Dissent in a time of Covid

Dissent in a time of Covid, by Brendan O’Neill.

Two nasty ailments have gripped Britain in recent days. The first is Covid-19. The second is intolerance of dissent. The authoritarian instincts of the chattering classes have been on full display in this crisis.

You can see it in their daily pleas for Boris Johnson to turn the UK into a police state. You can see it in their sneering at people who visit parks or take a walk on a beachfront. And you can see it most disturbingly in their implacable rage against anyone who deviates from the Covid-19 script and asks if shutting down society really is the right thing to do. Like medieval scolds, they brand such people dangerous, insane, a virus, accessories to manslaughter. ‘Shut them down!’, they cry, thinking they are signalling their concern for the public’s health when really they are advertising their profound contempt for freedom of thought and critical debate.

In an emergency, freedom of speech doesn’t stop being important. It becomes more important. …

The speed and intensity with which questioning extreme responses to Covid-19 has become tantamount to a speechcrime is alarming. …

It could be worse

How swiftly we become McCarthyites. How naturally intolerance comes to that section of society that thinks it knows best. Partly, of course, this is always its default mode. As we know from the past couple of decades of social shaming, No Platforming and outright state assaults against people who are deemed to hold hateful or wrongthink views, the new elites are not exactly friends of freedom of speech.

But the rising tide of Covid-19 censoriousness also suggests that these people think that when things get serious, when society faces a genuine threat, then freedom of speech becomes a negotiable commodity. Words potentially become dangerous. Bad ideas can lead to loss of life. So police speech, shame the dissenters, silence the ‘virus’ of incorrect thought. This is as wrong as it is possible for someone to be. …

The second reason freedom of speech becomes even more important in a crisis is because of one of the key things that freedom of speech does — it encourages intellectual humility. Freedom of speech is the means through which all of us entertain the possibility that we are wrong. … It gives us that great liberty: the liberty to change our minds.

Dogma, in contrast, does the opposite. Dogma emerges where people shield themselves, normally courtesy of censorship, from the thoughts and questions and criticisms of others. Forcefielding oneself and one’s ideas from criticism gives rise to lazy, sclerotic thinking.

Hear hear.