We should learn how to disagree - Free speech and tolerance

THOUGH the White House election is still some months away the world is almost inured to the wild, dangerous, racist and reactionary statements from Donald Trump. 

The post-factual Republican party candidate is doing so much damage to the West’s political cultures, America’s reputation as an exemplary democracy, and weakening what might be loosely termed the alliance of the West.

The support for Trump is undeniable but it is alarming as it is built on one reckless, incoherent and incendiary statement after the other, statements so transparently false, uninformed and deliberately provocative that it is all but impossible to understand why otherwise sane and rational people, seemingly at least, might support him. It is even more difficult to understand — without being dangerously, deeply cynical — how a person with even a moderate degree of intelligence, perception or emotional empathy could make them.

The candidate’s latest lunacy is a statement from his campaign banning The Washington Post from covering events organised as part of his presidential campaign. Mr Trump has claimed that the newspaper is a front for Amazon’s political agenda but, obviously, he is more concerned about the newspaper’s analysis of his off-the-cuff, Orwellian fantasies.

Mr Trump is not the only would-be-demagogue to use this shut-’em-up tactic. Every autocracy, every dictatorship and nearly every government facing a revolutionary challenge from its citizens has done all it can to silence the critical voices undermining its position. China has used its Great Firewall to ban Facebook and Wikipedia. Russia does not bother with such sweeping gestures, prying journalists and persistent critics are intimidated or just disappear.

In Poland, where, the Law and Justice party — an ultra-conservative, right-wing group with nationalist and Eurosceptic leanings and rooted in the Catholic Church — cracked down so very hard on the “liberal” media after it was elected in October that the EU have to intervene and threaten sanctions unless free speech was accepted as a part of normal democracy. In Egypt, the epicentre of the 2011 Arab Spring, journalists are routinely jailed.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre shows you cannot say certain things about Islam. In universities, subjects or events that might give offence are challenged. Oxford’s Oriel College had to fight not to remove a statue of the controversial imperialist Cecil Rhodes because a student thought it inappropriate.

In Ireland, this culture of trying to stifle debate will be seen when a Dáil committee finds itself in court in November to defend speeches made in our parliament over Denis O’Brien’s banking affairs. In a world where holding power to account is far more difficult than it should be, free speech is an essential tool in challenging authority and driving change. Despite the abuse of this invaluable principle by Donald Trump, one of our great obligations today seems to be establishing a culture which allows us to agree on how we disagree so tolerance, rather than murderous intolerance like that seen in Orlando last weekend, becomes the norm.


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