betrayal is potentially more dangerous than the full onslaught of well flagged enemies.
But there is another reason for the intolerance. Cultural power has shifted. It is now firmly with the new establishment of leftist liberalism. They will, like every power block before them, use it to its full extent until it corrupts and destroys them in the end. For now, that seems a distant vista. And they will do what they can to keep it distant. Dissenters are a threat as they always were. It is not enough to silence them. They must be forced to recant, to conform, to affirm what they don’t believe to a point where it hardly matters what they believe anymore because they are so discredited and compromised.
Power walks hand in hand with fear because it plays fast and lose with truth. Truth of course does not go away. It has, as it always has had, its defenders, its witnesses, its martyrs. It really can’t be no-platformed, cancelled or blocked forever. Social media is far too hydra-headed so advantage in the medium term would seem to lie with the heretics at this point in history.