Shunning people: a defence


Last week, 30 students descended on Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, for five days of learning about classical liberal philosophy and economics. At the end of their week, they asked a panel of liberals their views on issues - including, whether it was right to ‘shun’ someone with views you found offensive, distasteful, or more generally, ‘bad’. Sam Bowman, our Deputy Director, said we shouldn’t shun people for having bad views or opinions. When the threat of being shunned exists, you raise the cost of expressing such opinions - which makes it less likely that people will express them. Ultimately, then, these ‘bad’ opinions don’t get aired and addressed - but likely continue to shape the conduct of those who affirm those views, even unwittingly. I have sympathy for this argument - I’m naturally inclined towards anything that helps us challenge people’s preconceptions. The problem is that I don’t think this works.

First, let’s look at market interactions for an analogy. It’s great when the method of production in a given industry varies - we’re more likely to discover which is the more ‘efficient’, which produces the higher-quality good etc, and, most importantly, we’re more likely to enable innovation. But, when I’m buying that good, I’m under no obligation to buy a more expensive, lower-quality version simply in order to ensure that these varied production methods continue. In fact, I would argue the opposite (as part of an ‘ethical capitalism’) - I have the obligation to do my research and pick the best product available, to help encourage production of that strain of good and promote welfare for others. If firms that produced the lower quality good go bankrupt, this is neither my responsibility, nor am I deserving of any blame. I’d argue it’s a similar situation with people with bad views - of course, I subscribe to an argument for humility, and recommend plurality of views as a way to best advance society (as per J.S. Mill). But, also, as Mill says, that doesn’t mean I have a responsibility to ensure this situation - or to tolerate bad views within my personal sphere. I defend your right to be a bigot, but I don’t need it in my living room.

I also think there’s something very dangerous about safeguarding people from the consequences of their actions or thoughts. If you truly affirm X, then you should believe it even when I refuse to be your friend because of it. But to argue that I shouldn’t unfriend you, is to do precisely that - it’s to make me suffer (from association from someone whose views mean I have come to dislike them) for some external agent’s behaviour. In addition, it’s hard to understand how you can have a marketplace of ideas without some kind of currency - and the currency is other people’s opinions. If I affirm ‘women deserve to be second class citizens’, then my understanding of the value that view has been given by those around me is the degree of revulsion/disagreement that provokes from them. If someone cannot be my friend because I have affirmed this, it effectively has been given maximum negative value. This is a clue that perhaps I need to think about what I’ve just said a little closer.

Look at the Liberal Democrat storm, because Tim Farron refused to say that homosexuality wasn’t a sin. He’s refused to affirm a view that I understood to be a staple position of the Lib Dems (and that I wholeheartedly affirm). His supporters have argued that he is still a good liberal (which I don’t deny - he recognises that this is his personal view) and that we should stand behind him. This is a classical example of refusing us the right to shun those whose views we find distasteful or offensive. In this case, I think his views betray an inability to judge which parts of an archaic book should be brought into the 21st Century. I don’t want to associate (personally) with such people, because I think views like his harm people and because I value good judgement (quips about how I’ve just joined the Lib Dems are not welcome here). The extent to which Farron faces disagreement and dislike will provide a currency for his views - it won’t stop him having them, but it provides an invaluable context by which he can evaluate them.

Nobody is under any obligation to disassociate with people they like, with worrisome views. But equally, nobody has any duty to retain relationships with such people. Tolerance is good insofar as it respects others’ private lives, and reminds us to show humility in the face of subjective judgements. But there is such thing as ‘too tolerant’. ‘Too tolerant’ improperly values judgements. It allows people to say horrendous things with no, or few, repercussions. This is market failure in the marketplace of ideas.