Checking through my social media the other day, I came across expressions of outrage at statements made in print by the journalist and self styled ‘social commentator’, Toby Young. I was not particularly surprised, given that Young makes a habit of inviting outrage by espousing right-wing, libertarian views likely to infuriate more liberal sections of the British population.
I first became aware of Young a number of years ago, when he appeared as part of a panel on the BBC TV lunchtime programme, ‘The Daily Politics’. As befits the BBC requirement for political even-handedness, Young had been invited to put the case for The Right on the issues being discussed. On that occasion, his views did not seem particularly extreme, until talk turned to Free Schools, then being promoted by the Cameron government.
On this subject, Young showed himself to hold ideas close to those of 19th century public schools, ideas which, if put into practice, would have further deepened the inequalities current in English education, and would have resulted in taxpayers bearing the cost for setting up and running establishments that resembled ‘traditional’ prep schools. Free schools were his particular hobby-horse of the time, and I was struck by his clear delight in seeking to contradict the consensual views of other members of the panel.
I was interested enough to read his extensive profile on Wikipedia, much of it written by himself, and discovered that his career, such as it is, has largely been based on the practice of attracting attention to himself by claiming the right to say whatever he likes, no matter how offensive, in support of freedom of speech. Recently, he has been involved in the setting up of an organisation which seeks to give succour to writers and academics whose views have been attacked, on grounds of ‘political incorrectness’.
During his journalistic career, he himself has been criticised for, among other things, misogynistic and homophobic tweets, anti-Semitic views, advocacy of eugenic ideas relating to intelligence, and most recently, claiming that spending public money on saving lives of elderly people during the coronavirus crisis is ‘irresponsible’.
My first reactions to such ‘coat trailing’ used to be anger and a desire to see the perpetrators silenced, but over the years I have come to feel that it is better that those who hold such outrageous views, and use them in cynical attempts to gain public notoriety, should be allowed to express themselves as freely as the law permits. By letting them air their poison, those of us who are less extreme in our beliefs are able to identify them for what they are, and to counteract the harm they do by more rational (and humane) argument.
I am, however, aware that this is a position that my younger self would never have tolerated. But then, intolerance can, itself, be poisonous, can it not?