Is intolerance increasing? Is it stifling free trade in the marketplace of ideas? Is the claim of progressiveness the very thing that is holding us back?
Important social debates are increasingly fact-free and dominated by opinions. Opinions, increasingly, are enforced by mobbing — either by crowds on the streets or by coordinated online abuse.
Is this just a healthy, if rowdy, jostling of new ideas? How can the balance be struck between ensuring free speech and also preventing lasting social harm? Can wrong opinions cause harm anyway?
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. However, even that entitlement is not the same thing as responsibility in the expression and use of opinions.
The balancing of entitlement and responsibility lies at the heart of much of modern debate. There appears to be a big emphasis on personal entitlement, while responsibility, when mentioned at all, appears to be limited to calls only for others to be responsible, especially institutions, government and society.
The poison of identity politics — creating a world of ‘us and them’ — is spreading through the veins of politics in the world, carried and inflamed by social media. Any objection is countered with demands for the right to free speech.
In a preamble to a judgment in 1920, a US Supreme Court judge remarked that free speech was not an entitlement to falsely shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre. Today this is contested as a useful definition of the limits of free speech.
Activists point to the US court’s more legally specific judgment from 1969 that the entitlement to free speech is protected, unless the speech “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action”.
That second definition is vividly relevant in a world that has so recently witnessed real harm resulting from the outrage of groups from across the political spectrum. This have ranged from the invasion of the US Capitol by the right, to violent demonstrations by the left such as the Extinction Rebellion protests in the UK.
Censorship was traditionally thought to be something that only happened in oppressive states. Today, censorship is also carried out by social justice activists — many of whom claim to be progressives, leading us to a new and better, woke world.
To do this, they regularly use techniques such as mobbing, de-platforming and cancelling to try to silence views that they disagree with.
Last week in Ireland we witnessed this process at work in politics. Activists for one party are reported to have been advised “it is vital to link anything critical about your opponent to a negative outcome for individual voters” to discredit their target in the media.
At the heart of all of this sits the belief of always being good, right and never wrong. My beliefs are right, so any contrary beliefs must be wrong and the holder of those beliefs must be a bad person.
Reality offers no such black and white choices. While a fact can be demonstrably right or wrong, beliefs and opinions are much more fluid. Many beliefs are based around a mixture of hard facts and soft feelings.
In the days when religions ruled the world, a whole language existed to describe anyone who had different beliefs. They were called unbelievers, infidels, heretics. Once believers became the majority, then unbelievers had to be silenced, suppressed, exiled, even killed — always in the name of maintaining order.
History teaches terrible lessons about the danger of the reckless pursuit of being right. It has destroyed nation after nation in Europe over the last 2,000 years. We used to call such conflicts that centred on contested beliefs ‘religious wars’. Just one, the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, killed nearly eight million people — which was about 2pc of the world’s population at the time.
We live in a time of unparalleled wealth, health and well-being. During the last century, extreme poverty has been almost eliminated; since 1900 the global average life expectancy has more than doubled; global literacy has increased from 12pc to 86pc.
Much of this progress has been due to the achievements of science, which has set us free from thousands of years of self-harming ignorance.
A different type of self-harming ignorance increasingly threatens. Many international surveys find the majority of people neither understand or believe their world has improved so significantly.
This is caused by activists who constantly distort data to exaggerate alarmist opinions to create a victimhood of thwarted entitlements.
Sadly, Ireland is one of the world’s worst affected nations, as measured by the gap between the wealth of the country and its citizens’ dissatisfaction with the standard of living.
Few well-off nations are as dissatisfied as Ireland, where good facts are being overwhelmed by carefully nurtured false beliefs.
Many believers imagine they can use the hard-won facts and data to enforce a new righteousness. The marketplace of ideas is now filling with new belief systems — that for credibility often invoke half-grasped elements of science — which claim only they are right, and any other beliefs are wrong.
In this, these new believers show they have missed the whole point of science. Science is not about always being right, it is about gradually becoming less wrong. Science changes, constantly, as it uncovers new facts.
Though science appears to be modern and new, the idea of changing beliefs in response to new evidence has a long pedigree.
As one of the emperors of ancient Rome, Marcus Aurelius, said: “If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one’s own self-deception and ignorance.”