Jonathan Freed­land: nor­mal­i­sa­tion and the men­ace of the far right

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - Jonathan Freed­land

Aword of our time is “nor­mal­i­sa­tion”. It warns of the er­ror of treat­ing as nor­mal that which should in­stead be shunned. It has in its sights the xeno­pho­bic, pop­ulist and racist right em­bod­ied by Don­ald Trump and his hench­men, as well as their Euro­pean and Bri­tish al­lies. It says that these peo­ple should not be af­forded the usual cour­te­sies of civilised, demo­cratic life but should in­stead be left out in the cold.

All my in­stincts are with the anti-nor­malis­ers. In­deed, when it comes to Trump, I got there early, writ­ing even be­fore he’d sworn the oath of of­fice: “Don’t treat Don­ald Trump as if he’s a nor­mal pres­i­dent. He’s not.” I’d hap­pily ex­tend that rule to the likes of Steve Ban­non, briefly Trump’s chief strate­gist, now keen to pose as an im­pre­sario of the pop­ulist in­ter­na­tional, lend­ing his semi-celebrity to far right­ists from Italy’s Mat­teo Salvini to Bri­tain’s own Stephen Yax­ley-Len­non, who styles him­self “Tommy Robin­son”.

So my first im­pulse is to side with those out­raged by the in­vi­ta­tions re­cently ex­tended to Ban­non by the New Yorker or the Econ­o­mist (the former can­celled un­der pres­sure, the lat­ter went ahead). Sim­i­larly, I was as shocked as any­one else to see the orig­i­nal ti­tle – now changed – for an up­com­ing de­bate at Lon­don’s Con­way Hall, fea­tur­ing Trevor Phillips, Claire Fox, David Aaronovitch and the aca­demic Matthew Good­win: “Is ris­ing eth­nic di­ver­sity a threat to the west?”

The ob­jec­tions are fa­mil­iar. In the Ban­non case, those two great mag­a­zines were not only grant­ing a plat­form to a white na­tion­al­ist whose Bre­it­bart site has long ped­dled mul­ti­ple shades of big­otry and misog­yny. They were lend­ing him the pres­tige of their plat­form, dig­ni­fy­ing his ideas with their own good name, thereby grant­ing those ideas a main­stream le­git­i­macy they should be de­nied.

It’s no good sim­ply cry­ing free speech or de­nounc­ing cen­sor­ship. Nei­ther the Econ­o­mist nor the New Yorker would open its doors to the im­pe­rial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan or the Holo­caust-deny­ing David Irv­ing, so we know they draw the line some­where. But where?

The rea­son they would keep out the Klan or Irv­ing is clear if ap­par­ently para­dox­i­cal. Tol­er­ant so­ci­eties can tol­er­ate ev­ery­thing ex­cept ex­treme in­tol­er­ance. Lib­eral democ­racy is al­lowed, or even obliged, to re­pel those who would, given half a chance, use the norms of lib­eral democ­racy to de­stroy it. To quote An­drew McLaugh­lin, a tech­nol­o­gist who was in­vited to that same Econ­o­mist fes­ti­val and who protested against Ban­non’s in­clu­sion: “Treat­ing racist ex­trem­ists as pari­ahs is not just an ex­pres­sion of our re­vul­sion at their views; it is a nec­es­sary tac­tic in de­fend­ing our lib­eral demo­cratic order against those who aim to gain power within our sys­tems only to re­place them with some­thing hor­rific.”

That is the case against nor­mal­i­sa­tion. Don’t nor­malise peo­ple like Ban­non, don’t nor­malise the idea – long a sta­ple of white su­prem­a­cist talk – that eth­nic di­ver­sity is a threat to western civil­i­sa­tion. All very sim­ple, right?

It should be, and yet two as­pects of the cur­rent land­scape have forced me to see that these ques­tions are knot­tier than we might like. The first re­lates to tech­nol­ogy and in­volves a recog­ni­tion of re­al­ity. In the good old days of “no plat­form” in the 1970s and 1980s, the prac­ti­cal goal of deny­ing a racist a plat­form was plau­si­ble. If uni­ver­si­ties, pub­lish­ers and the me­dia agreed to shun, say, Irv­ing, then Irv­ing’s mes­sage would be all but un­heard, con­fined to a few poorly pro­duced mag­a­zines and hand-sten­cilled news­let­ters ex­changed in dodgy pubs. To­day, you might try to keep Yax­ley-Len­non off the air­waves or a de­bate stage, but you could not deny him a plat­form: the Tommy Robin­son Face­book page has more than 950,000 fol­low­ers.

“The in­ter­net has fun­da­men­tally un­der­mined ‘no plat­form’ as a tac­tic,” Joe Mul­hall of the anti-ex­trem­ist group Hope Not Hate told me. “In the tra­di­tional sense, it doesn’t work any more.” Ev­ery rag­tag racist with a smart­phone has a mega­phone within easy reach, and there’s lit­tle so­ci­ety’s gate­keep­ers can do about it. Which brings us to the sec­ond chal­lenge to the “no plat­form” tac­tic of old. The favourite re­frain of ev­ery pop­ulist xeno­phobe from Lu­ton to Leipzig, from Florida to Pitts­burgh? It is that they are gagged, si­lenced by a dis­tant po­lit­i­cal, cul­tural and me­dia es­tab­lish­ment.

This is why “free speech” has be­come the sin­gle, catch-all ban­ner un­der which an ar­ray of white su­prem­a­cists and Is­lam­o­phobes can now march, all claim­ing the same vic­tim­hood: that they are for­bid­den from voic­ing the pain of those be­trayed by a lib­eral elite that im­posed mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and im­mi­gra­tion on mainly white com­mu­ni­ties in Bri­tain, Europe and Amer­ica and that now re­fuses even to talk about it.

Which means there’s a risk that ev­ery time you dis­in­vite Ban­non or change the word­ing of a mo­tion, you’re playing into the hands of the racist right, in­ad­ver­tently con­firm­ing their poi­sonous nar­ra­tive. Your in­ten­tions might be be­nign – to deny the right a plat­form – but the con­se­quences could be the very op­po­site, strength­en­ing the right by hand­ing them sweet vin­di­ca­tion.

The strug­gle against nor­mal­i­sa­tion is not quite as clear-cut as some of its most right­eous war­riors would have you be­lieve. One rule of thumb might be use­ful, though. If you give space to the far right, then ask your­self if you’re in­ter­ro­gat­ing them – or echo­ing them.

Some­times a so­ci­ety has to hear even those views it finds re­pel­lent. But it should only do so with cau­tion, care – and with its eyes wide open •

‘Free speech’ has be­come the ban­ner un­der which an ar­ray of white su­prem­a­cists can now march

Illustration Nathalie Lees

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