such as no-platforming threaten to strangle the roots of freedom
I TOOK part in a debate on the proposition that Society Must Recognise Trans
People's Gender Identities. Evidently the subject touched on many issues of importance
that deserved to be discussed, bringing to bear personal, scientific, moral,
philosophical, and other insights on either side. But the organisers were denounced
for even convening an event. This calls for some reflection.
have led me to hold moral philosophy professorships on three continents: permanently in
the UK and in the US, and now as a visiting professor in Australia at the University of
Notre Dame in Sydney where I am giving a series of lectures on the theme of The Good
comparing these cultures, particularly their educational and media institutions and
practices, I notice differences but I also see common trends, among the most concerning of
which are the limiting of freedom of expression and the growth of coercive
US and UK campuses there is a growing practice of no-platforming, and demands to approve
(and remove) staff, and to vet courses and syllabuses deemed 'offensive', 'disrespectful'
and even 'discomforting'. In public debates there is a trend to restrict what can be
discussed. In the provision of services there is coerced co-operation in practices one
deeply disapproves of. These are marks of a closing culture and Australia needs to avoid
the same mistakes.
counter and reverse such trends, our intellectuals, institutions and the media need to
return to the roots of western liberalism so that we might live at ease with one another
under its protective branches.
represents a philosophical ideal and a practical solution to a social challenge. The ideal
is that of free thought and expression by which minds are formed and refined. The solution
is to the challenge of deep difference and irreconcilable disagreement.
the Reformation, Europe was torn apart by religious wars between Catholics and
Protestants. No solution lay in the direction of victory by violence, but it occurred to
thinkers such as John Locke that it might be possible to accept deep differences between
believers while making this a basis for tolerance rather than terror.
recognised that while disagreement might be silenced by the threat of violence it would
only be effective so long as that threat could be maintained everywhere and always. And
that proved impossible then as it did centuries later for the tyrannous ideologies of Nazi
Germany, the Soviet Union and Cambodia.
further recognition was that one can only coerce outward behaviour not inner thought and
feeling. Additionally, believers on either side of a religious or moral divide can see in
their opponents what their opponents can see in them, namely sincere believers trying to
make sense of the human condition.
if that is not enough to prompt sympathy and respect, together with the impracticality of
coercion, it gave reason to liberals to develop the idea of religious tolerance. This took
an age to be converted into practice but from it emerged the first amendment of the US
constitution: 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof'. It also prohibits 'abridging the freedom of
speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble'.
effectively addressed those who argued, as the ideologues of old and new orthodoxies tend
to do, that one may silence someone on the grounds that their views are offensive. It
remains a milestone on the road to the 'good society'.
liberalism continues to be referred to in political philosophy seminars, on the campuses
of English-speaking colleges and universities and in progressive blogs and among diversity
and equality activists, a new tyranny threatens to strangle the roots of freedom and
establish orthodoxies no less intolerant than those of the past.
penal times, sovereigns punished dissent with deprivation of social position, employment,
property and freedom. Today, in less centralised societies, the sources of coercion are
widely distributed but they have power nonetheless to intimidate, to censor and to
silence, and through education to reach into and narrow the minds of the young while they
are still in formation.
well as being a philosophical ideal, liberalism is a solution to the challenge of
difference and disagreement. Anglophone societies are increasingly diverse,
multi-cultural, multi-moral and multi- much else besides. They can only hold together if
they recover and renew the principles of tolerance not endorsing but putting up
with that with which one profoundly disagrees, and accepting that ones own
convictions may be countered in good faith.
the past, the main dividing points were religion and national identity. Today they are
morality and personal integrity. Unless these are protected, there will be no selves to
which to be true, just a mass of unquestioning conformists. There is no time to be lost in
turning back the rising forces of illiberalism.
John Haldane is Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at St