The Act of Debate

Daniel Wood highlights the importance of engaging in discussions and debates. 

Whether or not ‘cancel culture’ exists in the precise form claimed by many of the signatories of the now famous Harper’s Letter, or by those who subsequently derided it, it isn’t hard to see that at the very least there’s been some shift in people’s perception of what is and isn’t tolerable in the public sphere. There’s a sense of a constriction in public discourse about what can’t be said, where it can’t be said, and the difficulty you can find yourself in for saying it.

To Labour this as exclusively a response to the actions of figures and movements of either the left or right is mistaken. After all, at this moment across Europe governments of the hard right are seeking to consolidate power over speech. In July journalists at Hungary’s largest online news portal Index walked out en masse to protest government interference following their editor’s sacking.[1] Yet while there might be some in our own politics and media who would ignore this in favour of other targets, their hypocrisy doesn’t subtract from the very real sense that many people feel they are living in a hyper-critical, fragile and censorious environment – marked by obsessions over small differences and jokes, while outraged by the slightest infractions. An atmosphere of student-like politics which has led the writer Andrew Sullivan to claim that ‘we all live on campus now’.[2]

And it has seemed that at moments there is a mood, a type of complacency, concerning the right to speech. Having taken it as a given for so long, some appear inclined to take it for granted considering the inherent responsibilities and awkwardness. It is the infantilisation of speech. That while accepting freedom of speech as important, the spaces where it can be indulged grow smaller and smaller.

A version of this was recently posed by Nadia Whittome, MP for Nottingham East. Taking to Twitter, she expressed her view on a distinction which has seemingly become starker in recent years: the rights of all to free expression against the rights and protections of minority groups – in this case, trans people. Whittome wrote: ‘We must not fetishise “debate” as though debate is itself an innocuous, neutral act. The very act of debate in these cases is an effective rollback of assumed equality and a foot in the door for doubt and hatred.’[3] The possibility that there doesn’t have to be a conflict, or that the messy and perhaps painful process of working through these rights might preserve both, seems not to figure.

While not doubting her sincere concern for hard-fought and hard-won rights, this approach threatens the line back to thinking itself. Thankfully, debate isn’t an innocuous, neutral act. The ‘door to doubt’ she warns against, an admonition that would trouble our forebears who believed in interrogating all sources of unquestioned authority, has been the point through which we have slowly expanded rights.

Whittome’s intimation is that because some speech is grotesque (or just disagreeable) it thereby falls outside the parameters of reasonable debate. She writes ‘assumed equality’ as if these were always so and not the product of people asserting their rights.

Not all speech will be comfortable. There are precious few Miltons and Mills. So few that freedom of speech must be vociferously defended. Each idea, no matter how nobly intended, must be examined and challenged so we might further crawl toward greater understanding and tolerance. In its exposure even the ugly benefits us.

The right of individuals to speak the truth, to be challenged, and to question any consensus or convention is the primary right. Next to life it is fundamental and precedes all other guarantees: political, social, and economic. For without this basic foundation all other rights are meaningless. We should always look to conserve and expand this, not redefining it to avoid unpleasant conversations. This is as true in our time as it ever was.

Daniel Wood is a writer living and working London, soon to start an MA at the University of Manchester.

He tweets at @DanWood1994


[1] BBC News. ‘Hungary's Index journalists walk out over sacking’. 24 July 2020.

[2] Andrew Sullivan. ‘We All Live on Campus Now’. New York Magazine. 9 February 2018.

[3] Nadia Whittome:

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