The right to be wrong


When an Israeli minister over the weekend accused US Secretary of State John Kerry of serving as a mouthpiece for anti-Semitic views he was only doing what countless other defenders of Israel have done in associating even mild criticism of the state’s policies with anti-Semitism. It is a bullying rhetorical device, often deeply unfair, that in practice successfully muzzles many critics, and not least, by playing on national guilt, German critics. And it is particularly effective in the US where the Israel lobby finds such a strong echo.

The same deliberate blurring of opponents’ ideologies to associate their ideas with extremism is a feature of many debates. The shorthand terms “racist”, “xenophobic”, “homophobic”, “sexist”, “anti-life”, “fascist” and “communist” are bandied around all too easily in a way that dilutes their currency, often to the point of meaninglessness. Such imprecise and inaccurate labelling and ad hominem reasoning is , it has to be said, often deeply counterproductive to an argument to hear the claim that Obama is a communist may delight supporters of Fox News but will do little for its credibility in Middle America, no matter how often repeated.

And yet, as a platform for debate, this newspaper is not in the business of advising debaters about their tactics, but simply of providing those we think have interesting views with the means to put them across. Yes, there have to be some ground rules - decency, a degree of courtesy and a forswearing of ad hominen arguments, some reasonable approximation to an arguable truth, and the laws of defamation set the limits. And access by the aggrieved to a right of reply. But to prevent or be unduly prescriptive about the use of such political hyperbole in debate would be dangerously to curtail the limits of free speech and freedom of thought.

In this context the reports that RTE has agreed to pay compensation, understood to be over €80,000, in respect of the purported defamation of the Iona Institute in the characterisation, however dubious, of them as homophobic, are very perturbing.

The arena of public debate in a democracy is no place for the thin-skinned. One must accept brickbats in the course of robust argument - that’s the price of democracy. And while this paper, for example, does not allow the use by our reporters in the context of reporting the abortion debate of the loaded term “pro-life” as a news description, the expression may be quoted from others or used by opinion writers.

We are concerned now with the question of whether it is acceptable in debate to argue - rightly or wrongly that the views expressed by the Catholic Church or the Iona Institute are either underpinned by an implicit prejudice against gays, or themselves feed anti-gay prejudice and discrimination by providing “cover” for homophobic views. If so, is it not then legitimate, if perhaps inadvisable, to be able to describe them in debate as homophobic? In much the same way as an Israeli minister can speak of John Kerry? Or campaigners, of Ukip as xenophobic? Robust debate requires that such views may be expressed, citizens in a mature democracy are able to distinguish between rational argument and vulgar abuse. And our democracy is stronger for it.