Monday, May 29, 2017

Protecting people against bad ideas

John Stuart Mill
Like everyone else involved in universities and schools, I have had to undergo training on dealing with students who might be at risk of 'radicalisation', as part of the Government's 'Prevent' strategy. In fact I think anyone can access and do this little on-line course. There has been a lot of criticism of the Government's policies in this area, but this aspect at least seems pretty sensible. It contained some important insights into how people are drawn into dodgy groups, which correspond with what I have read about recruitment done by cults, which is of course a pretty close parallel to what is happening. I can't comment on other aspects of Government policy, but I'm not uncomfortable with what I am myself being asked to do as a university tutor. It just looks like good practice: a matter of being concerned with student welfare.
What's interesting is how it seems to be in tension with developing attitudes and even official policies coming from a different direction. Two such tensions struck me.

One is with censorship. The training stressed that it is important to let young people 'try out' the ideas they've heard from potentially radicalising sources, which, it said, they sometimes want to do with authority figures and people they respect. The advice is not to have hysterics when this happens, but try to point them in the direction of a coherent response. Schools and universities must be safe spaces where ideas can be debated without the people mentioning what are in fact pretty bad ideas getting into trouble for it. One example was dealing with a young man being drawn into a racist group by pointing out to him the sacrifice made by members of a variety of ethnic groups for Britain in the Second World War. This kind of counter argument, made one-to-one in a respectful discussion, perhaps with a favourite teacher, will only be heard if he has the confidence to blurt out some of the ideas he has been imbibing. Such an exchange can also lead, of course, to the teacher taking various other steps.

I hope the anti-racism and anti-homophobia campaigners get the memo, because their strategy appears to be to make ever-lengthening lists of ideas and specific words unsayable. The implication of the Prevent training is that this is a really counter-productive strategy, as it contributes to the sense of isolation and of unreasonable persecution on the part of people at risk of radicalisation, and makes them less accessible to the people who could help them.

The other, paradoxically, is with non-judgmentalism. I took a screen shot of one remark made in the training. We must keep people safe from certain ideas and world views, because they are harmful. They are harmful to people who end up being the victims of terrorist atrocities, but they are also harmful, and hideously so, to the people who are drawn into them. It is important to make that point because where we have a duty of care, or a simple concern for student welfare, we are concerned directly with the good of the young person in front of us; it not a just a matter of being a sort of auxiliary policeman trying to prevent a possible future crime.

This means that people who are concerned with the welfare of others, being parents, teachers, university lecturers or public officials, must make value judgements about different kinds of lifestyle and world view and steer the people under their charge away from the hideously bad ones. Now, I'm as concerned as the next chap about how well such value judgements are going to be made by the present generation of politician and public functionary, but the reality is that there is no alternative. The attempt to refuse to make such judgements has the result that policy proceeds on the basis of a particularly indefensible judgement: than none of these ideas is potentially harmful.

This has the implication that the standard liberal criticism of social conservative or 'paternalistic' policies, whether of the past or those debated for today, that such policies are wrong just because they imply value judgements which state agents are not qualified to make, are holed below the water-line. 

No doubt, it will take a while for people to notice this, but there it is. Liberalism's affair with the 'neutral state', canonised in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, is over.

Related: a post about liberal neutrality.

Support the work of the LMS by becoming an 'Anniversary Supporter'.


  1. I'm a bit less optimistic. Liberalism, that is, the belief that freedom should be a priority of government, is an incoherent political philosophy and impossible to actually practice. It is always necessary to make unprincipled exceptions to it for a government to last any length of time. It has always been "holed below the water line" in this sense in all its incarnations over the last few centuries. And yet it persists.

  2. Free speech is, in fact, dangerous. That's why every totalitarian state bans it. That's why the cultural elite is working to ban it.

    1. That's why there is no country on earth which does not restrict speech, as there is no country that does not restrict bodily harm.