Against the tyranny of consensus

The Editor-in-Chief on why independentvoices.com is needed

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The Independent Online

A version of this article appeared in the London Evening Standard on 17.9.2012 under the headline: "Let's have more politicians who speak their minds."

In recent months I have found the news utterly maddening. As someone whose main job is to publish newspapers and websites, this is an occupational hazard. But let me give you some examples.

First, last week: bigot-gate. Nick Clegg said opponents of gay marriage are bigoted. Except, he didn’t: a Lib-Dem press release which Clegg may or may not have approved referred to bigots. It was promptly retracted.

Now, anyone who has ever come across the Deputy Prime Minister will know that he is a highly intelligent man with integrity, good at tolerating those he disagrees with. But rather than dismiss the hullabaloo as a non-story, the Lib-Dems went into defensive mode, vigorously proclaiming their affection for those with whom they disagree. One word in a retracted press statement created a whole class of victims to whom members of our government felt they must pander. Well, what if many opponents of gay marriage are bigoted?

Last week we also had Hillary Clinton’s apology to Muslims after the death of America’s ambassador to Libya. Of course, she expressed her horror at the murder of a good and noble American, but she also made great play of deploring the video which some claim led to his murder.

Mrs Clinton may well be the most impressive woman on earth but she should get her priorities straight. Those who murder diplomats in retaliation for YouTube videos they don’t like are barbarians. Those who sympathise with such violent actions are not victims in needs of an apology.

A fortnight earlier there was the Christian woman who took her case to the European Court of Human Rights because her employer refused to let her wear the cross, partly on the grounds that it might offend other minorities. So while famine ravages some parts of the world and brutal oppression dominates others, we’re still trying to figure out what people can wear round their necks without insulting colleagues. What’s going on?

These events, with their common thread of self-censorship, are a disgrace. Perhaps those of us born in the Soviet Union attach a greater premium to free expression. But I find everywhere evidence of something I described in front of Lord Leveson recently as the tyranny of consensus.

Just when the public want conviction politicians — Boris Johnson, George Galloway — they’re getting anxious apologists instead. Bland conformism in public discussion and political correctness have created a toxic brew: and the institutional impotence that follows is good for no one.

I want politicians and institutions to speak their minds and do what they believe in, rather than timidly try to second-guess short-term popular opinion. Only then can we have a proper and truthful debate.

Rather than simply bewail this trend, I’ve decided to put a bomb underneath it. That bomb is independentvoices.com, a new platform for comment and campaigns, and an online community. You're in it already: welcome! In the months to come, you’ll see arguments and opinions there that offend plenty of people — but for the right reasons.

If you continue to log on and make your voice heard too, you have my word: even when I disagree with what you say, I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.

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