JS: With twelve days until Jacob Rees-Mogg visits our school to give a talk, my nerves are not good. Twice before this school has been embroiled in controversy because media hysteria associated us with the [far] Right, and twice before I have been compromised by both internet trolls looking for vile thrills and current students who wish to enjoy as much early celebrity as possible by lying about and undermining one of their teachers. The announcement about Jacob Rees-Mogg’s visit to the school has already generated grousing amongst my colleagues and a not altogether wholesome frisson amongst some of the students. Are we in for a fire-storm again? Will The Guardian dutifully splay our entrails on a bed of lettuce? Left-leaning academics and journalists regularly come to the school and no one makes a sound. But as soon as a right-winged Tory graciously accepts our invitation, I expect all hell to break loose. What are your thoughts as the big event looms on the horizon?
CN: The point about which you and I are apprehensive concerning the visit from Mr Rees-Mogg underlines the problems that we have at the moment in our society. There is an assumption that my so called ‘snowflake-generation’ needs to be protected from controversy and opposing views and that we cannot make up our own minds. Although some students whipped up the “fire-storm”, the media was the one that drove the previous fracas; we as students are more than able to listen to his views and come to a sound judgment based on the evidence.
Even in the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau realised the importance of allowing children to embrace things outside of their comfort zone:
The child raised for his station, never leaving it, could not be exposed to the disadvantages of another. But given the mobility of human things, given the unsettled and restless spirit of this age which upsets everything in each generation, can one conceive of a method more senseless than raising a child as though he never had to leave his room, as though he were going to be constantly surrounded by his servants? ... This is not teaching him to bear suffering; it is training him to feel it. One thinks only of preserving one’s child. That is not enough. One ought to teach him to preserve himself as a man.
I believe Rousseau’s sentiments are still relevant today; to raise someone without enabling him to fully embrace all aspects of life is not to raise him: it is to control him. The constant obsession of everything upsetting someone, as Rousseau mentions, seems to be on the increase even today and I feel we need to break down this barrier and redeem ourselves as a generation. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s visit is a step in the right direction to doing so.
He is a prominent figure at this important junction in our country’s political history and, whether or not you agree with him, the Langton is extremely lucky to be able to host him. The large number of students who have expressed an interest in his talk is a testament to how we are willing to listen and to counter opinions of others in a way that is civilised. We will be in a far better place to react and respond to his views having seen him and heard how he responds to questions in the flesh rather than through the snippets we see in the mainstream media. I wonder why people feel we should be protected from hearing conservative opinions.
JS: In thirty years of teaching at schools all over the world, I have never seen the intellectual environment so poisoned by intolerance and close-mindedness. Frank Furedi from University of Kent refers to ‘the infantilising of the university,’ as if 20-year-old students really do want to be protected by their servants and never to encounter contrary views and ideas. The fact that we are having to walk on egg-shells because we are having a respected member of Parliament for a visit is an appalling situation. We now have five days to go and I keep waiting for a ‘twitter-storm’ or some such ghastly occurrence.
In my more cynical moods—they are increasing in frequency and truculence—I think that many on the Left, especially the academic Left, do not want to face the competition in direct debates and rely instead on noxious social media to play the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. I believe they do so because at some nearly-smothered level they know their arguments (‘attitudes’ is no doubt a more precise word) cannot face the scrutiny of evidence and rationality.
Do you think you and people like you will turn the tide, or will The New Intolerance prevail and extinguish free speech and intellectual debate?
CN: Sadly, unless drastic change happens soon, I think we have passed the point of no return. One must only look to our local University, The University of Kent, to see the negative direction our society is going; their suggestion that outfits which threaten a person’s “safe space" should not be worn is deeply worrying. The fact that the students themselves have drawn up these ‘red lines’ highlights the fact that my generation cannot necessarily be relied upon to break the deadlock. With more and more students wanting to restrict the freedom of individuals to voice their opinions, I think a huge Armageddon would need to occur in order to return to our former political system.
I think the time has now passed for a ‘twitter-storm’ to erupt but the media has definitely had a negative effect on politics. With more people than ever getting their news and information from the media, social media is becoming more and more influential. The removal of key figures from social media platforms and the disproportionate advertising of left-wing individuals is concerning. However, we should not overstate the significance of this propaganda, as these are only a few individuals who tend to be the ones with a message and mantra to promote. We hear a lot about them as they use it as an excuse to exaggerate the situation in order to increase followers and influence more users. We must not forget the many benefits of the constantly developing media. Moreover, ‘information bias’ is also an increasing issue as, due to highly clever algorithms, we are constantly seeing the same type of posts on social media, reinforcing our own beliefs rather than embracing a wide variety of differing opinions; therefore, how can we be sure at all that what we are seeing is wholly neutral no matter what side of the political spectrum we may be on? Do you think media and the ability to de-platform someone with a click of a button will be the downfall of a diverse political system?
JS: Social media might turn out to be the engine of democracy, even direct democracy, but it also may turn out to be the tyranny of the minority. It is too early to say. I am no great fan of democracy because I think Plato was right to associate it with mob rule. On the other hand, absolute despotism looks even worse. I favour an enlightened oligarchy that mostly serves the interest of the people of any given nation, but that has enough power and respect to charge ahead when it sees the right thing to do. But I see the future as being increasingly ‘governed’ by—as you say—‘highly clever algorithms’—that nearly determine our beliefs and values, rather than reflect them. It is difficult to see how impressive and idiosyncratic individuals will survive in a world besotted by social media and translated into almost omnipotent algorithms. I see both British history and British eccentricity—what T.S. Eliot called ‘traditional and the individual talent’—sacrificed to fatuous and self-satisfied mediocrity clothed in the robes of social justice. These are the ‘warriors’ that I am hoping Rees-Mogg (and you) will defeat by the example of strong character, well-reasoned views, unabashed idiosyncrasy, and—as Lionel Trilling said—the moral obligation to be intelligent. That obligation is being replaced, especially in your generation, by the immoral obsession to be famous (on social media). I am worried that this obsession will mar Rees-Mogg’s visit in two days.
CN: I disagree with Plato’s association. There are, of course, many forms of democracy and I would be extremely concerned to move away from democracy, as I feel it is the only way to prevent us from slipping into tyranny. I do feel everybody’s voice should be heard and, within reason, taken into account. Democracy is being manipulated and abused by those who want to remain in power as we see most recently in Venezuela.
Despite the rise of social media allowing us to see what it is happening around the world , one never sees an unbiased picture—there is information bias—seeing merely those which these ‘highly clever algorithms’ wants us to see. The fact that they are reinforcing supporting, but not challenging views, I find concerning. The driver seems to be making money for the media companies, rather than providing wisdom. Google has removed “don’t be evil” from its code of conduct. Free speech will only survive if this media rise is dealt with quickly and if we move away from technology and look at more reliable information, free of bias. I believe Charles Dickens is right when, in Hard Times, he said “Now, what I want is Facts” as facts are the only thing which can be truly considered impartial. Conversely, T.S. Eliot also raised a good point when he said “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” If we are provided with too much information, it is only too easy to become confused and not find the truth behind all of the facts.
Jacob Rees-Mogg’s visit has now passed and, as I had hoped, it was a huge success, both in terms of how and what he spoke about and the behaviour of the audience. The way in which Mr Rees-Mogg highlighted the link between his reasoning for leaving the EU and the Magna Carta was educational and informative. Moreover, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to him answer thoughtfully when asked questions which were not always easy, replying respectfully, even if the questioner clearly did not agree with him. However, one could argue that he only offered a one-sided approach to Brexit and failed to talk about the uncertainty of it and the potential economic effects.
In our day and age, respect towards one another is not always shown and some people find it necessary to verbally attack someone who they do not agree with, often insulting them personally, and this needs to stop. Jacob Rees-Mogg is an example of someone who has the respect and decency to listen to everyone’s opinion and reply with sound arguments and points, without belittling or getting offended by them. What did you think of the big day?
JS: I was relieved that nothing went particular wrong by way of rude behavior, but I was also unhappy that I was in the position of having to be relieved: good manners should be a matter of course, but we cannot even count on the most rudimentary forms of civility at this point.
I liked Rees-Mogg’s history lesson that strongly suggested that both the freedoms and restrictions established by Magna Carta are also a kind of charter for Brexit, but my knowledge of history pales so dramatically next to his that I simply do not have the credentials or expertise to challenge the connections he was making. He is by some distance the most fluent, confident, and intellectually-elegant politician I have ever heard. Perhaps the old word for that is ‘statesman.’
I forgot to ask Rees-Mogg the question AC Grayling told me to ask, which comes down to this: “How can someone with your wealth (Rees-Mogg is one of the richest Members of Parliament) actually care about the plight of poor people in the UK?” Even if Brexit hurls Britain into an economic depression, Rees-Mogg is simply ‘too big to fail’ and will cheerfully weather any financial disasters thrown at him. I have found that the kind of person who asks a question like this is also the kind who rails against the ‘privilege’ of independent schools and then sends his children to the very best independent schools (same holds for those—like our new Labour MP for Canterbury—who vote against grammar schoos and then sent their children to one). Rees-Mogg did tell stories about his less-than-affluent constituents in North East Somerset and how he enjoys dealing with their particular grievances and problems, and I did not suspect—as one often does, and should—that he was merely hauling out the smoke, mirrors and fake candor in order to forestall the criticism implied by Grayling’s question. If someone wants to insist that being rich necessarily makes you heartless and uncaring, there is nothing one can do to controvert this opinion—but it is nothing more than that: an opinion. How does Rees-Mogg act—and speak—as an MP for his constituency?-- that is all that matters. When someone whose net worth exceeds £100 million sees you walk into his surgery with a sick (or dead) pig and asks for your help, what do you do?
My worry is that Rees-Mogg’s splendid character and noble example will not be enough to offset the rise of The New Incivility and the parallel rise in restrictions on free speech and open debate in the UK. If he were PM instead of MP, that might help to bring historical aptitude, good manners, and measured speech back into politics. But I suspect he is too wise to go for Number 10. Yet Plato said that the ‘reluctant ruler’ was precisely the one who should be sought out for public office. For that very reluctance suggests an incorruptible nature happily emancipated from the lust for power. Do you think there’s something in that?
CN: I too am in no position to question Mr Rees-Mogg’s talk about the Magna Carta as my knowledge of the subject is rudimentary.
On this occasion, however, I do in fact agree with Plato’s comments. Sometimes those who run for the Prime Ministerial position are ‘career politicians’ and not necessarily those who people want in power. In order to gain power they quash the opinions of fellow politicians in their party who contradict them (the ‘reluctant rulers’) discouraging them from putting their ideas forward. Mr Rees-Mogg is by far no ‘career politician.’ He has already publicly spoken about how he does not wish to run for Prime Minister and, as you say, it is in my opinion the wise thing to do – one can never win as a PM as, no matter what you do, you will always create enemies, especially with the divisions that are in our country now.
Unfortunately, I do not feel that Mr Rees-Mogg’s position as PM would be enough to drastically change the society we live in. For me there is no doubt that it all comes down to de jure and de facto change. Whether or not Mr Rees-Mogg would be able to alter political discourse from the very top of the government would, I feel, not bring about de facto change. The idea of de-platforming and restricting the freedom of speakers is so entrenched in the mindset of my generation that I believe having a figure like Mr Rees-Mogg as PM would not be enough to end it.
The notion that earning a large sum of money makes you immoral or inhumane is ridiculous. When someone comes to you asking for help you did not simply turn them away, you try in whatever way you can to help them; if anything, I think earning more money can make you more sympathetic to those less fortunate than yourself. Mr Rees-Mogg did in fact mention about how, in comparison to his less-affluent colleagues in Parliament, he was not in a position to talk about MPs wages as it did not affect him as much. He does not try to hide his wealth and, unlike some, is very modest about it; after all, why would I have bumped into him using a parking meter on Christmas Eve like every other person?
JS: Both American and UK universities have been very successful in constituting themselves as nearly autonomous ideological fiefdoms, with the result that they can police their own and pretty much govern as they please. That explains how certain students at Oxford barred the door to other Oxford students (a former Langton student among them) who were trying to attend a lecture by Steve Bannon. I wonder what kind of event would bring about a change in the way universities are beginning to practice forms of censorship? And what if Jeremy Corbyn becomes PM? Would that prospect be enough to encourage the reluctant Rees-Mogg to throw that marvellous top-hat of his into the ring?
Are we living through some kind of de facto regime, where what is the case happily trumps what should be the case under law? Why, for example, does not the UK hammer out, in constitutional law, something resembling the First Amendment to the US Constitution? Would that help guarantee free speech and put an end to de-platforming?
CN: You raise an interesting point regarding Jeremy Corbyn; if the Labour Party were to win the next general election, whenever it may be, would Jacob Rees-Mogg feel obliged or driven to take action? Would his moral conscience compel him to preserve political freedom? I suppose we will never know until the day when Labour wins. That being said, we can never be entirely sure what the Labour Party would do in power; after all, being the opposition party is a lot different (and easier) to being the governing party as you do not have to make the difficult, life-changing decisions.
In the UK, the closest thing we have to the First Amendment is the Human Rights Act of 1998 which guarantees the Freedom of Speech. In Article 10, it clearly states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression.” This goes some way to protecting our rights as citizens to say what we wish but offers nowhere near as much protection as the First Amendment as it is entrenched into American law, making it a lot harder to be sidelined or changed. Thus, I feel the introduction of a similar piece of legislation would definitely ensure the ending of de-platforming.
De-platforming at Universities is becoming more and more frequent and only this week was Peter Hitchens’ talk at the University of Portsmouth rescheduled because the talk, and his views, clashed with LGBT History Month. Whether or not it be the introduction of legislation, something needs to be done to end this ever-increasing occurrence. As the Universities Minister Jo Johnson says, should Universities be fined for de-platforming speakers?
JS: But what nearly cancels out the Human Rights Act of 1998 is the prior Public Order Act of 1986.
The offence is created by section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. Section 5(1) provides: "(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he/she: (a) uses threatening [or abusive] words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening [or abusive], within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby." In February 2014 Parliament passed a redaction of the statute which removed the word "insulting" in subsections "a" and "b" following pressure from citizens.
The wording of this egregious law is so menacingly vague that one can use it to pillory any number of speech acts that may be likely to harass, or alarm or distress someone. When I mentioned this Act to Milo Yiannapolos a couple of years ago, he told me he cheerfully breaks this law nearly every time he opens that provocative mouth of his. Even Rees-Mogg could have fallen foul of this Act when, during his lecture, he told the audience that socialism tends to ‘level down’ and ‘you don’t want to be the kind of person that does that’. He got a bit of a cheer from well-wishers but someone in that group easily could have been ‘alarmed’ or ‘distressed’ by his words. I know most of my colleagues on the staff were probably deeply harassed by his witty squib against socialism. We live in a country where they could have filed charges against Rees-Mogg.
I think that once a speaker has been reasonably vetted and then invited to speak, it is churlish and discourteous to uninvite him or her. Even Germaine Greer was de-platformed for not having precisely the ‘correct’ views on transgendered people. I am hardly the first person to note the marked similarities between resurgent intolerance and the idea of religious heresy. I am worried that we are witnessing a new puritanism advanced by people not nearly as clever as either Cromwell or Milton. The momentum of ‘Momentum’ is a worrying sign because I suspect the people who want to pull Corbyn even further to the Left are simply too ignorant to be entrusted with collecting rubbish, never mind making policy for the UK. Even our dialogue could be used as evidence against us, for I am certain that its content would be a source of alarm and distress to about 80% of the people surrounding us. On the bright side, most of them are too lazy and gauzily self-absorbed to read Dialogic Imaginations.
And so, noble Charles, what are you going to do about all this ignorance, cowardice, and misplaced piety?
CN: That is certainly an annoying ‘loophole’; it is so woolly that almost anything could be considered to be offensive. One reassurance though is that no one has in fact reported Jacob Rees-Mogg for his comments; is this a sign that things are changing for the better? Are we going back to a time of tolerance? Or is it merely a one-off?
Although I love studying at The Langton, it is sadly not the most representative, generic school and I fear that it will be the latter of the options. Having said that, have we ever experienced a time of tolerance? The two World Wars and the vast number of military conflicts over the years would seem to suggest not. Are we hoping for something that will never be able to exist?
Nevertheless, we must not forget the number of thanks and support I got from students after the event; I was stopped many a times in the school corridor by well-wishers congratulating me on the event and I know full well some of them did not agree with Rees-Mogg. This is definitely encouraging and I hope more people in the future will become thankful and enlightened from talks by speakers of all political stances.
What am I going to do, indeed? This is undoubtedly a mammoth task that we have suggested but I think there are a couple of ways to change things for the better. I think we must teach people to understand that is okay to be offended and that unless it constitutes a threat, it need not be reported. If, for example, someone calls you a “Socialist”, if it means that much to you should not get offended but instead wear it with a badge of honour and be proud of it. There is a fine line between criticising someone and insulting someone and people need to be told how to differentiate the two.
Another way is to change legislation altogether. We must not give people something to hide behind; laws and statutes that are easy to manipulate enable people to hide behind a ‘cloak of anonymity’. Removing the subjective nature of laws, such as the one you mentioned, would prevent individuals from reporting people for minor offences that should not be considered such. However, this leads to further issues of where do you draw the line and what is defined as ‘hate’, a question that plagues many politicians.
Do you have any suggestions?
JS: I think Rees-Mogg put it well in his talk when he said you could hate him and verbally attack him for his political views, but not because he is a Catholic, or has loads of money, or has an ominously-posh accent. It is alarming to see how easily people now blur and slur these categories so that they can descend into invective, animadversion, ad hominem attacks, and lots of obscene name-calling. One member of the teaching staff at the Langton called Rees-Mogg a ‘fascist’ and would not attend his lecture. Not to see the immense stretch of clear water between Rees-Mogg’s mostly classical liberal views and those of a fascist is to be struck blind by the ignorance and arrogance that dominates political discourse in our time. And yet I would not prosecute this teacher for calling Rees-Mogg a fascist. I would simply accuse him of being an idiot.
Hate speech should be very narrowly defined or we risk acting in an inquisitorial manner towards nearly all kind of language that may be provoking, even wounding, but does not constitute an act of violence. Calling Rees-Mogg a fascist is hatefully stupid but it is not hate speech or in any way a crime, except against history and courtesy.
Here is section 4A of the Public Order Act of 1986.
(1) A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he— (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.
Again, I find that wording both too vague and general, and if another person claims he or she is alarmed or distress, then he or she is distressed and can prosecute the source of insulting words under the current law. How did we come to be so very touchy about language? How did political discourse become so sloppy and hateful?
CN: As a Catholic, I agree with Mr Rees-Mogg that attacking someone because of his religious beliefs is entirely different to attacking his political views. People are more than welcome to criticise me because of my political beliefs but to attack me for other reasons is unjust. Although I agree that threatening language and behaviour should never be tolerated, the wording of the law is open to too much interpretation. It needs to be more defined and a clear line drawn between what is acceptable and what is not.
Since World War II, the term ‘Nazi’ has been passed around too easily as more of an insult without fully understanding the meaning of the word. Events outside Parliament, when protesters shouted “Nazi” at Anna Soubry, just go to show how little people understand the word. Jacob Rees-Mogg is, after all, socially conservative and to refer to him as a Fascist is incorrect.
It is hard to pin point an exact moment when people began to be offended by political discourse, but as I have said throughout this dialogue, I feel that the rise of technology has had a lot to do with it. The ability to send off emails and texts within a matter of minutes has led to an exponential increase in the number of people receiving criticism and insults online. This in turn has led to a reduced tolerance for such behaviour and has made it easier for people to report it with the click of a button.
So, what is to be done? In 2016, Frank Furedi said that “those who care about the quality of public discourse must raise the quality of discussion by engaging in a battle of ideas.” I could not agree more with this. As a minority, we need to change attitudes towards debates and encourage people to engage with people with different beliefs. People need to increase their tolerance of other individuals, even if they loathe them. Only then can we achieve true freedom of speech.
JS: As that 18th-century Parliamentarian Jacob Rees-Mogg might say, “Hear! hear!”