November 14, 2015

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To celebrate the arrival of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, in Britain, the Guardian newspaper reported that many eminent British writers had, in an open letter, urged the British prime minister, David Cameron, to raise the question of increasing intolerance of dissent in India under Modi’s leadership. As the Nigerians say, you might as well try to stop goats from eating yams: Mr. Cameron is not the kind of person to sacrifice the political convenience of the moment for a mere principle, however sacred.

Of course, I am not in favor of intolerance of dissent, but it is always easier to see the beams in the eyes of others than the motes in one’s own. For increasing tolerance of dissent is hardly the first characteristic of intellectual life in the West. And the main threat to such tolerance comes not from governments, but from the pressure groups in which monomaniacs coalesce to impose their view of their darling subject upon the rest of the public. And because the enemies of tolerance are dispersed in many different groups, it is more difficult to combat and defeat them. They are hydra-headed rather than concentrated in a government.

“€œNowadays, monomaniacs do not confine themselves to the taxonomy of beetles and the like; many of them are ideological in nature.”€

It is true that in certain respects we are much freer to express ourselves than we were fifty years ago: For example, no one hesitates now to use bad language, often as a badge of one’s own personal liberation and broad-mindedness. Unfortunately, the expressiveness of bad language declines in proportion to the prevalence of its usage. Bad language becomes white noise, and the word f—- means no more than “€œer…”€: It is a mere postponement of the point that the speaker is trying to make. And with the devaluation of bad language that comes with over-usage, something must replace it to fulfill its former function”€”extravagant or menacing gesture, for example.

Still, freedom to use bad language is a real extension of freedom, even if retrogressive in its effect. Freedom is freedom and not another thing, to adapt slightly Bishop Butler’s great dictum; not all freedom improves the quality of life, let alone of art.

But, as I have mentioned, the real threat to freedom of expression comes nowadays not so much from governments but from those groups of monomaniac citizens who are prepared to devote themselves to ruining the reputation of or making life miserable for those who dare to contradict them. The struggle is an asymmetric one: For by definition the monomaniacs have their one subject, while their opponents have many subjects. The former care desperately and continually about their subject, the latter only moderately and intermittently. The fox knows many things, says the proverb used by Isaiah Berlin as a title for a famous essay, but the hedgehog knows one great thing. (I think I have it the right way round; it surely cannot be that the hedgehog knows many things, but the fox knows one great thing.)

Anyway, a subject that is all-in-all to monomaniacs, and gives meaning to their lives, is but one thing among many for more normal and balanced people, who are therefore disinclined to devote their whole lives or make much sacrifice to express their views on it. The monomaniacs are thereby easily able to exact from the balanced a price too high for them to bother any longer to express their views. When I wrote something that displeased one of these pressure groups it tried to get me sacked from my job and made nuisance calls to me. I did not return to the subject because I didn”€™t care enough about it to be subjected to the same intimidation again, mild as it was.


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