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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 17-10-2020 09:23

On the lookout for dangerous thoughts

Though militant Kirchnerites and their leftist allies may be every bit as strident as members of the woke brigades who enjoy ruining the careers of those who do not share all their views, here in Argentina their foes, veterans of decades of on intellectual conflict, are proving to be less easy to cow.

Like rock music, same-sex marriage, me-too feminism and a great many other things that originated in the English-speaking world, the notion that whoever challenges the currently fashionable verities is guilty of “hate speech” and should therefore be severely dealt with is making itself at home here and evidently has many fans in government circles. To keep up with the times, they have just set up an official “Observatory of disinformation and symbolic violence in digital media and platforms” they call “Nodio” (odio = hate, get it?) to “detect, verify, identify and dismantle” those groups of miscreants who spread “fake news” and, as they put it, “malicious information,” which presumably is authentic. It is reported that almost all the individuals entrusted with this allegedly necessary task happen to be Kirchnerites with decidedly trenchant views on what is true and what is not.

Just what Alberto Fernández’s government has in mind is hard to say. Local press organisations and opposition leaders have been quick to condemn the initiative because they fear that what we are seeing is the creation of a thought-control bureau which will hunt down stroppy journalists and politicians plus the men and women who express unauthorised views, often in colourful language, on Twitter and other Internet platforms. The ability of such people to organise large-scale anti-government demonstrations has certainly not escaped their notice.

Representative bodies such as ADEPA (the Association of Argentine Journalistic Entities) and their international equivalents immediately entered the fray, criticising harshly what they believe to be a serious threat to free speech. Are they overreacting? Miriam Lewin, the lady who is behind Nodio, insists that they are and swears she would never dream of hounding even the most fiercely anti-Kirchnerite journalists, but her soothing words have not convinced the many who are well aware that lurking in her particular political faction, as well as the wider Peronist movement, are many authoritarians who would dearly like to censor what is being said about them and about how the country is being governed.

It has been pointed out that as things stand Nodio would have no legal right to take measures against anyone making statements it finds offensive or regards as mendacious unless they clearly broke the letter of the law, but perhaps, after taking note of what is happening in North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and, to an apparently increasing extent, continental Europe, it would try a more subtle approach. While in the English-speaking countries outright censorship is still relatively rare unless security matters are involved, devotees of “woke” – the supposedly enlightened and progressive way of interpreting events that is championed by proponents of “identity politics” – have been remarkably successful in forcing anyone who disagrees to keep his or her mouth clamped shut. They do this by despatching “Twitter mobs” to berate them online, get them fired from their jobs, “shame” them into publicly repenting for muttering “all lives matter” or holding other atrocious views and then “deplatforming” them by depriving them of opportunities to make their case.

The sanctimonious “cancel culture” which was spawned in academe by North American and British zealots who are now busily exporting it to the rest of the planet, has been just as effective as were previous efforts to control what happens in people’s heads by the Nazis, the Communists and the Japanese nationalists in places where they reigned supreme. With the help of big business corporations, which for fear of getting boycotted have shown themselves to be more than willing to make out they fully approve of the latest woke pieties regarding race, religion and sexual orientation, believers in the new orthodoxy have managed to make life very unpleasant for so many people that large numbers of media personalities and, needless to say, academics are afraid to step out of line by saying what they really think.

Nonetheless, opposition to all this is gathering force. It was greatly helped by the refusal of none other than J.K. Rowling, the author of the wildly popular Harry Potter series, to beg for pardon after saying she thought women really are different from men and that transitioning from one to the other did not change the biological facts, an outrageously hate-filled statement which made her the immediate target of a furious Twitter onslaught and led to attempts to get her works banned from all decent bookshops. Being a billionaire helped; a more vulnerable person than J.K. Rowling would have been made to pay a high price for her scandalously heterodox views on transgender people.

No doubt Ms Lewin and the activists she has hired, at the taxpayers’ expense, to comb through the media in search of signs of “symbolic violence” and other manifestations of “hate speech” would like to emulate their censorious English-speaking counterparts, but for now at any rate their chances of getting away with it seem slim. Though militant Kirchnerites and their leftist allies may be every bit as strident as members of the woke brigades who enjoy ruining the careers of those who do not share all their views, here in Argentina their foes, veterans of decades of on intellectual conflict, are proving to be less easy to cow than their equivalents in other parts of the world.

However, as time goes by, this situation could change. For now, the risk of finding oneself “deplatformed” may not be that great, but the platforms themselves are getting more rickety by the day. If the worst comes to the worst and Argentina finally does plunge into the economic Armageddon she has somehow managed to keep postponing, intellectuals who have no connexions with the political power structures that will be the last to go under would find it far harder to defend their independence. They can only pray that by then the country is in the hands of genuine democrats who sincerely value pluralism and can be relied on to to thwart attempts by authoritarians to exploit what they would see as a chance to make everybody see everything their way.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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