When the Talking Stops

‘Parlay?’ pleads Jack Sparrow as he stares down the barrel of a musket. The invocation of the right to negotiate before being disembowelled and rendered into fish food is perhaps the film’s only resonating ethical principle. Conversation is important, it is the only means we have to reach mutual understanding and establish harmony in, and among, plural societies. Supranational institutions like the UN and the EU are founded on this bedrock of liberalism, a foundation which is being eroded by the persistent tremors of ethno-nationalism and the corrosive implications of post-modernism.

Now, more than any time since Weimar, we must recognise the unique power that discourse has as a corrective mechanism to false consciousness and bad ideas. Simultaneously, we must accept its truly spectacular short-comings in the face of a determined enemy. We must learn to manage this tension. The ability to challenge, question, disagree and offend is our greatest defence against tyranny in its many forms. And yet, the attachment to conversation is also the weak seam that runs through all liberal states, inviting exploitation by the hateful and intolerant. This seeming paradox is an existential threat to every liberal democracy.

Liberalism blinds us to our enemies. It makes us proffer tea and talk to those who have long abandoned any commitment to civility. The Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville have forfeited the right to the civil treatment of liberal society. The maxim that tolerance should not be extended to the intolerant applies here. This cannot be restated enough: when you declare your ideological alignment with Adolf Hitler and your intention to usher in the Fourth Reich, you renounce your right to ‘parlay’, and invite violence.

However, physical force should remain the domain of the state, not a band of anonymous vigilantes who resemble their Nazi opponents in all regards but the emblems they bear on their jackets and the colour of the bandanas covering their faces. This approach is, at its worst an undermining of the legitimacy of the Anti-Fascist cause, and at its best a serious tactical error that obscures the real enemy. Renouncing the baseball bat does not consign us to impotence, as those identifying and denouncing white supremacists and denying them services are proving. Exclusion and marginalisation are their own forms of violence that we can adopt, as citizens, without resorting to outright force.

Unfortunately, we seem condemned to wait too long for the state to enact its part. If liberalism is our political astigmatism, then democracy is our Achilles heel and has proved so before. It is clear that in Donald Trump we (the liberal West) do not have the leader we would like to silence this threat. So, we must place our faith in other leaders and our political institutions, which, while flawed, are our strongest defence.

If we renounce our institutions and our common values as the post-modernists demand we will leave ourselves weak and exposed. And it is here that we must re-invoke the importance of discourse. If we remove the space for conversation between those of us who oppose tyranny, then we divide ourselves. By pandering to feelings over facts and to safe spaces over discussion spaces, we deprive ourselves of the most powerful mechanism we have to unite against real enemies: Islamist terrorists and Neo-Nazis.

When you renounce conversation as a means of resolving differences, you opt for violence on all fronts. Today we have the post-modernist left and the fascist alt-right who have both abandoned their commitment to discourse. [I do not draw a moral equivalence between these two groups in any respect other than this]. But if you abandon dialogue, you must prepare for the knock at your door from two masked men with contrasting regalia telling you to, ‘pick up your club brother, and choose a side’.