The “no debate” debate

books: The Silkworm, Unfiltered, and Zionism During The Holocaust

I thought I’d wave goodbye to 2022 with an appeal for a re-discovery of the ability to disagree without dying.

I am the proud owner of a review copy of Tony Greenstein’s Zionism During the Holocaust. I’ve read quite a bit of it, and when I’ve finished, I’ll be doing a proper review but today, I’d like to consider it in relation to the various battles “the left” have been having around “freedom of speech” and what, exactly, constitutes “cancellation”.

I posted the photo at the top of this article on my social media feed a week or so back, with some quip about having a mind-bending Christmas reading list. I think most of the politically-minded people I know would be tempted to throw at least one of those books in the bin rather than discuss it because between the three of them, they invoke most of the “toxic” debates we’ve been struggling with. Let’s see if I can explain, one book at a time.

In debate, you learn things

Zionism During The Holocaust by Tony Greenstein

Greenstein tells a story in the introduction to his book that calls the bluff of the “no debaters” we come across in several areas of our politics. The son of a rabbi, brought up in an Orthodox Jewish home, he had an unnerving experience when his school, Liverpool’s King David, held a debate on Zionism. He had the task of playing devil’s advocate and, he says, “in the process became convinced of the case against Zionism.”

In correspondence recently, he described to me the black hole in the argument for Zionism: “Most people support the Palestinians but at the same time support the right to a Jewish state, not realising that you can’t ride two horses at the same time. The Palestinian Question flows from the existence of a Jewish state, because it is a state of Jewish racial supremacy.”

Remembering the trouble this emerging opinion caused when he was younger, he said: “It also created of course conflicts with my family, my dad being a rabbi, and I was told I was bringing shame upon them in the community.”

“I felt I was being hard hearted if not selfish, because I was being true to my own beliefs.”

He pointed to this as the beginning of his notably controversial position in politics nowadays: “I guessed this toughened me up politically and personally and also made me very argumentative and sure I was right because I was, about this question.”

Greenstein is one of several Jewish socialists I know who Jewish people from the Starmerite end of the Labour Party flatly refuse to share a platform with. Perhaps they doubt the validity of their own arguments over Israel – perhaps they fear suffering the same realization the young Tony had in that school debate all those years ago.

Unlikely sofa-companions

I was struck by the juxtaposition of Tony Greenstein, arguing for freedom of speech on the Israel/Palestine situation and Esther Giles, arguing for women’s right to discuss the conflict between sex-based rights and sex-self ID (commonly called “trans rights”) at a lefty event a while back – Giles had recently stood down from a panel at an event on freedom of speech because a self-ID supporting Labour lefty speaker was refusing to share a platform with her.

I have yet to hear a “trans rights” proponent give a coherent answer to women’s concerns about the clash between sex-based rights as set out in the Equality Act, and the demand that people be able to change sex on their say so, with no provision for safeguarding. Is this another example of “no debate because I might lose the debate”?

To me, Giles is a key figure for the left — or should be, because she stood up at that famous 2017 Labour Conference, when we were working to win back the party for socialism and she was, according to Diana Holland, the first person ever to have a question for the Party treasurer. Giles worked consistently throughout the Corbyn years to try and get some transparency from the party admin on finances and practice. It was a vital issue indeed for the in-coming, Corbyn-supporting membership and yet many on the left, such as the woman who would not share a platform with Giles at a freedom of speech event, rejected her as a candidate for Party treasurer on the ground of what appeared to me to be largely imaginary “transphobia”. She was, quite simply, one of those who wouldn’t give up on the idea of debating the conflict of rights.

Is the subject toxic, or the medium?

Unfiltered by Sophie White book cover

Click here for more about Unfiltered

This, to me, is where Sophie White’s Unfiltered comes in. The follow-up to her Filter This, White’s novel carries the strapline, Everything looks good on the surface, and that’s what counts, right? It explores the notion that social media has encouraged a generation to live competitive, highly demanding, largely fake lives through platforms such as Instagram, throwing their talents and energies into appearing to have a beautiful life rather than going out and actually building one. It very much begs the question, if your life consists entirely of filtered images and typed comments, is being disagreed with, or disapproved of, actually fatal? Is social media why so many young activists insist that having your opinions challenged is “literal violence”, and that they must at all costs be protected from facing someone who disagrees with them?

There are “dangerous” opinions in books, too

I suspect Walker has a point, and that “life online” may have added both heat and velocity to “no debate” and “cancel culture” – after all, on social media you can stop people existing (in your world) with a tap of the “block” button, but in real life…?

The actual issues though, the seeds of those big “toxic” divides, have generated passions for longer than social media have existed, and people are quite capable of seeing criticism as intolerable in other contexts, which brings me to my third contentious book — as you may be aware, Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for the currently notorious J K Rowling. Her “Strike” series, of which Silkworm is the second, contains some intriguing explorations of “toxic” issues such as racism, classism, misogyny — and the nature of anti-semitism.

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith book cover

I felt, when I started reading other books in the series, that both the praise from feminists and the accusations from trans activists were somewhat off-target. Yes, there was a killer in one of the books who, at one point, dressed as a woman – as a disguise. Absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with “the trans issue” – in another, Galbraith/Rowling has a character who appears designed to throw light on the anti-semitism arguments in the Labour Party during and since the Corbyn era – well, I daresay it does, if you happen to be “a Blairite”, because it places anti-semitism in the bizarre reaches of far left, and the behaviour of the character concerned feels more like something you’d find in a Dan Brown type novel than anything I ever came across in the Labour Party.

So what are the “undebatable issues”? Zionism and “trans rights” (meaning sex self-ID) are probably the best known, then there’s “climate change denial”, and then the other day, I found myself telling friends of how I nearly accidentally invited an “anti-vaxxer” to a group who would probably not have been able to tolerate the experience. Now why on earth would that be? Surely people who believe in getting vaccinated are not afraid they’d be persuaded it’s a bad thing to do, or that they’d be unable to explain why they do it, so perhaps there’s more than the need to protect dodgy arguments in the “no debate” response – and perhaps it was just a phase – it does seem a bit silly now, that I didn’t “risk” inviting that woman.

Perhaps we’re beginning to recover. I note that a most definitely lefty group Counterfire have published a piece telling trans rights campaigners to please stop being silly over Deirdrie O’Neill and Michael Wayne’s film, Adult Human Female. Let’s make 2023 the year in which we revive the notion of “comradely debate”, and save our vitriol for real enemies, such as corporate global-standard thieves and profiteering NHS-destroyers.

Click here to read the Counterfire article

Click here to watch Adult Human Female

Click here to buy Greenstein’s Zionism During The Holocaust

Have a good festive season, and come New Year, let’s all resolve to have those debates next year, without resorting to abuse, slander or attempting to “cancel” the opposition.

… and please consider putting these books on your reading list for 2023…

books: The Silkworm, Unfiltered, and Zionism During The Holocaust


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