Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for February 2015

Last Tuesday a gunman walked into a restaurant in a town in the Czech Republic, killed eight customers at random before shooting himself. The incident was reported in small print in most newspapers outside the Czech Republic.

Contrast this with the recent shootings in Ottawa, Sydney and Copenhagen. These were immediately dubbed “terrorist attacks”, although it was subsequently found that the gunmen acted alone, were home-grown citizens, had a history of mental instability (including violence) and were known to the local police. Yet the attacks led to frenzied calls for tighter restrictions on foreigners, more surveillance of vulnerable minorities, expanded powers to the police and security services, and self-righteous affirmations of “national values”.

Following the shootings in Paris, a wave of assaults, arson and vandalism targeting mosques and Muslim organisations occurred in the USA and Europe, including in Copenhagen where Denmark’s only purpose-built mosque, which opened last year, was defaced with Nazi swastikas.

Disturbing questions arise. Are acts of violence “terrorist” only if they are perpetrated by people with a Muslim background? Why are the atrocities committed by ISIL/ISIS given heightened publicity (which is, after all, what groups like this actually seek!) while similar atrocities committed by pro-Western regimes in the Arab world and elsewhere are routinely ignored? Despite the boastful claim to be tolerant, pluralist democracies, how much real civic engagement is there in Western nations among people of different faith-commitments, whether “religious” or “secular”?

The Western media, and especially popular TV channels (like Fox News) and pulp tabloids, are notorious for the profound ignorance they display of the world’s great religions, Christianity no less than Islam. And there are, of course, those deracinated elites who want to obliterate all religious sensibilities while proudly defending “free speech”.

In a letter to a Danish newspaper following the Copenhagen shooting, my wife wrote: “Yet another violent act which no words can suffice to condemn! But this aside – let us take a moment to search our own hearts. When we defend the right to, the need for, and the necessity of free speech for a democratic, truth-loving world, do we Scandinavians really practice this central principle unconditionally? Do we really believe with all of our beings in free speech? Would we defend cartoons that ridicule the idea of the equal worth of women, blacks and homosexuals? Or that vigorously promote a rebirth of Nazism with its history of violence against Jews and other minorities? Do the Muhammad drawings just manage to reveal us as people who do not have enough imagination to understand that there are other sensitivities and values than the ones we hold?”

In an older Blog post (July 2010) I gave the example of Rocco Buttiglioni, Minister of European Affairs in the Italian government, who was selected by the president of the European Commission to be its commissioner of justice. When in his interview he acknowledged that he was a practising Roman Catholic and believed that homosexual activity was a sin but should not be criminalized, he was disqualified from taking office on the grounds that his personal moral convictions were “in direct contravention of European law”. Rocco rightly called his treatment “the new totalitarianism”.

Let me repeat some things I stated in that post of five years ago because they continue to be relevant to debates about freedom of thought and speech in the West.

We can agree that shunning language that demeans and humiliates people is a way of showing respect for the worth and dignity of others. For instance, the use of “invalid” for people with physical or mental disabilities was a dreadful way of speaking (yet, ironically, the same societies that have dropped the term “invalid”- and even “handicapped”- are promoting a public ideology that regards foetuses and elderly people with disabilities as of no intrinsic value, thus demonstrating that language-change alone does not alter our moral perceptions).

But things took a sinister turn when the “political correctness” lobby stressed the political in the phrase and started using naked power to outlaw any moral viewpoint other than their own. How being “sensitive in one’s speech” moved from being a matter of good manners, civility or politeness to becoming political marked a significant cultural shift.

This was the culmination of changes in Western society that thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Jeffrey Stout and Charles Taylor have traced in some detail. Moral languages which were once part of coherent intellectual traditions have broken down. All that is left are fragments of earlier beliefs. There is no shared set of moral values that holds societies together, only institutions such as governments, legal systems or markets. Institutions survive, but the beliefs that gave them meaning are forgotten. And when moral truth itself is seen as a matter of mere personal taste, how can we engage in public moral argument? We only talk past each other. And when we want our way to prevail we resort to the naked assertion of power. The loudest voice or the most airbrushed speaker wins. (Hence the power of rabid tabloid headlines, scurrilous cartoons, and spin doctors).

This is the new repression that masquerades as “political correctness” and “tolerance”. The tragedy, of course, is when it surfaces on university campuses which once held academic freedom to be indispensable in the quest for truth – the freedom to publish any opinion, however outlandish, provided one was willing to submit it to critical scrutiny and debate. It is seen when a Singaporean law professor had her invitation to speak at a prestigious American university revoked after intense pressure from the “gay” political lobby, because of her views on homosexuality; or when some academics in the UK campaigned to exclude Israeli scholars from attending conferences because their views were considered Zionist.

Who will safeguard genuine intellectual freedom and reasoned argument in the media and the universities of the future?



February 2015