The chilling effect of polarisation on measured debate

This week, academics have been compared to the KKK and a trans writer attacked for being long-listed for a women's literary prize. Extreme views are stifling the conversation

09 Apr 2021

Photo: Epyc Wynn/Pixanay

I think two of the most unfashionable words in the political sphere at the moment are nuance and context. As a former politician, I completely understand why controversial and provocative statements win out; why polar positions make more entertaining viewing; why pitting people at odds with each other is more likely to inspire ongoing debate and will boost the number of Twitter likes and comments.

In other words, I know why some politicians and journalists are seeking to polarise. It boosts their profile, ensures that someone, somewhere will consider them relevant and for some even ensures that they have a payday.

But the question for me at least, is what cost is this having to our public space? Where is the place for debate rather than argument? How can we build consensus and solidarity if all we’re doing is shouting abuse at each other?

Some of the most contentious debates currently occurring in democratic societies seem to have descended into virtual screaming matches. No one is listening to each other, no one is seeking to find a middle ground and seemingly few people are seeking to build bridges – our collective focus at the moment seems to be to tear each other down.

Of course, the reality is this has always been part of our political discourse. There is a healthy tradition of challenge in our public space. But…  my concern is it is no longer on the fringes of our national conversations, it now dominates and the damage that it is doing is untold.

In the last week, we have seen academics compared to the KKK, a trans writer attacked for being long-listed for a literary prize for women and a new narrative on intersectional veganism which attacks other vegans for not considering the role of white supremacy in their eating habits.

I am not saying that people don’t have the right to these views – of course they do. Index on Censorship exists to ensure everyone’s rights to free expression. But that doesn’t mean that our words and deeds don’t have impact or consequence.

We witnessed in America only this year where this form of populist politics can lead to, at the extreme end – the storming of the Capitol. This week we’ve riots on the streets of Northern Ireland, again. Anti-Chinese hate crime has spiked post-Covid. In Belarus, Hungary and Poland we witness daily the appalling impact of the combination of this political polarisation and authoritarian-leaning governments. Words have consequence.

Index was launched half a century ago to provide a published space for dissidents to tell their stories and to publish their works. As we matured we provided a platform for people to debate some of the most contentious issues of the day, from the Cold War to fatwa to vaccine misinformation. We’ve done this in the spirit of providing a genuine space for free expression, a home to ensure that the hardest issues are discussed in an open, frank but measured way. That there is a space for actual debate and engagement. It is this tradition that we seek to emulate – which is why our magazine features considered commentators and thinkers tackling some of the thorniest issues of the day.

We all need a little nuance and context in our lives.

7 responses to “The chilling effect of polarisation on measured debate”

  1. Kate Baxter says:

    When did women having their own literary prize become ‘extremist’?

    Other groups aren’t vilified for not being ‘inclusive’. If a white writer, who claims to be black, was longlisted for the Jhalak Prize, and black authors objected, would you call those black authors extremists? Would you vilify black men and women for standing up for themselves and their intent to keep the prize they created for the purpose it was intended? Would you berate them for not being inclusive?

    No, be honest, you wouldn’t. Because that group would include men. All of those smears are reserved for women.

    The reasons for women-only prizes have not gone away – if anything, misogyny has worsened in my lifetime.

    The women’s prize needs to go back to being for women only. And sexist books that promote violence against women will always be called out by the women who care about other women. We won’t be made to feel ashamed about objecting to misogyny.

  2. Alan Henness says:

    As has rightly been pointed out, a trans writer was not ‘attacked’.

    There is also the issue that the prize organisers, if they were representing that they were relying on the exemption in the Equality Act to only allow female writers (and the clue is in the name of the prize) and to lawfully discriminate against those who are male, but were then including writers who are male, may well be in breach of the Act.

    As Maya Forstater said, words have consequences and in the Equality Act, words have specific meanings: female does not include male.

  3. Alessandra Asteriti says:

    Words have consequences.
    I said women have rights on the basis of sex.
    I received death threats.
    A national charity complained to my university.
    Students at my university issued a statement against me, comparing me to a racist and a Nazi.
    My academic contract will not be renewed.
    Index on Censorship is failing me and women and like me, whose freedom of speech and belief are being curtailed, whose jobs are threatened, who are left fearing for their livelihood and safety.
    Don’t come talk to us about nuance.
    There is no nuance between freedom and slavery, between truth and lies, between reason and blind faith.

  4. Sarah says:

    This feels very disappointing. A trans writer was not ‘attacked’. Women simply questioned whether a prize established to showcase female writers should be opened up to males who identify as women. Women are facing erasure as a legal category and political class. Not only that, but they are being attacked and vilified and their freedom of expression curtailed for seeking to debate this. Please support them, rather than misrepresent their actions.

  5. Helen Saxby says:

    A trans writer was not attacked. A literary prize was criticised for changing the rules and moving the goalposts. It was fair criticism: women’s prizes are there to right historic wrongs and to level the playing field for women who are too often overlooked. They are in effect there to make sure women are not censored, even if just by cultural norms. To make the prize mixed-sex without consultation or debate would obviously make some women angry – should their voices be censored?

  6. Ruth,

    This blog was just tweeted by Index on Censorship with the following message, pointing towards Wild Woman Writing Club’s open letter to the Women’s Prize (which has longlisted a male author). “This past week academics have been compared to the KKK and a trans writer attacked for being long-listed for a women’s literary prize. Extreme views are stifling the conversation.”

    Index on Censorship thus insinuates that grassroots women’s groups are analogous to violent white supremacists, whereas the male author usurping women’s resources is analogous to a black civil rights campaigner. This would be comical, were the implications not so offensive and wrong-headed.

    Women standing up to the cognitive capture of our institutions by transgender ideology are an oppressor group, are we? When many among us have lost jobs, contracts, physical safety in public, social networks and reputations? When many among us have been subjected to credible threats of violence reported to the police, doxxing, reports to employers and associates, and unrelenting smear campaigns?

    You write, above, of the need for debate–we have politely and patiently stated our case for several years, only to be met with the mantra of #NoDebate by trans extremists. It is gender dissident women–not trans extremists and their institutional enablers–who have been routinely deplatformed and unpersoned for resisting the big lie that humans can change sex, and that sex doesn’t matter anymore.

    How, precisely, does mischaracterising gender dissident women as analogous to violent racists help to make space for debate, and lessen polarisation? The polarisation exists because a group of men are demanding that women concede our humanity, and everything our foremothers fought for to enable women to influence the culture and participate in public life.

    Why has the organisation which should be defending women’s free expression with vigour instead compared us to the unscrupulous men who have been persecuting us? It makes no sense to suggest that this is a “both sides” phenomenon. Neither does it make sense to frame the defence of women’s existing rights as controversial. Until 5 years ago, they were utterly taken for granted.

    We wish that IOC would stand up for women’s free expression with vigour and integrity. When did that stop being the obvious right thing to do?

    Wild Woman Writing Club

  7. If by “attacked” you mean criticised, it woulds encourage less polarisation to use that word.

    It would encourage nuance and debate to link to that criticism, to allow people to judge for themselves whether it really is “extreme” to challenge a male writer being in included in a prize for female authors.

    This article slips from presenting a carefully argued letter as an “attack”…segues to storming the Capitol, rioting on the streets of Northern Ireland, engaging in anti-Chinese hate crime…. And then scolds “Words have consequences.”

    Yes words have consequences. The consequence of saying that men are not women, in much of the West right now is that people will try very hard to make sure you lose your livelihood. This is having a chilling effect on measured debate.