I've been following the Roger Scruton saga with interest. Scruton was recently sacked as an unpaid government advisor on housing, following an interview in the New Statesman. The selective quotation of Scruton by the journalist, and faux outrage on social media, led to a rapid sacking without, seemingly, anyone exploring the evidence, or the agenda of the journalist involved. The Spectator has got hold of the interview tapes, and Scrutons remarks, in context, are often saying the precise opposite of the spin put upon the by the journalist.
It's tempting to see the parallels between this and the recent no-platforming of Jordan Peterson by Cambridge University. In neither case has there been an attempt to engage with the actual thought of the person concerned. Instead, short circuit to dog whistle, emotional responses, and play your chosen Ace of Trumps ('Offensive!' 'Racist!' 'Homophobe!') so quickly that nobody can check you actually had it in your hand, or whether it was produced from a secret drawer under the table.
Are we losing our ability to think? I'm no great letter writer, but the advantage of handwriting is that it takes time. And by the end of the letter you've maybe already decided you're writing nonsense, or you know that by the time it's written, sent, and received, the party at the other end has already had 3-4 days, and so have you, to gain a longer view of whatever you're writing about. For a philosopher like Scruton to be publicly accused, tried and found guilty within the course of a day, none of which would be possible without the social media/24 hours news cycle, is a worrying development. George Orwells '5 minutes hate' has become a daily feature, or even hourly feature, of social media. We know what trigger words to use. We know how to stir the crowd. We know how to signal virtue, and which virtues to signal - the protests over Donald Trump's visit will dwarf anything seen for the savage despots of China and Saudi Arabia.
Another post on the Scruton case laments the disappearance of serious thought within the Conservative party. It has disappeared in the nation at large too - a telling example of this was Tim Farrons (electorally disastrous) attempt to explain how liberalism works in practice. That someone might hold one set of views, but believe that the ideal democratic state was one where people could hold other views and openly practice them, seemed a thought too far for Farrons critics. Far easier to play the Ace of Trumps and add another body to the pile.
Orwells 5 minutes hate had two objectives. One was catharsis for the baying mob (who have always needed it, the cries of 'Crucify Him' echo down through history from the first Good Friday), and the other is to intimidate anyone who might feel like identifying with 'the enemy'. Alongside this was 'newspeak', a progressive editing of language so that it became impossible to think in a way which the state didn't want you to. I re-read 1984 last year and it was chilling to see how prophetic, still, Orwells depiction is. If you fear actual engagement with opposing arguments, its obviously tempting to simply erase them, saving you the bother of a) debating and b) the terrible inconvenience and existential threat of discovering you were wrong.