I have watched, with interest, the ongoing exchange on Eamonn Mallie’s site, between Jamie Bryson and Brian John Spencer. The two figures represent two, opposing camps, within ‘Unionism’, in its loosest sense.
Spencer, the spokesman for the “silent majority”, is emblematic of liberal Unionism, or, as they are often called, ‘garden centre Prods’. Bryson, on the other hand, speaks for a different group, perhaps best characterised as ‘T.U.V. supporters’, or anti-Agreement Unionists. We don’t have much time for anti-Agreement Unionists in the new Northern Ireland, and I believe that is a dangerous place for us to be.
Indeed, some commentators have criticised Eamonn for giving Bryson a platform, and dismiss Bryson’s views as inconsequential, unrepresentative, or downright irrational. They believe he should be excluded from sites such as this one, because he advocates things which are anathema to them. I am writing in defence of Jamie, not because I agree with him, but because I believe we need more dissent, not less, in Northern Ireland.
Dissent is necessary to a healthy democracy. We are a multi-faith, often no-faith, class-stratified society, which is undergoing rapid internal change, and is subject to the external shifts of Unions which we are part of. The dominance of one group and one set of beliefs, in such a society will not lead to progress. Disagreement and dissent benefits us all.
What shape that dissent takes might be uncomfortable for some, in particular readers of Eamon Mallie, who perhaps prefer their political narratives to be palatable, and broadly in line with their already held beliefs. Those same readers appear relatively happy to consume Spencer’s musings, indicating that there is something about Bryson, and what he is saying, which prompts a particular reaction.
We could, as some readers have demanded, cease to give Bryson, and those we most vehemently disagree with, a platform from which to speak. But what good will that do? We are a society emerging from conflict. We haven’t dealt with the past. We lack mature, political leadership. We are divided on a number of issues, not least what the new Northern Ireland ought to look like. Therefore, at the very least, at a civil societal level, we should be seeking more voices, not less.
That means welcoming all of our citizens into the discussion, and listening to what they have to say. There are sound reasons for doing this. If we only talk to those whom we agree with, we will reproduce the same narratives, and exclude those voices which unsettle those narratives. Political theorist Cass Sunstein argues that dissent performs a critical function in society:
“Dissenters are often portrayed as selfish and disloyal, but Sunstein shows that those who reject pressures imposed by others perform valuable social functions, often at their own expense. This is true for dissenters in boardrooms, churches, unions, and academia. It is true for dissenters in the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court. And it is true during times of war and peace.” (2004)
I am not suggesting that Bryson ought to be granted special rights, after all, he is only one, but instead arguing that we would do more damage by excluding him, and others like him, than letting them speak. He is using a keyboard, not waving a gun. He is making arguments, and taking criticism. He is engaging with those who are unhappy with the outcomes of the peace process. A group whom, I might add, are not small in number. Why are they unhappy with the peace process? What shape would they like peace to take? I’d like to know, and I’m happy to listen.
In addition, I would agree with Bryson that you can be anti-peace process, and pro-peace. I don’t doubt the logic of that position. We have achieved a marked reduction in organised violence, post-Agreement. But we do not have a peace which includes all of our society. That’s a serious problem, and one which won’t go away, unless we begin to talk to those who have been excluded. What would you prefer those people to do, rather than speak up?
Of course, some argue that his views are offensive, or incoherent. I agree with him on some issues, such as the one outlined above, and indeed on the case which he makes against a neutral Northern Ireland. To me, neutrality means an absence of that which makes life interesting, and the presence, instead, of sanitised, consumable cultures and products.
On the other hand, I am firmly opposed to what Bryson has to say on equal marriage. But listening to him, or reading his articles does not harm, or oppress me. It offends me, on occasion, but that is not the same as harm or oppression. I can argue with him if I wish. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. But I would rather he was on a site like this, and talking to a range of people, than isolated.
What harm do incoherent arguments, or morally offensive statements, cause us? If we follow the reasoning of John Stuart Mill, who claimed that free speech was vital to a liberal democratic society, we must accept the right to free speech of all, even those voices which make us uncomfortable.
Because, as Mill argued, if we allow a range of claims to be made in the public arena, we are not obliged to agree with them. We can dispute them. If they are untenable, then they will be revealed as such via democratic argument. If they have some merit, we will improve our position by considering them. Debate, therefore, acts as a crucible, out of which we can only hope to produce some form of ‘truth’ As such, we have nothing to fear from dissenting voices. We have everything to lose from silencing them.