A little while ago I started to write a book for Continuum called, Identity Crisis: Against Multiculturalism. Its basic thesis is – or would have been – that the sort of multiculturalism practised in the UK is misguided and dangerous because it inevitably exacerbates the all too human tendency to divide the world into “people like us” and “people like them”.
I say “would have been” because it is now very unlikely I’m going to complete it. There are a number of reasons for my (almost a) decision to abandon the project, but the main one has to do with the rise of the EDL in the UK. Basically, I think the emergence of the EDL has changed the moral calculus here: it is one thing to write a book that is critical of multiculturalism when multiculturalism is getting a free pass, it is quite a different thing to write such a book when minority groups are under systematic and concerted attack by a bunch of racist, football hooligans. Of course, this is a judgement call, and I can quite see how somebody else might come to a different determination: a reasonable person could easily think that I’m wrong to abandon the project for this reason.
Okay, so why is this of any interest? Well, imagine a world in which I’m a blogger at Socialist Unity (okay, that’s a stretch even for a thought experiment), and in this world “Jeremy” has decided to go ahead with the book. In this situation, if I found out about “Jeremy’s” decision, would I be justified in publicly urging him not to write the book (assuming I agree with the real-world Jeremy that the book is a bad idea in the current political climate)? In other words, if I thought he wasn’t helping in going after multiculturalism, would I be justified in telling him to shut up?
My view is that it isn’t at all clear that I wouldn’t be justified. It doesn’t seem implausible to think that any justification of a speech act has to take into account its perlocutionary effects (which is part of the reason why this whole tone troll meme is so absurd). It would seem to follow from this that if there were reasonable grounds for supposing that some particular speech act – or a book length variant – is likely to have bad effects, then I have a prima facie moral reason at least for urging silence. This is pretty obvious stuff: if I know that somebody is about to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, and I think a stampede will likely be the result, then I am surely justified in urging the person to keep their trap shut.
Obviously there is complexity here. There are freedom of speech implications, for example: so, for instance, if one takes the naive act utilitarian view that every speech act must be justified by its particular consequences, then an individual or group can shut down all criticism just by making the consequences of such criticism sufficiently bad. And, of course, there are also complications to do with the absence of perfect knowledge: we can’t know with certainty what the outcome of any particular speech act is likely to be, etc.
But, in a way, the complexity is precisely the point. Reasonable people can disagree in good faith about the wisdom of writing a book, employing a particular rhetorical style, or articulating a particular speech act. They can do a proper moral calculus, and come to a different conclusion. They can be attentive to the same evidence, worry about the same moral issues, and come to a different determination.
If one accepts this point, how should one react if somebody else suggests that perhaps one ought not to write a book, or that one ought to tone down some rhetoric, or go easy with some criticism?
Well, at least one answer, which in my more pious moments I’m inclined to favour, is that one should ask whether their request – or even demand – has any merit. Are their concerns legitimate – can you see what they’re worrying about? Is their position held in good faith (since even if you think they’re mistaken, this is a relevant datum in terms of how one should view their character, etc)? Does their position have at least some evidential merit? In other words, one should react in a spirit of rational enquiry – after all, it’s possible they’ve got a point, and it’s possible that a lot is riding on getting things right.
How one should not react is simply to assume that they are beyond the moral pale because they make the request or demand. Sometimes, shutting up is the best option. And sometimes telling people to shut up is morally justified (and perhaps even obligated).