I was on a bus passing through Brierley Hill on my way back home. It was the end of a long journey. A few weeks previously, I had been teaching physics in Kambuga. A couple of weeks after that, I had stayed in Masaka where I met a young man whose father had died fighting for Idi Amin and whose mother had died of aids, before travelling to Entebbe where I had heard the news that Princess Diana had been killed in a car crash. It was September, 1997.
There was something deeply strange about England at that time. It was as if I had flown in from Mars rather than Uganda. I had been troubled by the news of Diana but we hear troubling news all the time. You cannot avoid it. So I felt sad, but then I did what I had always done and carried on. Yet England was different. The shops in Brierley Hill High Street had signs saying “As a mark of respect for Diana, Princess of Wales, we will be closed on Saturday.” Everyone I met – people I had know for years – were full of an emotion that I didn’t feel connected to.
I began to understand what it must feel like to be a dissident; to not accept the popular narrative. I realised how close we are to unreason. And I realised how gossamer-thin our precious liberal democracy is. It wouldn’t take much for a demagogue to work out how to mobilise these emotions for their own ends. It has been done many time before; liberal democracies have evolved the wrong way into autocracies and, no doubt, they will do so again.
It is easy to think that you are protected from this if you grow-up in a country like Britain. We tend to think of freedom as an inevitability of history. Nobody will take away what has been so hard to achieve; what those before us have fought and died for. And yet there is no good reason to think this and, worse, the more we take it for granted, the greater the chance of it just slipping away, unnoticed.
We should always be on guard because people with power tend to act to limit and define the acceptable terms of any debate. South Africans should worry when somebody powerful like Blade Nzimande of the South African Communist Party says, “People can differ with me and you can insult me as you like, but disrespect, that is not acceptable.” How are we to define disrespect? Is it in the eye of the beholder? How are we to debate Nzimande if we disagree with his politics? Is it for him to dictate the terms?
Indeed, it is not hard to find examples from across the world of the powerful restricting the right to debate. It is not that they are against appropriate kinds of disagreement, they are at pains to explain, it is just that there are certain ways that people should go about it. In Kazakhstan, you must not “infringe the honour or dignity of the president” for instance and you might get arrested for the way that you protest against your local mayor. In Turkey you must not “publicly denigrate” the Turkish nation, military or police. Although, “expressions of thought intended to criticize shall not constitute a crime,” if that makes you feel any better. And many other nations have similar laws. Are they there to ensure civilised and respectful debate or to silence potential currents of opposition?
You may be feeling at this point that such legislation would not exist in a true liberal democracy like Australia or Britain, but it turns out that freedom is more of a continuum than a category. For instance, there’s a law in place in the UK that makes it illegal to use footage of Parliamentary proceedings in a comedic or satirical context. That’s odd, isn’t it? What possible point could such a law serve other than to prevent the powerful from looking foolish?
I think that the right to satire is critical for a healthy political culture. It is a potent tool for exposing absurdity and hubris which is precisely why the powerful don’t like it.
This is why I am deeply suspicious of those with establishment roles and powers who try to restrict debate; those who try to use their authority to manipulate the ways in which people are allowed to challenge them; those who deliberately blur the lines between honest disagreement and abuse.
I have been thinking about the argument that we should not publicly disagree with fellow professionals or sneer at discredited ideas such as learning styles. I am struck that such contentions tend to come from those with traditional power and influence in our education systems.
Let me be clear. I am not drawing any kind of equivalence between unpleasant regimes and those who seek to restrict the way that we may debate education. I am trying to point out the tendency of the powerful to attempt to protect their position. It is quite possible to have an impoverished education debate in an otherwise open society. We have had it before and it would be a shame to return to it again.
Open disagreement is fundamental to reason. Some people won’t find it pleasant; like those British politicians who would prefer not to be sneered and jeered at. You can understand it. They probably find it disrespectful. But that’s a small price to pay for freedom.