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Exploring, questioning, experiencing non-literal faith


John Haldane

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Practices such as no-platforming threaten to strangle the roots of freedom  

RECENTLY 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. 

Circumstances 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 Society. 

In 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 conventionalism. 

On 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. 

To 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. 

Liberalism 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. 

Following 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. 

This 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. 

A 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. 

Even 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'. 

This 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'. 

While 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. 

In 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. 

As 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 one’s own convictions may be countered in good faith. 

In 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. 

Professor John Haldane is Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at St Andrews University.

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