A modern trend appears to be increasing intolerance of what, only a few years ago and for many people still, would be regarded as innocent and harmless. Various persons now seem to take severe exception (or objection) leading to defacement of statues/buildings and ruining careers of otherwise commendable or worthy people on the spurious grounds vaguely described, if described coherently at all, as being ‘offended’, ‘hurt’, ‘victimised’ etc. Typical examples of the new intolerance are the efforts to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College in Oxford and the hounding of Nobel prize winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt.
It is easy to fall into the trap of attempting to refute the accusations being made, thereby meeting the accusers (the ‘offended’) on their home ground, giving implied legitimacy to them and being drawn into somewhat superficial or meaningless arguments. In being distracted, the more important issue is being ignored. We are not asking or answering the question of where is this new found enthusiasm for feeling offended and using that as a ‘justification’ for intimidation or harassment, demanding ‘apologies’ and ruining careers taking us? What sort of society are we becoming, and do we want to be taken there by incoherent and poorly researched zealots, and by a complacent and all too obliging ruling elite?
History does not set an encouraging example. In a few short years from around 1560, ‘Merry England’, the seasonal festivities of revels, wakes and ales etc. suffered continual religion-inspired attacks and with the co-operation of acquiescent secular authorities was largely stamped out, much against popular demand. Ronald Hutton records its demise in The Rise and Fall of Merry England. The new found enthusiasts for suppression of festivities used various ‘justifications’, such the existence of ‘drunkenness’ and ‘lewdness’, which a few years earlier would have seemed bogus. In turn, there was a counter movement that festivities, even on Sundays, were legitimate pastimes. Naturally, the positions of the two sides could not easily be reconciled and probably played a role in the divisions leading up to the Civil War, the war itself, and its aftermath.
The modern intolerance inevitably impacts adversely on freedom of speech, expression and thought, leading to external regulation by the authorities and vigilantes holding the self-righteous belief in their entitlement to impose their views and censorship on others. And there is internal censorship by people with some things remaining unsaid and unchallenged because of their fear of the consequences; being accused of this ‘…ism’ or that ‘…phobia’ or of persecution/prosecution. That in turn can lead to other, sometimes many other, innocent victims, as Pastor Martin Niemöller eloquently stated in his “First they came …” warning. And in this country, fear of speaking out appears to have contributed to a blind eye being turned by the authorities for years to the mass rape of vulnerable children and young women in places such as Rotherham. Yet freedom of speech and thought are also essential in a modern, tolerant society, not just for the very humane reason of the removal of fear. Roger Scruton has made a logical and impassioned justification for freedom of speech, even to objectionable/heretical views, in order to challenge, to find the truth and to develop further on Radio 4’s A Point of View (transcription).
Democracy and the rule of law cannot flourish in an environment of intolerance, because respect for the other side, be it person, argument, and/or position is diminished, if not eliminated altogether. The outcome has to be the pursuit of power and its, potentially, unrestrained use; a slippery slope to be on indeed. From small acorns, large oak trees in time grow. Whilst prosperity and individual wellbeing based on humanity, free enterprise and innovation, where there is limited free speech and free thinking, are diminished.
In a modern society we all need to be mature enough to accept the rights of others to disagree, to value the contribution each, somewhat imperfect person, makes to our wellbeing, and stand fast against the new intolerance that cannot forgive and move on.