Greater Minds: Shami Chakrabarti on dissent

  • Civil rights activist Shami Chakrabarti gave the 2015 Reading Agency lecture.
  • She quoted Shelley, who called for a benign order to be imposed on chaos.
  • Order is antithetical to the freedom to dissent.
  • Refusing to engage with opposing views prioritises freedom from dissent over freedom to


Shami Chakrabarti in 2014 (Chris Beckett [CC / Flickr])

Said Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group Liberty, when she gave the Reading Agency’s 2015 lecture. It’s advice I took myself, even though I didn’t read the lecture until after the new year. Chakrabarti, who describes herself as a ‘recovering lawyer, or perhaps only one in remission’, but she took some time from campaigning for free speech to celebrate the best of the speech which she’s spent the last decade protecting.

Since giving that speech, she has announced that she is standing down as the director of Liberty, though no doubt she will continue her campaigning for civil liberties and freedom of speech elsewhere.

Order’s sway

I’m not going to repeat the content of her lecture here, as she makes many good points much more articulately than I ever could. I am going to explore some of the tensions she raised. The first comes directly from her opening lines, in which she quoted the closing lines of a


Percy Bysshe Shelley (Jeffrey Beall [CC / Flickr])

poetical essay titled Existing State of Things, written in 1811 by a radically-minded undergraduate called Percy Bysshe Shelley. The end of the poem describes the transformation of the society Shelley was criticising into something much more pleasant:

Then, then shall things , which now confusedly hurled,

Seem Chaos, be resolved to order’s sway

The idea that the improvement of society is a process of bringing order to chaos is a dangerously pervasive one, which is at odds with Chakrabarti’s praise of dissent. She quotes Ed Murrow’s commentary on the McCarthy investigations:

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.

The Hypothetical constitution

We may imagine a utopian society – let’s call it Hypothetica – in which Murrow’s statement is untrue. In Hypothetica, all aspects of society from government to the law to the sewage system are perfectly configured to maximise the happiness of every citizen. In
Hypothetica, dissent is indeed disloyalty because to interfere with the operation of the perfect state is to detract from the happiness of the people whose happiness is being maximised.


Occupy Congress quote Ed Murrow, 2012 ( [CC / Flickr])

The problem is that Hypothetica does not exist, and no one has a clue what it would look like. Throughout history, many suggestions for the hypothetical constitution have been presented, but the few that have tried have failed to produce the promised perfect society. The latest attempt conceives Hypothetica as a theocratic caliphate. So far, it doesn’t look promising.

It’s very likely that Hypothetica cannot exist in any society of human beings. As if they don’t complicate things enough with their differing ideas on what sort of society they would like to live in, people have an inconvenient tendency to denigrate the status quo and idealise what they don’t currently have. The grass is always greener on the other side, right up to the moment when you get over the fence.

Perhaps the most believable fictional utopia was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which solved the human problem by altering people to fit the society rather than fitting a society
around the people. The idea of homogenising  humanity is so repugnant to most people


(Chris Goldberg [CC / Flickr])

that Brave New World is generally regarded as a dystopia, even though most of its citizens are much happier than most of us.


Society as compromise

If we reject the idea of genetically modifying ourselves, we’re left with a society made up of people with massively different ideas of what the society should be. The society we live in becomes a messy compromise, and it’s in the nature of a compromise that no one gets everything they want. The art of the successful compromise depends on accepting that it will satisfy nobody, so it will require constant renegotiation. Renegotiation is only possible if everyone has the freedom to state their dis-satisfaction.

When we express our dis-satisfaction with society, someone more satisfied is likely to call it dissent.

When Shelley calls for ‘order’s sway’, he begs the question of whose order is to be given sway and how that order will suppress chaos. We may forgive Shelley, who was only 18 when he wrote it and suffered from an unhealthy fascination with Napoleon and the order he brought to France. Shelley’s adulation seems to have blinded him to the disorder that Napoleon’s armies were traipsing through Europe at the time.

In (grudging) praise of Prime Minister’s Questions

For those of us who were raised with the outward chaos of democracy, it’s easy to be disillusioned. We wonder at the facile sound bites that pass for political speech and


Prime Minister’s Questions in 2015 (DAVID HOLT [CC / Flickr])

we watch our more adept and less scrupulous politicians game the system. These are legitimate criticisms, and indeed grounds for dissent. Yet they are also artefacts of the system that allows dissent. Until we live in Hypothetica, order’s sway will never arise out of popular consent. It can only be imposed, and that imposition is to be feared by anyone who doesn’t have a say in how it is imposed.


The difference was brought home to me several years ago, in a conversation with a Pakistani friend. Like most Brits, I was – and often still am – disgusted by the behaviour of our members of parliament at the weekly squabble knowns as ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’. Anyone who has watched a classroom of twelve year olds holding a debate has seen a more thoughtful and, frankly, adult debate than takes place every week in the mother of parliaments.

Ostensibly, it’s an opportunity for MPs on both sides of the house to put questions to the prime minister. In practice, the opposition try to trip him up while his own party ask him the questions he wants to answer. Meanwhile, everyone bellows across the house at each


Dissent in Paris, 5th April 2008 (looking4poetry [CC / Flickr])

When my Pakistani friend mentioned it, my first reaction was to role my eyes and feel embarrassed at the spectacle our government makes of itself in the eyes of the rest of the world. Then he pulled me up short. “It’s fantastic,” he said. “That’s democracy.”


I’ve often thought about that since. Puerile as it is when everyone shouts at the prime minister, it serves as a weekly reminder that he is not above being shouted at.

The danger of imposing order on chaos

Chakrabarti develops the argument further when she refers to the refusal to engage with opposing views. She refers to a British government consultation paper, drafted in the wake of the Islamist attacks in Paris in January 2015, which

talks of refusing to engage with and denying platforms to extremist people who fail to share our “British values”, thus denying the universal values that we share with all democrats.


Order’s sway is imposed in Montrael, 2012 (David Vilder [CC / Flickr])

She is equally critical of the current trend for ‘no platforming’ controversial speakers at university campus debates, rather than actually debating them:


On some campuses the students (like some sisters before them), are “doing it for themselves”. My overloaded in-box is … weary from invitations to “no platform” the disagreeable, objectionable and just plain wrong people with whom I disagree.

Ironically, the calls for no-platforming are often couched in terms of defending the powerless, even though mandating what speech may be accorded the freedom to be spoken is in itself an exercise of power. If freedom to dissent is withdrawn, whether we’re talking about the British government quashing dissent from its ill-defined British values across the whole of British society or a students’ union refusing to allow dissent from its principals in the much narrower space of a university campus, then all freedom to dissent is subject to the approval of whoever has the power to withdraw it. Like Shelley, the no platformers believe they are imposing a benign order’s sway without considering the dangers of the order they are imposing.

Refusing to debate opposing viewpoints is not only a suppression of freedom of speech, but is also moral cowardice. Anyone who refuses to even consider an opposing viewpoint cannot be very certain of their own.

Chakrabarti herself regularly demonstrates the moral courage that the no platformers lack when she engages with and debates ‘the disagreeable, objectionable and just plain wrong’. Freedom of dissent includes the freedom to dissent against the dissenters. She probably doesn’t expect to persuade her opponents, but we have no idea how many undecided people have watched her debates and rejected her opponents’ viewpoints. Here she is speaking for the freedom to offend at Oxford University students’ union:

Shelley can keep his order’s sway. Freedom comes from dissent and if it looks like chaos, so be it.

The hunt for a new adjective

In discussing the terms of political discourse, Chakrabarti cites ‘Orwellian’ and ‘Kafkaesque’ as adjectives derived from fiction that have gained meaning in political discourse. She adds:

I look forward to a new adjective named after a woman writer and seek your nominations for this timely tribute.

Do you have any suggestions?

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

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