Fergus Finlay: We mustn’t just censor bigotry, lies or hatred: we must fight back

What Biden started last week against Trump is the right approach. Provided that it is sustained.
Fergus Finlay: We mustn’t just censor bigotry, lies or hatred: we must fight back

UD President Joe Biden, in a speech from Statuary Hall to mark the one year anniversary of the January 6 riot at the Capitol, in Washington DC bysupporters loyal to the then president, called Trump out for his lies. Picture: Drew Angerer/Pool via AP

SO, WHO should we ban this week? There’s that annoying financial commentator in Ireland who keeps whining on about how the State is fear-mongering about Covid. There’s the Fox News guy who keeps insisting that the assault on Capitol Hill a year ago was no big deal — might even have been a false flag, he says.

There’s the British commentator and former politician — viciously anti-immigrant all his life — who’s now campaigning for the multi-millionaire Novak Djokovic to be allowed to enter Australia just because he wants to.

Ban them all, that’s what we should do. Take them off the airwaves, silence them forever. Censor the hell out of each one individually — that will put manners on them all.

Or maybe not. Maybe we could just reserve our right to disagree. Maybe we could follow Andy Murray’s lead.

Murray is a laconic Scottish tennis player. He expressed concern for Djokovic when he was detained on trying to enter Australia, and asked everyone to wait until all the facts came out before passing judgement.

Then he watched Nigel Farage, of all people, grandstanding on the case — on Twitter — by visiting Djokovic’s family in Serbia. Then he tweeted a direct message to Farage. “Please record the awkward moment when you tell them you’ve spent most of your career campaigning to have people from Eastern Europe deported,” he said.

Game, set, and match Andy Murray. Doesn’t that kind of response beat censorship every day of the week?

I didn’t say anything when Kevin Myers was fired, or when George Hook was forced to retire, or when Eoghan Harris was sacked. I should have, and I’m sorry I didn’t. I think anyone who knows me would know that I would struggle ever to agree with Harris or Myers, and although I was very fond of George Hook I was horrified at the victim-shaming outburst that led to his suspension and then disappearance from Newstalk.

So, I strongly disagreed with all three of them in respect of the things they said and did that led to their removal, and in at least one of those cases there was certainly a sackable offence.

However, by silencing voices we disagree with, we diminish ourselves. Myers and Harris were frequently offensive, and, to the best of my knowledge, Hook was egregiously wrong once. All three of them have lost, it seems forever, the platforms that meant a lot to them. That’s our loss as much as theirs.

Censorship does that. The more we censor opinion, the poorer we become.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight back. That doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t demand accountability for hate speech or ideas likely to foster belittling or demeaning attitudes to others. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prepared to call out propaganda or lies for what they are. It just means we need to think longer and harder before imposing or enforcing silence. We always have the choice not to listen, or to listen and disagree.

Over the Christmas break I listened to a documentary on Newstalk (I think it was a repeat) about state censorship of books in Ireland. It was fascinating and revealing — the things we did to ourselves in the name of public morality! It ended with a quote from John McGahern to the effect that pretty much anyone should be allowed to say whatever they wish — and let the fools condemn themselves out of their own mouths with the stupidity of their utterances.

I largely, but not totally, agree with that. Sometimes it’s necessary to be Virgil Tibbs.

He was a black American detective in the movie In the Heat of the Night. He was played by the extraordinary actor Sidney Poitier, who died last week. Almost the first thought that came into my head when I heard of Poitier’s death was a famous scene — the first of its kind — from that movie.

Tibbs is investigating a murder in a town in the Deep South — the kind of place where you wouldn’t expect a black detective to be welcome. He has to question one of the town’s grandees, who is so affronted by the impertinence of a black man daring to asking him a question that he slaps Tibbs across the face. Instinctively, reflexively, Tibbs slaps him right back.

That was more than 50 years ago. I can still remember the shock of it. A black man, fighting back instinctively against a racist instinct. When Sidney Poitier did that, he made a unique and distinctive contribution to the civil rights movement in the US. A movie that showed racism and misogyny in all its ugly forms, and one man refusing to take it.

There were parts of the world — even parts of the United States — where there were attempts to remove the scene, but the failure of censorship in that case led to its own kind of history.

Demanding accountability is what Joe Biden did this past week — or at least started to do, with his speech on the anniversary of the January 6 attack on The Capitol.

Donald Trump has been 'deplatformed' on some of social media, and this is regarded as censorship by some in the states. Not actually so, in my view. My understanding is that he is free and welcome to appear as often as he likes on every available TV network in the States. The only problem is that he can be questioned, challenged even, every time he tells a lie. There’s no censorship in that.

What Joe Biden describes as the web of lies and deceit that Trump manufactured, from the moment of the election right up to now, has worked. It has divided and polarised America. It has kept Trumpism not just alive but a potent political force (a year ago I wrote that Trumpism would wither on the vine, and it hasn’t happened yet).

Here’s the thing though, most of Trumpism’s lies are so outlandish that a censor would easily be forgiven. However, censoring Trumpism only drives it further into the sewer, only fuels its fire.

That’s why Biden’s speech was so important. It wasn’t about silencing Trump, it was about calling him out. It’s odd that in America, where freedom of expression is so heavily enshrined in the first amendment to the constitution, that a culture of cancelling opinion has so strongly taken hold. There must be a terrible temptation to find ways of adding Trump and his toadies to the list of cancelled entities.

However, what Biden started last week is the right approach. Provided, of course, that it is sustained. For a year Trumpism has been allowed to say what it likes, and has succeed in whitewashing a crime against American democracy into a silly little riot. One speech won’t undo that. Biden has to take the fight to them now. Again and again. That speech last week needs to be the start of a united democratic campaign.

If it works like that, we might all learn something about how to address bigotry or hatred or lies. Don’t ignore it, don’t cancel it, don’t censor it. Don’t assume the fool will condemn himself with his own stupidity and lies. Fight back instead. And never stop.

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