Dissidents in the Soviet bloc fought for many freedoms between 1945 and the end of the 1980s. None was more important than the freedom to say or write what they wanted. They understood that free speech is the conduit to other freedoms. Without it oppression becomes the norm, and fear takes hold. Dissent, criticism and open debate are necessary in strong and mature societies. Yet, it appears as though people are increasingly unwilling to engage in debate. Instead, the default option is to shut down dissenting or contrary voices.
The conflict in Gaza elicits strong passions. These passions are shaped by whether Israel or Hamas is viewed as the aggressor. There will likely never be agreement on the roots of the conflict or the ‘truth’ of particular actions. But there is a difference between debating the roots of a conflict and the merits of policy. The former is for historians whilst the latter can be deadly.
Israelis are overwhelmingly in favour of government policy: nine in ten support the strategy and tactics of the Israeli Defence Forces. But there are critics. People such as Gideon Levy, and the organisation B’tselem. Many have been vilified and attacked for questioning the war in Gaza. Peace rallies have been openly attacked and abused for undermining national unity. Outside Israel, those critical of how it has waged war on Hamas are often accused of anti-Semitism. There has been a deplorable and unforgivable rise in attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions, especially in Europe. Anti-Semitism, however, should not be conflated with criticism of Israeli policy; to do so risks shutting down debate.
Some voices are particularly ugly. George Galloway, an MP, is one such ugly voice. He recently declared his Bradford constituency “an Israel-free zone.” With opinions on most topics, and a knack for stoking controversy, Galloway is much in demand as a pundit and speaker. He is due to speak soon in Belfast. A city councillor from the Democratic Unionist Party tried to prevent Galloway from speaking in Council owned property. He failed. The publicity around the incident has ensured a sold-out ‘show’.
That competing voices are undervalued, whether in Israel, Northern Ireland, Egypt or the US, is dangerous. Three reasons are feeding this danger.
First, the public is less engaged in the big issues of the world. An obsession with the banal crowds out the meaningful. Policy debates, such as they are, are not about substance but about process. And even when a celebrity’s latest irrelevancy is not the main headline, any engagement is myopic: people listen to, watch, or read media that express a view of the world with which they already agree. Those who express a different viewpoint are dismissed.
Second, it is a cliché to say that social media is to blame, but it undoubtedly feeds the symptoms by being reductive. 140 characters does not allow for a nuanced discussion. Its reactive nature feeds emotions.
Third, and perhaps most significantly, emotion trumps logic. Public debate and discussion regularly degenerate into who is right and wrong rather than an objective working out of solutions.
Fundamentally, the vilification of critics of Israel’s policy or the DUP’s stance in calling for George Galloway to be prevented from speaking demonstrates a lack of confidence. Rather than challenging the content there is a desire to shut down the voices.
But free speech is of absolute importance. Rather than seeking to shut down or intimidate dissent, a mature and confident society should encourage it. That includes voices we think are vile and abhorrent, like Galloway, or those we think are questioning national unity. There are those who will say that it is not possible to have a mature debate with Galloway. That may be so. His views are repugnant and verge on being racist. He is a demagogue, unwilling to engage in reasonable debate. But it is still incumbent on society to let him have his say. Otherwise, one day, someone might tell you or me what we can or cannot say.
Therein lies a dilemma. How do we challenge people who abuse the responsibilities that come with the right of free speech? The answer is not to silence voices. That is the tactic of dictators. Instead, those voices need challenged on the content and substance of what they say. To do so requires an engaged citizenry, sharp minds, and a confidence in one’s views that is rooted in logic, not tribalism or emotion. Rather than use emotion as an argument, it should be deployed as a tactic.
Above all, heed the advice of my A-level politics teacher to read things that you disagree with on a regular basis. It mitigates against lazy thinking. Critically, it highlights the most difficult issue for those who hold strong beliefs whilst illustrating the surest sign of a mature society: that values or principles do not have to change but differing opinions must be debated and discussed with openness and tolerance.