Climate of fear: The silencing of the planet’s indigenous peoples


Whistleblowers: The lifeblood of democracy


The chilling effect of polarisation on measured debate


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.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”41669″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

We need to end the abuse around discussions of feminism and trans rights

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Free speech is difficult. It should be difficult. After all it protects our right to say things contrary to popular opinion. It protects the minority view. It facilitates debate. It provides the legal framework for protest. It allows people to tell their own stories. Most importantly it moves society on.

It’s why we so desperately need to protect our right to free speech, to cherish it and fight for everybody to be able to use it.

Index was founded to do just that. To cherish the concept of free speech. To expose repressive regimes who were censoring their citizenry and, when necessary, stand up against restrictive practices in our own countries. And for the last 50 years that’s exactly what we’ve done.

What we weren’t established to do was to pick a side on any individual issue that is currently being debated in society. It will surprise none of you that I have quite strong personal opinions on most issues and so does every member of our team, but Index’s job is solely to make sure that other people’s voices can and should be heard if they are being silenced. In the words of Stephen Spender, one of our co-founders, to be a voice for the persecuted.

Which brings me to the current discourse on gender and trans rights. I think we can all agree that this has become increasingly toxic. There is limited constructive dialogue, a huge amount of hate and little meeting in the middle ground to discuss practical ways to come together. Far too many exchanges are now less about the issues themselves, and more about whose side you are on – or even worse, about who has the right to participate in the conversation. The discussion has now switched from one embracing free speech to one of informal censorship.

When we talk about a chilling effect in the public space it is embodied by this issue. Some are genuinely scared to engage in any of the issues for fear of abuse. Members of the trans community, who face daily intimidation and persecution, are rarely being heard at all, as others silence them by claiming to speak for them. This is helping no one.

Index will be launching a new work stream in 2021 to build spaces for dialogue on this subject and others so that people can come together to air issues and find constructive ways forward. But in the interim I want to make it clear what our position is.

All women, whether a successful novelist like JK Rowling or a struggling blogger expressing their gender identity, have a right to their opinions and a right to have those opinions heard.

Death threats, online bullying and attempts to undermine people’s careers are unacceptable. We stand against this censorship. We stand in solidarity with the targets of this abuse and we will fight for their right to be heard.

Trans people face daily persecution and are subject to some of the most appalling abuse in society.  Their voices, apart from a few limited exceptions, are not being heard. They have stories to tell but they are being largely censored. We stand in solidarity with them and we will ensure they too have a platform.

These positions aren’t contradictory and they shouldn’t be controversial in the UK in the twenty-first century. As ever Index does and will always stand against censorship.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You might also like to read” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]