Freedom and Its Discontents

by Theodore Dalrymple (Feb. 2007)
 
When the Nazis marched into Vienna, to the delirious welcome of the crowd, and not very long before the Gestapo escorted him off the premises as it were, Freud wrote two lapidary words in his diary: Finis Austriae. And since then it is true that Austria has not featured very prominently, let alone favourably, in the mental horizons of most educated people even in Europe, much less in North America. Despite its great beauty, its marvellous historical and artistic heritage, and its ascent to great and near-universal prosperity, a pall even yet hangs over the country, for the most obvious reasons. 
 
When I think of modern Austria, here is what I think of: scenes from the film The Third Man, the writer Thomas Bernhard who so despised his native land that he directed in his will that none of his books ever be published there, and the diplomat Kurt Waldheim who covered up his own past, again for very obvious reasons. If pushed, I think also of a modernist artist whose brilliantly original idea was to cover everything in blood, and Elfriede Jellinek, the Nobel Prize winner whose view of her country is hardly more flattering than that of Bernhard. No doubt this is all very unfair, but we are seldom fair about anything.
 
Last weekend, however, Vienna was in the news, or at least in one of the British newspapers: for it reported from there the case of the youngest transsexual in the world. Once known as Tim, Kim started to receive treatment for a change of sex at the age of twelve. Tim (as he then was) apparently persuaded doctors that he was born in the wrong kind of body, and despite his youth, they accepted him at his word. 
 
Later in the day of the publication of the story, the BBC telephoned me and asked me whether I would comment on the case for the World Service. They asked me what I would say, and the first thing that came to mind was the likelihood of a lawsuit against the doctors at some time in the future. The search for compensation sometimes seems to be modern Man’s (or should I say personkind’s?) deepest quest. After all, Man is born happy, but everywhere he’s sad: so it must be that someone is to blame, and - as an advertising jingle for litigation lawyers that I once overheard in a radio in a taxi put it, ‘Remember, where there’s blame, there’s a claim.’  
 
I was not very enthusiastic about appearing on the programme, however, for more than one reason. Although I believe that concision is next to godliness, and everyone should say what he has to say in as few words as possible, the distillation of answers to difficult philosophical questions into sound-bites is not necessarily propitious to proper discussion and argumentation. The BBC, on the whole, doesn’t go in for long discussions, believing that its audience has the attention span of - I nearly said a twelve year-old, but of course, as we have seen, twelve year-olds are now mature enough to take the most momentous decisions in life. At any rate, the BBC once asked me to appear on what it called ‘a long discussion’ on a subject that seemed to me an important one, but when I asked what they meant by ‘long’ they replied ‘Six minutes,’ and then said, when I remarked that six minutes did not seem so very long to me, that it was long for them. Long, after all, is a relative term. And when I asked how many other people were to appear on this long, indeed virtually interminable, discussion, they said three (not counting the presenter), which suggested to me that the winner of the discussion - for there must always be a winner - would be he who managed to shout the loudest and bully his voice into the microphone. If T S Eliot were alive today, I think he’d change that famous line to ‘Human kind cannot bear very much discussion.’ 
 
Fortunately, I had a good excuse not to appear on the programme, though why I should have felt that I needed an excuse is itself a little odd. At any rate, I had a dinner engagement at the time of the broadcast, which released me of all sense of obligation. I felt an almost physical relief.
 
Immediately, in the manner of a professional intellectual, I began to analyse the reasons for this. The answer was neither flattering to me, nor reassuring about the state of our freedom.
 
If I had spoken my mind, without let or hindrance, I should have said what I suspect a very large majority of people think: that there is something grotesque, and even repugnant, about the whole idea of sex-changes, let alone of sex-changes for twelve year-olds. A feeling of repugnance is not a complete moral argument, of course; something deeper is required. Nevertheless, an intuition that an action or policy is profoundly wrong is the beginning, if not the end, of moral reflection.
 
However, the fact is (if I am truthful) that a certain fear or pusillanimity entered into my relief that I was not to broadcast on this subject. If I had done the broadcast, I would have had to sit opposite an advocate of trans-sexualism in the studio (so the producer had told me), and to be true to myself and my opinions I would have had to tell him/her, in front of an audience of many thousands if not millions, that I thought that what he/she had done was fundamentally egotistical and anti-social. Knowing the format for radio programmes, it was unlikely that I would have been able to give my reasons for thinking so; and I am in general reluctant to give gratuitous offence to a particular person, partly from moral cowardice and partly from a belief that the giving of such offence is a bad thing in itself.
 
But I was also aware that trans-sexuals now form a considerable lobby group, not because of their number, which is inconsiderable, but because of support from that part of the intelligentsia that sees the dissolution of boundaries if not as God’s work exactly, then as the work of the morally elect. They have been fighting boundaries for years.
 
Well, what of that? We certainly don’t live in a society in which one has to fear the midnight knock on the door because one has stepped out of line by expressing faulty opinions. Yet lobby groups and their allies nevertheless have a way of exacting a price for the expression of views very different from their own. They are able to portray that person that opposes them as unreasonable and bigoted, as some kind of pea-brained antediluvian. And the fact is that they are probably prepared to put more effort into doing this than the person who opposes them is prepared to put into defending his opinion, because he a not monomaniac or one-issue person, unlike at least some of his opponents. The truth is that I don’t care very much about trans-sexualism, and so I didn’t want to risk even a small amount of public opprobrium from right-thinking people on the subject. The heavens will not fall if one twelve-year old Austrian boy gets a sex-change, after all; and there is, to adapt slightly a saying of Adam Smith’s, a deal of ruin in a civilisation.
 
Thus we see how social change, of a kind opposed by the majority of the population, can come about: no one can be found to oppose it strongly, because the individual change doesn’t matter that much, except to the beneficiaries, and the price of opposing it is made too high. Precedents are set, and once set, followed; there is no going back. Omelettes never can become eggs again; or, to change the metaphor, the genie never returns to the bottle.       
 
It used to be that governments were the greatest threat to freedom of expression, but now it is social pressure of the kind I have described that threatens debate. I first realised this when I wrote an article about a condition known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, questioning - I must admit, in less than emollient terms - the firm view of those who suffer from it, namely that it is a viral rather than a psycho-social condition.
 
What I had not realised at the time I wrote was that the sufferers from chronic fatigue were, in fact, tirelessly active in defence of their view of their condition, and would entertain no other. No sooner was the article published than I began to receive protests by telephone and post, often cast in unpleasant and abusive language; my hospital received calls for my dismissal; even a government minister was contacted.
 
I discovered when I spoke to other journalists who had written or broadcast in similar vein about the same subject that the treatment I received at the hands of the chronically fatigued was comparatively mild, perhaps because of my obscurity and unimportance. Television journalists in particular were made to suffer, for long receiving calls in the middle of the night, a barrage of insults and so forth, often for month after month, so that their sleep was chronically disturbed. Not surprisingly, they resolved never to touch the subject again: for them, after all, it was only one subject among many, while for the protesters it was the subject of subjects. Even comparatively discreet researchers, who wrote in much more guarded terms, told me that if they deviated by one jot or tittle from the line propounded by the chronically fatigued, they were inundated with protests. One, an eminent professor, told me that he had felt almost under siege.
 
And thus the argument went by default: and only one view was allowed to enter the public consciousness. The point at issue is not whether the chronically fatigued are right in their views (they may yet be proved to be so), but whether they should attempt to curtail legitimate debate in this fashion.
 
Let us be honest: there are few of us who have never felt the temptation to silence those fools and scoundrels who have views different from our own. They must, after all, be either stupid or malevolent (or, of course, both). If the means to silence them were at hand, we would be sorely tempted to use them.
 
Which of us listens without impatience and even anger to the arguments of our opponents? If you believe in global warming as the result of man’s activities, can you abide the obviously crooked arguments of the sceptics, who are in the pay of, or at least in mental thrall to, the polluting multinationals? Or if you believe that Al Gore only wants to increase the power of governments, preferably with him in charge of the largest of them, can you listen without a rise in pulse rate and blood pressure to the arguments of climatologists who insist that it is we - I mean, we humans - who are causing a rise in global temperature? What is truth said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.
 
La Rochefoucauld said that love of justice in most men is only fear of suffering injustice. By analogy, love of free speech in most men is only fear of being shut up. If they were a bit stronger than they are, they would just have monologues, the most pleasurable of all speech forms. Who among us has not taken part in a conversation in which his principal concern was with what he was going to say next, hardly bothering in the meantime to listen to the others, except to await a pause into which he may interject his wonderful words?
 
The threat to free speech does not inhere, therefore, solely in governments, but in our hearts. And in the modern world, a peculiar threat comes from right-thinking monomaniacs who associate to form pressure groups. With the decline in the grand ideology of socialism, we have not seen the decline of ideology, but the rise of micro-ideologies. Ideology has been divided into fragments and privatised, as it were, but it remains just as ideological. And few pleasures are greater than those of the exercise of power, especially in the name of the greater good. To be both powerful and virtuous, how delightful!
 
Please don’t reply to any part of this article. I won’t read it: I know I’m right. 
 

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