Welcome to dissatisfied Ireland: where the good facts are overwhelmed with loud opinions
Is intolerance increasing? Does this stifle free trade in the ideas market? Is the claim to progressivity precisely what is holding us back?
important social debates are increasingly devoid of facts and dominated by opinions. Opinions, more and more, are reinforced by mobbing – either by crowds in the streets or by coordinated online abuse.
Is it just a healthy, albeit rowdy, scramble for new ideas? How to strike a balance between guaranteeing freedom of expression and preventing lasting social harm? Can mistaken opinions cause harm anyway?
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. However, even this right is not the same as the responsibility for the expression and use of opinions.
The balance between law and responsibility is at the heart of much of modern debate. The emphasis seems to be on personal right, while accountability, when mentioned, seems to be limited to calls for accountability from others, especially institutions, government and society.
The poison of identity politics – creating a world of ‘us and them’ – runs through the veins of politics around the world, carried and inflamed by social media. Any objection is met by demands for the right to freedom of expression.
In the preamble to a 1920 judgment, a United States Supreme Court judge noted that freedom of speech is not a right to falsely cry, “Fire! in a crowded theater. Today, this is contested as a useful definition of the limits of free speech.
Activists point to the more legally specific ruling of the 1969 US court that the right to free speech is protected, unless the speech “is intended to incite or produce imminent unlawful action and is likely to incite or produce such an action ”.
This second definition is quite relevant in a world which has so recently witnessed real harm resulting from the outrage of groups from all political backgrounds. It ranges from right-wing invasion of the United States Capitol to violent left-wing protests such as the Extinction Rebellion protests in the UK.
Censorship was traditionally seen as 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, waking world.
To do this, they regularly use techniques like mobbing, platform removal, and undoing to try and silence opinions they disagree with.
Last week in Ireland we witnessed this process at work in politics. Party activists have reportedly been told “that it is essential to link any critical element about your opponent to a negative outcome for individual voters” in order to discredit their target in the media.
At the heart of it all is the belief that you are always good, right, and never wrong. My beliefs are right, so any belief to the contrary must be wrong and the holder of those beliefs must be a bad person.
Reality does not offer such choices in black and white. While a fact can be patently true or false, beliefs and opinions are much more fluid. Many beliefs are based on a mixture of hard facts and soft feelings.
In the days when religions ruled the world, a whole language existed to describe anyone who held different beliefs. They were called unbelievers, infidels, heretics. Once believers became the majority, 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. He has destroyed nation after nation in Europe over the past 2,000 years. We used to call such conflicts centered on contested beliefs “wars of religion”. Only one, the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, killed nearly eight million people, or about 2% of the world’s population at the time.
We live in an era of unprecedented wealth, health and well-being. Over the past century, extreme poverty has been almost eradicated; since 1900, the global average life expectancy has more than doubled; global literacy has increased from 12pc to 86pc.
Much of this progress is due to the achievements of science, which has freed us from thousands of years of self-defeating ignorance.
Another type of self-defeating ignorance is increasingly threatening. Numerous international surveys reveal that the majority of people neither understand nor believe that their world has improved so significantly.
This is caused by activists who constantly distort data to exaggerate fear-mongering views in order to create victimization of thwarted rights.
Sadly, Ireland is one of the worst affected countries in the world, measured by the gap between the country’s wealth and its citizens’ dissatisfaction with living standards.
Few wealthy nations are as dissatisfied as Ireland, where good facts are overwhelmed by carefully nurtured false beliefs.
Many believers imagine that they can use hard-won facts and data to impose a new justice. The market for ideas is now filling with new belief systems – which for credibility often cite half-grasped scientific evidence – which claim that only they are right and that all other beliefs are wrong.
In this, these new believers show that they have missed all the interest of science. Science is not about always being right, it is about becoming progressively less wrong. Science is constantly changing as it uncovers new facts.
Although the 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 anyone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in a thought or action, I will gladly change. I am looking for the truth, which has never harmed anyone: the evil is to persist in one’s own deception and ignorance.