in fear, lost for words
Why do we fear freedom? The first casualty of the politics
of fear is open debate.
POLITICS HAS little in common with the passions and conflicts that
shaped people's commitments and sentiments over the past two centuries.
There is no longer room for principles, ideals or even a clear political
Instead of ideas, party leaders look for brands and sub-contract
the job of image creation to think tanks, public relations agencies
or marketing organisations. But without purpose, politics becomes
a caricature of itself. Politics becomes exhausted and discredited
when the energies of its devotees become entirely invested in the
project of winning elections.
One symptom of the exhaustion of politics is the disorientation
of the ruling elites. They seem to lack a mission or a focus. Public
figures find it difficult to account for their objectives through
the medium of political, moral or philosophical ideas. Their parties
lack a program, even an identity. That is why party conferences
are invariably distracted by the question of "who are we?".
Instead of addressing people about their beliefs, principles or
doctrines, political parties modestly refer to an "agenda"
or a "project".
Take some of the so-called "Hurrah Words" that trip off
the tongues of public figures. Everybody is for diversity, transparency,
social cohesion, inclusion, best practice, evidence-based policy,
adding value and stakeholding. But what does any of it mean? Is
it any surprise that some public figures feel uncomfortable about
expounding their project when they are armed with such empty phraseology?
The demise of political ideology is an outcome of a profound sense
of estrangement from the experience of the past. Its impact encourages
a sense of defeatism about the future. Without clearly formulated
alternatives, politics loses its orientation to the future. It becomes
short-termist and regards the future as a no-go area for policy-making.
So instead of elaborating policies that can secure a better future,
governments have become obsessed with micro-managing the present.
Public figures eschew big issues and opt for a diet of unconnected
single issues. The flipside of the depoliticisation of public life
is the tendency to focus attention on the minutiae of people's existence.
But these issues, which are framed through the soulless idiom of
managerialism, invariably fail to engage the public's imagination.
Costed proposals and evidence-based policies do little to inspire
or mobilise the electorate, and politicians have come to recognise
that their political, ideological and moral links with the public
are fragile. Managerial forms of party rhetoric and micro-politics
have little purchase on an evidently disenchanted public. The ceaseless
search for yet another public relations-led initiative serves to
heighten the isolation of politics from the people.
It is difficult to motivate normal human beings with a "Respect
Agenda". People are unlikely to be inspired by a minister's
undertaking to extend "best practice" or to "add
value". And the claim that we stand for diversity while the
terrorists uphold evil is unlikely to engage the imagination of
people who are looking for some clear purpose in life. Most people
intuitively sense that the vocabulary used by public figures consists
of platitudes masquerading as meaningful political idioms.
Take a key Hurrah Word: diversity. Celebrating the value of diversity
is a roundabout way of saying that society has no values with a
distinct purpose to celebrate. Diversity has no intrinsic political
or moral meaning. It does not represent a view of the world, nor
provide society with a purpose or a vision of the future. Diversity
merely provides a rhetorical strategy for avoiding the challenging
task of outlining what society stands for by claiming that it stands
At best, the word diversity is a term of description that testifies
to the unlike and the varied. The term "diverse society"
tells us that people have different origins, cultures and ways of
life. It says little about what distinguishes that society and what
ought to be its aspiration. It certainly offers no alternative to
the jihadist, and lacks the credibility to inspire any significant
section of society. The embrace of this term by otherwise intelligent
political figures is evidence of a profound sense of malaise that
afflicts public life.
It is the sense of political malaise that encourages many Western
governments to adopt such a negative style of governance. Curbs
on civil liberty are one manifestation of this trend. The other
is the politicisation of fear, which is inextricably linked to the
inability of governments to project a sense of purpose.
Societies that are able to project a positive vision of the future
do not need to employ fear as a currency in public life. Take, for
example, former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt's inaugural address
in 1933. His statement that the "only thing we have to fear
is fear itself" was integral to a positive orientation to the
future, which would eventually lead to the launching of the New
Deal. The contrast between Roosevelt's message and the statements
made by politicians today is striking. Alarmist exhortations about
binge drinking and child obesity compete with the warning on terror:
"Not if - but when."
There is now a substantial body of opinion that regards fear as
a positive resource for "raising awareness" in society.
This orientation is not confined to the war on terrorism. It is
worth noting that the first major speech that British Prime Minister
Tony Blair made after returning from his summer holiday last year
was on the need to protect the majority from the minority of irresponsible
parents who refuse to control their children. Blair warned that
"people need to understand that if their kids are out of control
and they are causing a nuisance to their community, there is something
that is going to happen, they can't just get away with that".
Blair's parenting orders are typical products of the kind of negative
politics that contribute to the institutionalisation of fear. Like
the erosion of liberties in the name of protecting people from terror,
parenting orders represent an encroachment on people's democratic
rights. They threaten to force errant mothers and fathers to bring
up their children in accordance with the rules set by officials.
At present there is little public resistance to curbs on civil
liberties as long as they are promoted as sensible, commonsense
policies rather than as attacks on people's freedoms. I am always
surprised that the automatic vetting of adults who work, or might
come into contact, with children has rarely been questioned. Since
its introduction, more adults have become targets of this procedure,
and it is only a matter of time before a parent will need to be
vetted before she drives her son's mates to their football team's
That adults need to be vetted before they interact with children
indicates the extent to which fear-provoking policies have enveloped
intimate aspects of our lives. At least the curbs imposed through
anti-terrorism legislation can be justified on the grounds that
they constitute an exceptional response to exceptional circumstances.
These curbs on civil rights are linked to what has been defined
as a war in which the integrity of society is at stake. The police
vetting of adults who come into contact with children, by contrast,
is presented as the normal and responsible way of operating.
DEBATES ABOUT FREE speech and liberty are ultimately shaped by
two contrasting views. Those who cherish liberty claim that free
speech is not simply a democratic right; it also is indispensable
for the clarification of ideas and the conduct of civilised public
life. However, from an authoritarian perspective, free speech has
no special virtue. At best it is regarded as a source of confusion,
and at worst an instrument of subversion. In between these two contrasting
positions lies the outlook of the pragmatist, who regards free speech
as useful, but in times of difficulty a disposable privilege.
Today, the pragmatists and the authoritarians, who claim to be
speaking on behalf of the law-abiding majority, are making all the
running. The view that "too much" freedom and "too
many" civil rights are somehow inconsistent with waging a war
against terrorism is transmitted throughout society. When politicians
invite us to defend our freedoms from terrorism, the freedom of
speech is not what they have in mind.
For some time now, the British Government has sought to place more
legal curbs on the public's right to express its views freely. Consequently,
our right to question and criticise religion is compromised by legislation
that seeks to criminalise "incitement to religious hatred".
Although the law aims to protect Muslims from the destructive force
of hatred, its effect will be to undermine the potential for a free
and open discussion of the role of religion in society. Such a law
will encourage people to skirt around the question of where Islam
fits into society and avoids having a grown-up discussion about
the subject. It will help consolidate a climate where the regulation
of speech can be represented as normal behaviour.
As a quid quo pro for not letting anyone incite hatred against
Muslims, "they" also will be legally forbidden to hate
"us". So we now have the invention of a new offence -
that of "indirect incitement" to commit terrorism. Typically,
the term "indirect incitement" is deliberately diffuse,
so that it can cover virtually any strong opinion that is hostile
to the Government's war on terror. When ministers were asked to
provide examples of what constituted an indirect incitement to commit
terrorism, they pointed to phrases that "glorify terrorist
acts" or ones that attack "the values of the West".
The Government proposes to crack down and expel radical preachers
to make sure that they cannot preach hatred. It appears that the
new grounds for deportation include "fostering hatred, advocating
violence to further a person's belief or justifying or validating
such violence". No doubt there are some people who are deeply
hostile to British society and who use dreadful words to express
their hatred. One does not need to spend a fortune on a BBC Panorama-type
investigation to encounter vicious propaganda that seeks to demonise
every dimension of British life. But why are we so worried about
their words of hatred? Do we think that extremist views are, by
definition, powerful and capable of infecting anyone? Do we believe
young people are so simple that they are more likely to be influenced
by a radical preacher than by reasoned thought? Or is it the case
that, since we are not too sure about who we are and where we are
going, we feel confused about how to respond to views that call
into question our way of life? It seems that the obligatory incantation
about the celebration of diversity serves as a prelude to shutting
up those who are a little bit too diverse.
Whatever the motives that fuel the British Government's illiberal
attitude towards free speech, this attitude reveals a profound sense
of disorientation and defensiveness. It is difficult to avoid the
conclusion that the Government does not believe that it can effectively
counter the views of its opponents with arguments of its own. At
a time when a confident government would charge forward to engage
its opponents in a battle of ideas, the British elite has opted
for the defensive strategy of damage limitation. Even the university,
an institution devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and reasoned
debate, cannot be trusted to contain the ideas of the fanatics through
the exercise of free speech.
Back in July, the heads of British universities were told that
they too had to sign up to the crusade against terrorism by clamping
down on the influence of extremist campus groups that promote terrorism.
Bill Rammell, the British Higher Education Minister, informed a
meeting of vice-chancellors that they had to do their bit to challenge
the "evil ideology" responsible for the then recent bombings
in London. Rammell claimed that free speech was important but added
that "we also have a responsibility to tackle extremism on
campus". Unfortunately, experience indicates that the objective
of rhetorically coupling free speech with the demand that "we
also have a responsibility to tackle extremism" is to close
down open discussion. That is why Rammell is not asking universities
to wage a battle of ideas in defence of democracy, but to demand
vigilance and, if necessary, to curb free speech.
A few weeks after Rammell's speech, Middlesex University suspended
the president of its student union for organising a meeting at which
the Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir was to speak. As far as the university
authorities were concerned, curbing debate and free speech on campus
is the obvious way to defend "our way of life". What the
managers at Middlesex University failed to comprehend was that their
action sent out the message that they feared the consequences of
a debate in which Hizb-ut-Tahrir was a participant. In this way,
they succeeded in acknowledging their own moral and intellectual
confusion and helped transmit the idea that Islamist views are something
that we have to really fear.
Sadly, it appears that in its conflict with the enemies of democracy,
the British establishment regards civil liberties as a source of
weakness rather than a source of strength. That is why liberties
are represented as a potential source of vulnerability. When Dame
Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, warned that "some
erosion of what we value may be necessary to improve the chances
of our citizens not being blown apart as they go about their daily
lives", she implicitly presented civil liberties as an obstacle
to effectively countering the bombers. The ease with which "what
we value" is traded off for the elusive promise of security
indicates a feeble attachment to democratic principles.
The cavalier attitude of officialdom towards civil liberties is
not driven by some malevolent or authoritarian desire to dominate
public life. This is the response of a political class that feels
estranged from the world of ideas and principles. From time to time,
leading voices in the government call for a "battle of ideas"
to uphold "our way of life". But such pleas have an entirely
rhetorical character, since politicians are very reluctant to spell
out just what is this way of life that they wish to uphold.
It is precisely because politics is lost for words that politicians
would rather close down discussion about what it is we are defending
and fighting for than engage with it through the force of its ideas.
In such circumstances, many public figures are more than happy to
allow the imperative of security to compromise liberty. As always,
one of the first casualties of the politics of fear is open dialogue
The term "politics of fear" contains the implication
that politicians self-consciously manipulate people's anxieties
in order to realise their objectives. There is little doubt that
they do regard fear as an important resource for gaining a hearing
for their message. Scare tactics can sometimes work to undermine
opponents and to gain the acquiescence of the electorate. However,
the politics of fear is not simply about the manipulation of public
opinion. The political class is itself anxious and disoriented.
In the present circumstances, even professional political operators
who are in the business of promoting fear are themselves habitually
overwhelmed by it.
The politics of fear is a manipulative project that aims to immobilise
public dissent. But it is also the mantra with which a disconnected
elite responds in the circumstances of its isolation.
What the "politics of fear" really expresses is the renunciation
of politics. Unlike the politics of fear pursued by authoritarian
regimes and dictatorships, it has no clearly focused objective.
There is no big plan behind the elaboration of the recent raft
of illiberal government measures. For the political establishment,
one of the attractions of the politics of fear is that it absolves
its practitioners of having to formulate what they actually stand
for. Of course it does not make it any better that freedom in Britain
is being undermined, not by a malevolent conspiracy, but by a powerful
sense of stasis.
published on The Age, 28 January 2006