Civility and respect beat political correctness every time

Denying a platform to those who disagree with you drives dissent underground

Nick Pell's glossary of alt-right terms presents the movement as smug, prejudiced and completely unattractive. If his article happens to be any Irish Times reader's introduction to the alt-right, it would seem to be the perfect anti-recruitment mechanism. To suggest that it should not have been published is extraordinary.

Oddly enough, Pell got one term wrong – snowflake. It is not, as he suggests, someone with “an unusual, potentially dubious, gender identity”.

It is normally used to describe people, often students, who seek refuge in safe spaces where free speech is curtailed in order not to offend delicate sensibilities. In other words, snowflakes are portrayed as weak people who need protection from the normal cut and thrust of democratic debate.

I’m not a fan of the term. First, people who are weak should not be despised and, more importantly, most of the supposed snowflakes are anything but: they’re often quite powerful, with a deeply repressive desire to close down debate.



Let me give just one, perhaps relatively minor, example. Last November, Conservative MP for Congleton Fiona Bruce was addressing a meeting of Oxford Students for Life (OSFL) about sex-selective abortion as part of Feminism Fortnight.

Someone complained that a banner, which consists of the OSFL logo and a slogan Promoting a Culture of Life at the University , was causing a student to feel unsafe. This person wanted the curtains to be drawn so that the banner could not be seen from outside.

Faced with the probability that a failure to comply with the request would lead to the entire meeting being shut down, the organisers drew the curtains. This could be seen as a typical snowflake complaint, but I am not convinced that Oxford students are traumatised by an innocuous banner.

This is not the act of a weak person, but of someone who wants to unsettle their opponents and knows that the Establishment will back such a move. So both Pell’s definition, and the implications of the conventional understanding of the term “snowflake”, are wrong.

Many people are being pushed to the right of the political spectrum because of the kind of power-play that happened in Oxford, not to mention the sheer silliness of it. Finding such actions tedious is not the same as sympathising with neo-Nazis.

The alt-right masquerades as a band of juvenile super-trolls, gleefully puncturing political correctness. But it has a far darker underbelly with echoes of the late 19th-early 20th century German philosophy of Blut und Boden – blood and soil, a movement based on racial superiority. The last thing you want to do is make martyrs of people with such obnoxious beliefs, because it plays right into their hands.

Needlessly hurting others

Political correctness arose out of a desire not to needlessly hurt others by our choice of terms, and in many ways that remains a laudable aim. However, it has become a parody of itself.

So at one moment, Germaine Greer is a feminist icon, and the next minute the feisty Australian is being "no-platformed" in universities because of allegedly transphobic views. "No-platforming", or refusing to let someone speak, is an extreme tactic and should be reserved for people who incite physical violence, which hardly fits Greer. But now, just about anyone can get no-platformed if they do not fit in with the prevailing cultural fashion.

Political correctness works by shaming and social sanction. It renders people mute, not necessarily out of any great conviction, but often because of a herd mentality. Of course, any society that has not descended into anarchy has control mechanisms and ways of enforcing desired behaviour.

But social control mechanisms are not the same as internalised convictions and therefore tend to drive dissent underground rather than promoting real dialogue. Among the lessons of 2016 are that dissent driven underground will always re-emerge, often in much more frightening forms.

Basket of deplorables

The alt-right is a tiny minority, albeit with dangerous ideas. The vast majority of those who voted for Trump find the alt-right utterly repugnant. Trump was elected because those who traditionally vote Republican voted for him. The swing voters who then tipped the balance in Trump’s favour did so mostly because they despaired of political correctness and mainstream politicians and he seemed likely to bring about change. (Let me reiterate – I could never have voted for Trump.)

But denouncing the voters who were tired of politics-as-usual and declaring them to be a basket of deplorables is hardly the way to win them over: nor is losing your head and calling for censorship of an explainer article in a newspaper. Has last year taught us nothing?

Civility and respect are much more difficult virtues to master than enforcing political correctness, but have a much greater chance of success. Civility precludes name-calling. Political correctness shuts down debate with a horrified cry of, “You can’t say that.”

Civility says, “Why do you say that? Here’s why I disagree with you. Let’s thrash it out in a robust but respectful debate.”

When you consider someone’s views to be despicable, expressing smarter and more reasonable arguments works far better than having a fit of the vapours because such views exist.