Former Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger gave an interview to The New Statesman in which he happily claimed that kids today are easily triggered snowflakes who can’t handle robust debate. If you’re thinking that’s the kind of crap you’d expect from a columnist in the right-wing press, you’re not the only one: journalist Mic Wright thinks so too.
Rusbridger’s worldview has become increasingly indistinguishable from the ‘free speech’ teethgnashers at titles like The Times and The Daily Telegraph. A man described by the former Observer editor Roger Alton as “admired, but not hugely loved”, Rusbridger is a creature of the establishment who still thinks himself a radical.
The argument Rusbridger is putting forward is simplistic and, in my opinion, wrong: the only way to defeat vile speech – misinformation, propaganda, hate speech and so on – is with more speech. That may be true in the debating halls of a university but it absolutely isn’t true in the wider world, where misinformation, propaganda and hate speech thrive and have demonstrable real-world effects.
I’m currently reading How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley, which goes into some detail about the dehumanisation of minorities. One of the examples he uses is the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, which has been ongoing since 2016; Facebook was instrumental in sowing the seeds of hatred. Here’s the New York Times:
They posed as fans of pop stars and national heroes as they flooded Facebook with their hatred. One said Islam was a global threat to Buddhism. Another shared a false story about the rape of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man.
The Facebook posts were not from everyday internet users. Instead, they were from Myanmar military personnel who turned the social network into a tool for ethnic cleansing, according to former military officials, researchers and civilian officials in the country.
Members of the Myanmar military were the prime operatives behind a systematic campaign on Facebook that stretched back half a decade and that targeted the country’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority group.
The veneration of debate by people like Rusbridger always forgets a crucial element: Power. Debates do not occur in some kind of pocket dimension where every speaker has the same level of social, cultural, and economic capital. The former editor of The Guardian, sat in the comfortable surroundings of an Oxford College which he runs will obviously love debate because they are never about his right to exist. It’s a party game for him, not an existential question.
I’ve written about this before. The people who commission click-bait columns about minorities, who frame people’s basic human rights as merely one side of a debate, who knowingly platform bad actors because it’s good for ratings or page views… these people are isolated from the consequences of what they do and the views they broadcast and give legitimacy to. They are not the ones who will be discriminated against, the ones whose rights are threatened, the ones who will experience aggression and even violence. For them, it’s just another item.
As Wright says, “The liberal delusion that debate can and will solve everything is insidious.” By framing matters of life and death as a parlour game, people like Rusbridger help hatred to flourish.