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“Beliefs can be false, unwarranted by evidence or reasoned consideration. They can also be morally repugnant. Among likely candidates: beliefs that are sexist, racist or homophobic; the belief that proper upbringing of a child requires ‘breaking the will’ and severe corporal punishment; the belief that the elderly should routinely be euthanised; the belief that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is a political solution, and so on. If we find these morally wrong, we condemn not only the potential acts that spring from such beliefs, but the content of the belief itself, the act of believing it, and thus the believer.” – Daniel DeNicola, professor and chair of philosophy, Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania,

https://aeon.co/ideas/you-dont-have-a-right-to-believe-whatever-you-want-to

Among those who consider themselves decent, civilised people there’s unlikely to be disagreement over Daniel DeNicola’s “likely candidates”, i.e. his truncated list of repugnant beliefs/viewpoints. Then he goes further and introduces a more contentious proposition. The condemnation is not just of the harm that might flow from these beliefs, but their content and the act of believing, and thus, he says, condemnation falls on the believer. In short, he is saying that there are views so despicable that those who hold them should be despised also.

Hence, there are two questions: i) Can we agree a short list of utterly repugnant viewpoints that merit unequivocal condemnation? And ii) Should those who hold these views be reviled/shunned/excluded from one’s company or at least treated with some degree of special caution when it comes to public debate.

Confronting elitism and the dilution of “repugnant”

Before turning to those questions, something needs to be addressed. Look at the question: “Can we list morally repugnant viewpoints, convictions?” The reality is that many citizens already have such a list but, “We”? Yes, “We” because the reality is that these citizens belong to a group which thinks itself – and frankly is generally acknowledged to be – composed of decent people. They might also be termed civilised or thinking people.

There is a couple of dismissive reactions to the notion of “decent people”. To begin with, it’s easy to disregard decency as a latter-day manifestation of a moral majority. Indeed, that’s basically the line of attack when populists seek to lead ignorance and vulgarity by creating a new anti-establishment opposed to thought, expertise and concern with values. There’s no way out of this. It’s the struggle between civilisation and barbarism.

Another way to resist the claims of decency is to try to dilute them by the inclusion of more everyday political controversies like, say, a particular tax. That’s a familiar and popular tactic among extremists; they try to label routine matters as equally extreme. It’s a “what-about” of the sort, “We’re not the only killers. Taxation drives people to suicide.” It’s to be expected and resisted. By contrast, decency’s list is short and basic, and supports the civilised behaviour on which democracy relies. That too could be derided as bourgeois but unless there are conditions that call for revolution, decency supports democracy.

Populating the list

At the time of writing Ireland is experiencing local and EU election campaigns, and decent people are appalled that racist, anti-gay, anti-vax comment and candidates are being tolerated, indeed given public media platforms. That would be fairly typical. Decent people tend to condemn racist, sexist, homophobic viewpoints as morally repugnant. Lately, on public health grounds they increasingly include anti-vax opinions. Moreover, few would want to exclude Daniel DeNicola’s examples, to reiterate, that proper upbringing of a child requires ‘breaking the will’ and severe corporal punishment; that the elderly should routinely be euthanised; that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is a political solution, and so on. The point is that while repugnant viewpoints tend to be few, enduring and universal, the list can be discussed, extended or reduced, e.g. in Ireland in particular it can be argued that a belief in celebrating public bombers/bombing is a morally repugnant viewpoint.

Dealing with the list in an open society

Decent people tend to demand that repugnant viewpoints be censored, be denied a public hearing because such views are so bad as to override rights to freedom of expression. Censorship, however, is unnecessary, undemocratic and plays into the hands of those perpetuating repugnant viewpoints. Perhaps censorship is not the decent response!

The sensible and effective way lies through Daniel DeNicola’s second proposition, that those holding repugnant viewpoints be treated exceptionally. The way to address the spread of repugnant notions is to maintain a spotlight on those holding them. That is to say, the repugnant viewpoint must be heard – indeed, must be broadcast – according to routine liberal freedoms but in addition its sponsors and supporters must be marked out as very different, as morally repugnant.

This approach deals with the real fear that decent people have of giving a platform to vile viewpoints. They fear that these views will become commonplace and be accepted by greater numbers in society. They fear normalisation but here’s the thing: having vile views expressed and challenged publicly is not how normalisation works. The process is much more insidious.

The view and the person holding that view are both repugnant but while the person wants public attention, they seldom if ever want that attention to focus on the extraordinary viewpoint that sets the person apart, the viewpoint that above all else defines their character, marking them as a repugnant person. That viewpoint attracts far too much attention and they know full well that they’ll struggle to justify it. What they’ll seek to do is participate in all the routine discussions so that they can appear normal. Thus the repugnant viewpoint is normalised by saying as little about it as possible while allowing its holder to present as a normal, nice, friendly person with something to offer on all the issues and debates of a society. It is this quiet, creeping process of normalisation that decency must prevent.

An open, liberal society needs the expression of all viewpoints, no matter how hideous. They have to be out in the open to be rebutted. It is wrong to prevent expression. It is right to demand expression while letting their holder speak of nothing else. If there is a compelling reason that they be heard on routine matters, then let their utterances be bookended by emphases on their morally repugnant stance. Under no circumstance should the morally repugnant viewpoint be alienated from the morally repugnant person who holds it because the morally repugnant viewpoint is normalised by allowing the morally repugnant person to speak of normal matters.

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4 Comments

  1. This is an interesting take on what has always been a challenge to liberal societies – the question of how much tolerance to extend to those who (by their actions or words) would seek to undermine tolerance.

    If I understand you correctly, what is being proposed is
    1) It is possible for “us” (that is, decent people) to create broadly agreed upon list of “repugnant” opinions
    2) People who hold those opinions should not be censored and should be allowed express their views (so that they may be rebutted) but they should “marked out” as morally repugnant and should not be given a platform to express their views on any other topic.

    I’m not sure I can agree with this

    What if I proposed that people should be allowed to say whatever they want BUT if they said something I considered repugnant my friends and I should be allowed to punch them in the nose? I suspect people would (rightly) ask who I am to presume to have the right to punch people in the nose. I doubt they would be impressed if I claimed that my friends and I should be allowed behave this way as we are “decent” people.

    I also don’t imagine I could persuade too many people of my genuine openness to engaging with and challenging repugnant ideas in open debate. I suspect most people would see the threat of a punch in the nose as a form of censorship.

    Clearly, you are not proposing to hit anyone on the nose, but the things you are proposing don’t fall far short of ostracising, boycotting or platform-denial – all social sanctions that can have an effect on free speech every bit as chilling as the threat of violence.

    You wave away concerns about moral majoritarianism with the claim this is the “line of attack of populists”. Certainly, some populists like to rant against the “political correctness” of those who would comprise the decent majority in this country. However, many other populists implement laws that oppress religious minorities and LGBT communities with the support of the majority of people in their countries – almost all of whom would, no doubt, also consider themselves to be decent.

    How and why are you satisfied that your proposal will not lead to the majority simply taking it upon itself to sanction anyone they disagree with? If you are comfortable that decent people are in the majority now, how are you satisfied that this will always be the case?

    • Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I don’t think that decent people are in the majority. I’m exhorting decent people to struggle more thoughtfully against barbarism. Though they don’t feature in this blog, I have two related arguments. i) That mass political communication should serve the participatory citizen and not those appearing in the media, that speakers should not have rights superior to the requirements of citizens in the audience. This means that unless a speaker has something utterly unique to say, there is no compelling reason that they appear on, say, TV because the requirement to hear that viewpoint is served by a choice of speakers. ii) Citizens holding repugnant views tend to think them ordinary because decent people in day to day conversation fail to challenge them.

      • Sorry if this is a double post (my previous reply didn’t seem to work)

        I just wanted to thank you for your reply and for this blog which I’ve enjoyed reading

  2. Thanks for your response – and thanks also for this blog. I enjoy reading it. I haven’t gotten through all your posts but if you have any that speak to the related arguments you refer to above please point me towards them


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