Life

Not Everything Is a Debate, Even If the Powerful Want It To Be

British political discourse often posits human rights – particularly those of marginalised groups – as issues to be debated. How did we get here?
10 July 2020, 12:16pm
How Did We Reach 'Peak Debate'?
Image: DJG / Alamy Stock Photo and House of Commons on Twitter. Composite by VICE staff. 

Last Friday, the UK House of Commons’ official Twitter account shared a survey, to canvass the public for opinions. It asked followers to submit their views regarding LGBTQ conversion therapy, and whether it should be made illegal. The words “conversion therapy” were typed out as a hashtag.

“How does #conversiontherapy affect the #LGBTQ community?” the tweet asked. “Should it be made illegal? What would that mean to you?”

Quickly, the proposition of such a clear violation of the rights of LGBTQ people as a question (not to mention what trans activists like Munroe Bergdorf identified as a dogwhistle acknowledgement of the lobby by anti-trans campaigners to reclassify gender identity clinics as sites of conversion therapy) drew ire on Twitter and beyond. After immediate and rightful condemnation, the tweet was deleted and the survey removed. This was followed up by a statement which noted that following the popularity of a recent anti-conversion therapy petition, the survey had sought to generate further information on the topic to provide to the government.

The damage, however, had already been done by the framing of the original tweet, in which – to state the facts – a parliamentary social media account casually presented a practice that the United Nations has called to ban internationally as a question, hashtags and all. Certainly, this did not happen in a vacuum. Instead it was the inevitable product of the UK’s contemporary public discourse which posits fundamental human rights as issues to be debated. How did we get here?

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In October 2009, Nick Griffin, the then-leader of the fascist British National Party, was invited onto the BBC’s Question Time. Amid a weeks-long debate over whether or not the appearance should go ahead (even then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown weighed in), the BBC’s then-Director General Mark Thompson wrote for the Guardian that the invitation had been extended to Griffin and the party because “It is a straightforward matter of fact that, with some 6 percent of the vote and the election of two MEPs in this spring's European elections – and with some success in local elections as well – the BNP has demonstrated a level of support that would normally lead to an occasional invitation to join the panel on Question Time.”

The appearance was mired in controversy – filming of the show was picketed by protesters, and after it aired, Griffin accused the BBC of bias against him because the episode had been held in London. Explaining his grievance to Sky News, Griffin said: "Do it somewhere where there are still significant numbers of English and British people [living], and they haven't been ethnically cleansed from their own country."

At the time the Observer called Griffin’s appearance on the BBC’s flagship political programme “one of the most divisive broadcasts in the corporation's history.” It was the first and only time the BNP and its far-right, nationalist, and fundamentally racist stance would be represented on Question Time, though it did indicate a cultural watershed in terms of the UK’s approach to debate.

Firstly, it was the first time we saw the ouroboros of political panel shows and the internet response to them properly at play (this now represents a huge amount of political conversation in the UK – just look at Twitter on any morning when Piers Morgan has been presenting Good Morning Britain), and secondly, it created and elevated a debate where there did not need to be one: there was and is, after all, no reasoning to be done around the legitimacy of fascism. There are of course those who’d say that Griffin should be allowed to air his views, in order that the general public might reject them – but it should be noted that following the appearance, the BNP posted a message on its website citing 3,000 membership requests.

The detachment with which decisions such as offering Nick Griffin a spot on Question Time are made is reproduced in the media and in the government frequently. The UK is governed by people born into a number of different privileges. Its institutions, largely, are also run by people from the same milieu. These are the people, therefore, who dictate the terms of debate in Britain, having warmed up for power while cosplaying the House of Commons at the Oxford Union and its like (sitting Prime Minister Boris Johnson is, of course, a former president of the University of Oxford’s notorious debate society, and is one of five current MPs who have held the role.) Most often, they speak from a wealthy, white, and male point of view. Because these people hold the most power, theirs are the positionalities we hear from most, often with little more than academic “interest” when it comes to the identities and rights of those who do not share their privileges.

This has always been true: wealthy white people have always risen to prominence, political or otherwise, and set the national agenda. The difference in 2020 is that individuals have recourse to respond quickly and publicly to those in power, largely via social media. The internet has given rise to entire movements, which empower marginalised people and imagine new worlds outside the narrow viewpoints of traditional governance (Black Lives Matter is one prominent example). The goalposts, therefore, have shifted.

Many minority people now have powerful voices in the public sphere, specifically via social media. In order to avoid being left behind and becoming outdated, mainstream media must now include these voices in the conversation, rather than allowing them to be spoken about, or indeed, outright demonised. But the people setting the terms of these conversations as they stand in mainstream media are largely the same people they have always been (only 8 percent of people in leadership roles in the British TV industry were from minority ethnic backgrounds in 2019, for example). It is therefore no surprise that though marginalised people are at least invited to speak for themselves now, they are also being asked to debate their own fundamental human rights.

Trans women, for example, are brought in to “debate” their existence and place in society, in spite of the fact that prominent human rights organisations including Amnesty and Liberty advocate in favour of the right to legal self ID. It is social media that frames this as a debate between cis women and trans women, and though some suggest that the rights of the latter encroach on those of the former, a recent PinkNews and YouGov survey found that the majority of women support the right to self ID. Elsewhere, “debates” centre on concepts where the answer is obvious (“should comedians do blackface?”), posing them as questions rather than clear and self-evident truths.

Indeed, as the political climate in the UK has shifted to the right, via successive Conservative governments, the rights of minorities have increasingly been posed as topics for debate by legislators too, with the public being invited by the government or its related agencies to comment on reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, or the rights of Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities, or, as we’ve seen, “#conversiontherapy.”

Obviously these consultations allow individuals who would be affected to directly advocate for themselves, and also allow others to respond in minorities’ interests, which is a good thing. But they allow for the opposite as well, and ultimately, by opening up these issues as something everyone should and can have their say on, rather than simply viewing them as responsibilities to the rights of its citizens, the government chooses to absolve itself of a level of culpability, by creating or encouraging debate where there should be none, and then pointing to the existence of those debates as reason enough to place question marks over the rights of people who are already some of the most insecure in society.

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“Debate” has been in the news a lot in the last week. This is because a number of prominent writers, academics, and public figures, including J.K. Rowling and Martin Amis, signed a letter in Harper’s Magazine entitled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” In not so many words, this called for an end to what the writers clearly view as “cancel culture” (characterised as “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”), because of the “dire professional consequences” it can result in.

It is truly telling that “dire professional consequences” are the worst outcome these esteemed and economically comfortable writers and thinkers can countenance. Again, we return to the fact of the matter: those cushioned by social privilege can happily engage in detached, “academic” debate on the rights of others, while also seeming to imply that despite their loud voices and large audiences, the playing field is level. Those whose very lives are being kicked around like intellectual footballs would disagree.

A political shift towards the right; a social media discourse which turns literally everything into an argument, as marginalised people attempt to live peacefully, while others, frequently in much more comfortable social positions, find reasons why they should not; a media culture which attempts to mirror this; and a media class unused to reprisal for its views are all factors which have contributed to the current lay of the land in the UK and beyond. Debate is important – it is a cornerstone of democracy. But democracy is also founded on human rights, and the fact that they are to be enshrined. So I would suggest, very simply, that they are not up for discussion. The need, after all, for questions about the validity of a person’s identity ceases as soon as that person is sat in front of you, existing. On these matters – trans issues, racism, “#conversiontherapy” – there is no debate.