Paper delivered at the Springhill Community House sponsored conference at the Europa Hotel in Belfast on the future of Republicanism entitled 'The Way Forward'.
The feminist writer Germaine Greer has made the point that 'historically, radical movements have dissipated too much of their limited resources of energy in rooting out heterodoxy...' Why bother? Recently, in the Observer, Danny Morrison admirably bucked such a trend when he argued for an end to the demonisation of other voices. In a sense he was stating that no one should be subjected to a Fatwa because they disagree. He traced feuds within republicanism to an inability on the part of past leaderships to accept that they alone held the legitimate view. His call to acknowledge the essential humanity of those who oppose our way of viewing matters is refreshing. But if it is to avoid the attention of Michael Ignatieff's cynic then there can be no cause found which gives rise to a healthy awareness of the gulf between what people practice and what they preach. Intellectual tolerance is not a weathervane. It must be a lighthouse firmly rooted in the rock of consistency.
Todays conference with its commitment to openness and its provision of guarantees against censorship expands the surface of that rock. It secures a wider space for more voices. But does the panel of esteemed speakers - commentators and activists of the utmost integrity in their own right - reflect the true range and diversity of those who populate that space? Have any been demonised within republicanism because of their republican views? There can be many genuine opinions about the rights and wrongs of the position republicanism finds itself in today. Some of us argue the case for the present republican strategy with courage and conviction. And some of us display the same fortitude in expressing our opposition to it. So far only a minority of us seek refuge in the Cowards' Corner section of the letters page in the Andersonstown News from the anonymous safety of which we proceed to hurl invective at those who do what we wish we had the courage to do.
Voltaire once said that the one satisfaction in life is to speak your mind. The absence of this perhaps more than any other aspect of republicanism in the year 2000 is what I find profoundly disturbing. It is not peculiarly republican. John Gormley of the Green Party reflects: 'I still hanker after the dissident voices because I believe we are now living in a culture of silence'. But for republicanism, which itself for so long had so much to say, to be plagued by the virus of silence is debilitating. As Derrida states, good politics can never come from limitations on questioning. I agree with his sentiments, expressed at the funeral of Louis Althusser - we must not let silence win out over everything else.
Republicans should therefore be self-assertive. Who is threatened by self-assertion. Certainly not the self doing the asserting. It is an area Erich Fromm has explored so well:
For all irrational and exploitative forms of authority, self-assertion - the pursuit by another of his real goals - is the arch sin because it is a threat to the power of the authority; the person subject to it is indoctrinated to believe that the aims of the authority are also his, and that obedience offers the optimal chance for fulfilling oneself.
By speaking what you consider to be the truth you run the risk of mobilising those who seek to repress it. But is this not what republicanism has been about? Has it not always faced repression and censorship. Is resistance to such not what gives it much of its essence? Has the republican challenge to the prevailing mode within Irish society in its broadest sense not been replenished by dissent and dissident thought? Have we not continuously dissented from those who tell us that their concept of freedom is the one we have no freedom to reject?
It is those with dictatorial tendencies alone who, in the words of the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfmann:
aspire to total power in order to seek refuge from the demons they have unchained. As a way of silencing their ghosts, they demand to be surrounded by a rampart of flattering mirrors and genuflecting counsellors that assure the tyrant that yes, you are the most beautiful of them all, the one who knows more.
There are two type of people necessary to combat dangerous trends such as this: those that ask difficult questions and those that answer them. Joe Lee writing in the Sunday Tribune made the point that the line of least resistance recommends itself to essentially dependent minds. It is important therefore to avoid succumbing to the temptation. What is achieved if we follow the line of least resistance? Do we really assist the process of genuine political leadership or do we abdicate our responsibility to radical democratic leadership by failing to defend that concept of leadership against leaders? An example provided by Joe Lee shall suffice to underline the point. Commenting on the difference between the substance of leadership provided by JFK and LBJ:
Kennedy had such a remarkable sense of self-confidence and security that he not only tolerated, but encouraged, the widest possible range of viewpoints among his advisers, whereas Johnson ... was racked by an extraordinary sense of insecurity, and consequently chose advisors whom he felt would see things his way, thereby reducing the opinions presented to him.
One problem for those concerned with checking what Professor Jack Lively once called the 'erosion of intellectual autonomy' is a tendency toward individualism. But how do we think other than as social individuals? In order to reflect on the collective, critical thinkers stand outside it as individuals. If thought is to be truly imaginative and creative then, ultimately, how a community project or philosophy is defined remains very much an individual matter, whether acting in isolation or as part of a wider group of individuals.
Tom McGurk stresses that 'exile becomes both the essential physical and imaginative distance for the writer'. Likewise, Danny Morrison maintains that 'I can't be tied to a party discipline if I'm to be a creative writer'.
Concepts of community and the collective exist in a contested space and the dominant concept or the one that comes to prevail invariably has the intellectual fingerprints of individuals on them. Individuals strive to have their individual view taken up by the community. This becomes a real danger in those communities where members are dissuaded from participating in the full intellectual life of the community and powerful opinion formers monopolise the power to mould communities in their own intellectual image.
The allegation that critical or dissident writers and voices undermine the concept of community cohesiveness in pursuit of individualism is therefore to be contested on a number of grounds. It presupposes the existence of a community with fixed interests. It disguises the manner in which individuals conceal their own individualism within the discourse of community. It masks the form in which those individuals have the power to set the agenda in accordance with what they as individuals want and the power to dress it up as being for the advancement of the community.
Before concluding I shall once again visit the thoughts of that Chilean dissident Ariel Dorfmann who refused to conform to the fascism of Pinochet.
What politicians have done in Chile is that they've made democracy fragile by saying it's so fragile we can't touch it. Well, no. You've got to bring people into the process of defining democracy, testing it and pushing it. If you don't it's not true democracy.
Intellectual disenfranchisement takes place when thought boundaries are gerrymandered through political censorship. Let no one perform a Widgery on the evidence available. There is no presidential infallibility. Leaders do not speak ex cathedra. A healthy vibrant republican democracy is not a silent one. Say what you want - I shall. Steve Biko wrote the column 'I write what I like - by Frank Talk'. Let us do likewise.
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