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Tag Archives: decency

“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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Ordinary citizens appear increasingly to be democracy’s and indeed decent, civilised behaviour’s last line of defence. In their day-to-day interactions it now falls to citizens to struggle against those who promote and support barbarism. That is to say, if it was ever sensible to remain silent – to opt for a quiet life – while someone in the company – perhaps a friend or family member – spouts nonsense or savagery, it’s no longer a safe option; democracy and decency are now under too much pressure.

During a recent BBC Panorama documentary on the rise of racist attacks in the aftermath of the Brexit poll, a social scientist made a telling point: it’s not that the racists have majority support; it is that they think they have.*

Those who hold and express vile views seldom if ever face an adverse reaction in social and family circles. Too few people or perhaps no one at all expressly disagrees with them, tells them that they should be ashamed of themselves or refuses to socialise with them. Moreover, they are allowed to take part in routine conversation and banter without reference to the knowledge that their most basic views are an affront to civilisation. To borrow a term from communication and media studies, racist thugs are being normalised. **

The same failing has resulted in the current friction over what men can and cannot say to and about women. There are those who hold that despicable behaviour is part of routine banter. The thing is, they are telling the truth and it is the truth because no one in their circle says otherwise. Colleagues, associates, friends and family – knowing their views and character – are willing to socialise with them, are willing to normalise them.

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A key moment for me came some years ago on a bus queue of all places. I tend to talk to strangers. I engaged when the person beside me started on about what was wrong with Irish society. Soon it became apparent that immigrants were the cause of Ireland’s problems. It got worse: each race, it was contended, brought particular failings and these were enthusiastically listed. Certainly I was shocked to be talking to an extremist but more shocking was that someone so extreme would be open with a complete stranger. When I gathered myself and began to argue, it was her turn to be shocked. Clearly she was unaccustomed to questioning and contradiction. She fell silent shortly before the bus arrived.

Thinking about the incident afterwards, I was made despondent by the idea that those views had become utterly routine, that in this woman’s circles her views were accepted as ordinary. My belief now while still chilling, is a little better. Yes, her views are held by many – far too many – but she is mistaken in thinking that she enjoys near universal approval. She is lulled into assuming approval by the absence of confrontation, contradiction and criticism and by being made welcome into the company of decent people.

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Tolerance is now so pervasively misunderstood that public discourse is endangered. “I’m entitled to my opinion” has come to mean, “I’m entitled to say what I like without having to answer for it.” An added variant is, “I’m entitled to talk about drains and football without mention of my more basic, noxious views.” Too many thinking people now consider trenchant argument to be impolite. They flop into an effete silence while racists, misogynists, liars, conspiracy theorists, even supporters of war crimes, and others with similarly vile views move and operate as if they were normal citizens of a decent and democratic society.

There might have been a time when journalists were expected to act but nowadays they are almost completely in thrall to news values and have for the most part left the field of struggle over fundamental values. They prefer to report comments on current issues without reference to a speaker’s basic and sometimes vile views; bluntly, they are activists in the process of normalisation.

That leaves the last line of defence: the thinking, participative citizen, aware of three things: i) that democracy is recent and fragile ii) that it depends on effective public discourse; and iii) that beyond issues, current affairs, even the differences between conservatives, liberals and socialists, there is a small number of shared positions that mark out democracy, civilised behaviour and human decency. That is now threatened and quiet politeness is complicity.

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* About 22mins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yetFgoAkrGE

** qui tacet consentire videtur

Joan Burton, Leader of the Labour Party, has responded to Sinn Féin’s overtures by ruling out a coalition. However, while her reasons for doing so are sound, they are not the most compelling. She says that she “would not jeopardise the country’s future in any way by seeing it going into the hands of Sinn Féin” but she is referring to SF economic policy.* That is of course a very good reason but there is something altogether more stark: the truly compelling reason the Labour Party or indeed anyone else must have nothing to do with SF is their human rights record, in particular their support for crimes against humanity.

Joan’s position is undermined, moreover, by the local government coalition of Labour, Sinn Féin and others at South Dublin County Council. The SF TD for Dublin South West, Seán Crowe, reckons that this alliance with the Labour Party has worked very well over the past few years and that, “There is a precedent there that we can work with Labour and others in an inclusive manner that can bring about change. South Dublin is a good example of that.” **

It is a glaring anomaly that Labour entering a coalition government to run the country requires the formal approval of party members, but a local government coalition can be agreed by cllrs. without so much as a discussion with members. After the 2014 local elections a party member objected on Facebook to involvement with SF. The last part of a Labour councillor’s reply was revealing, “In local government, the people are the focus. My community is what matters to me.” This is the hideous realm of the whitewash, a realm in which terms of decency (people, community) are used to cloak horror.

The Labour coalition with SF at SDCC is now in its second term. It has never received the formal approval of members in South Dublin. It is unconscionable that Labour has done a gratuitous deal with SF. It should never have started. It should end now.

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*http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/burton-won-t-jeopardise-country-s-future-with-sinn-f%C3%A9in-deal-1.2455028

**http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/sinn-f%C3%A9in-leaning-more-towards-coalition-with-labour-than-ff-1.2453529

The Irish government wants to reduce the public pay bill by 10%, about 20Bn. Discussion about how this might be done has been limited to familiar themes. The only nod to decency has been mention of leaving the salaries of poor public workers untouched but even this has been challenged as “unfair” to poor people employed by private companies. In these strange economic times why not indulge in the luxury of radical thought?

 

If we open discussion to hitherto unthinkable possibilities, it might lead us to reconsider our values. There may be a progressive but challenging way to reduce the public pay bill. Let’s consider putting a ceiling on the income of rich public employees. This course has advantages beyond reducing the total pay bill. It makes a statement about and begins to address excessive inequality in Ireland but it will make no one poor. Moreover, the conventional argument for outlandish pay, that high earners will defect to jobs in the private sector, no longer applies. Let’s calculate. How much would be saved if no public worker received in excess of, say, E200k per annum? Perhaps the number of workers that well paid is too small to make a significant saving. Let’s then calculate for 150 and 100. Going any lower might begin to push into the terrain of radical egalitarianism but 100k is more than twice the average industrial wage and five times the minimum wage.