Take this:

Or this:

What do they have in common? Both are designed to demonise political opponents. Both were tweeted by collectivists. Both are extreme distortions of the truth, if not outright, deliberate lies.

This behaviour has a pedigree. In the twentieth century, collectivist states murdered something like 150 million of their own citizens, neighbours butchering neighbours. You can’t do that without demonisation.

This isn’t a historical problem. Democide, the mass murder of citizens by their own government, has continued into the twenty-first century. Democide relies on the transformation of people with political, national or ethnic differences into distorted boogymen whose imaginary evil provides – is the only thing that could provide – the necessary degree of justification required for the commission of righteous atrocities.

So this matters. This sort of inaccurate caricaturing of political opponents should be challenged wherever it’s seen. Most people are trying to do their best. Few greens or socialists want everyone shackled to human-drawn ploughs in agrarian communes (though after sufficient demonisation of the bourgeoisie that has happened); few conservatives or libertarians want to step over poor sick people in the street. Dehumanising people just because you disagree with them is dangerous and destructive.

And that is what both of the above tweets were doing.

Take the first. Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) founded the cross-party Centre for Social Justice in 2004 (current Chairman, Labour’s David Blunkett).  He is passionate about the problems of Britain’s socially disadvantaged. Whether you agree with his policies is one thing, but the suggestion he would ever wish to destroy the welfare state is grotesque. Michael Gove, influenced by his own difficult start in life, is passionate about improving the educational chances of the poor. Again, you might disagree with his policies, but to suggest he wants to destroy the educational system – wants to destroy it – is a bizarre distortion of reality.

But what of people who did want to destroy welfare and education? Why, rounding them up, smashing their spectacles and making them do menial agricultural work could be a form of justice.

As for the second tweet, it turns out that Republican voters in the USA, a group that includes some people with strongly libertarian tendencies, give more of their time and money to charitable causes than do Democrat voters. It might be that some Objectivists associate weakness with altruism, but there aren’t many of those about, and Rand loathed libertarianism, holding it in contempt. Libertarians actually believe in self-ownership and in the principle that one should never initiate violence. All else stems from those principles. They can get a bit silly, and their isolationism is unattractive, to me, but they are not sociopaths.

Sociopaths, of course, are dangerous. We shouldn’t allow them unrestricted freedom. Maybe we could re-educate them in special camps?

Incidentally, there’s a context to that second tweet. Note the reference to Atheism Plus. This is a newish group that wants to combine atheism with far-left student politics. It has emerged from the extremely funny contemporary sceptical movement that grew up around Richard Dawkins, James Randi, PZ Myers and others – funny because the one thing you absolutely can’t be, if you want to be a part of it, is sceptical. There are a set of ideas that many of its most vocal figures are stridently adamant must be held. Indeed, Atheism Plus is a reaction to the fact that some atheists and sceptics disagree with some of the strident folks’ political opinions. More on this in another post but, for now, enjoy the spectacle of a sceptical movement splintering because some of its members are sceptical and the others don’t like that.

Back to the demonisation. Have you noticed that this relies on collectivism? Individuals don’t get demonised, it would be exhausting to single enough individual people out to wind up with a decent-sized massacre. Instead it’s Tories, Commies, Moslems, Christians, Jews, Catholics, brown people, white people, men, women – always groups. Always Jews too, but that’s another story.

Individualism – originally a synonym for Liberalism – is being attacked in both those tweets. Both IDS and Gove are driven by determination not to treat people as members of a disposable group, not to accept that there’s a natural underclass that will always need to be supported by the rest of society.

They don’t want an affluent, powerful public sector managing the throwing of money at permanent failure, glowing with the warmth of the bloated self-esteem that comes from – or perhaps leads to – imagining anyone who disagrees with what you’re doing is simply evil, that they can’t have a reasoned and possibly reasonable political position.

Atheism Plus says of itself (link above):

Atheism Plus is a term used to designate spaces, persons, and groups dedicated to promoting social justice and countering misogyny, racism, homo/bi/transphobia, ableism and other such bigotry inside and outside of the atheist community.

The bigotries mentioned all depend on collectivisation. If people are treated simply as individuals without group membership, by the state, then no such discrimination can be possible. Instead, Atheism Plus, though at an early stage, seems to be from the political wing that is most obsessive about group membership, some even on a par with racial separatists.

Bigotry comes from these divisions, it isn’t solved by them. Bigotry was on display in the tweets I started with. The civilised approach to differences of opinion is to debate them, not to attack, unjustly, inaccurately, people who hold different views.

And the first views to question are your own.

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  • Jon Lawrence Risdon

    Saved the best ’til last; good post.

  • Doesn’t associating one’s interlocutors with the gravest atrocities of the communists, and going so far as to imply that they might seek to restrict peoples’ freedom and impound them in re-education camps, come close to demonising them as well? I’ll behave like an obnoxious pseudo-philosopher and answer my own question. It depends on the form of the association. There’s a difference between saying that something is the logical implication of someone’s beliefs and saying that it’s their actual motivation, and unless there’s evidence that the latter is the case a distinction should made.

  • Peter Risdon

    Thanks, Jon.

    BenSix (your comments won’t be moderated now the first is approved), I don’t think I imply the tweeters actually want to round up people now. I’m quite sure they don’t. I know that Paul Bernal thinks this is harmless political banter – we discussed it before on Twitter.

    I actually said that what they’re doing “has a pedigree” and that it is “dangerous and destructive”. The danger is not that it inevitably leads to atrocity, but that it’s a precondition for it. The destructiveness, which I didn’t go into, is that a certainty that simply caricatures opponents can’t engage with any arguments. It becomes a circle-jerk and, if its doctrines happen to be wrong in any respects, it can be impossible to modify them.

  • The danger is not that it inevitably leads to atrocity, but that it’s a precondition for it.

    A good distinction. Apologies for the somewhat uncharitable reading – I wanted to illustrate the point.

    Some form of discrimination based on group membership is inevitable, it seems to me, because people are so liable to behave according to tribal impulses. If someone was a student of Murray Rothbard, Levi-Strauss or Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak – and what a dinner party they’d make for – I wouldn’t feel bad for drawing assumptions as to how they’d be liable to think. The ethics of the situation are, of course, dependent on the form of the group and nature of one’s discrimination but there’s nothing inherently shameful about it.

    Anyway, I’ll stop quibbling and leave this as final, clinching proof that the Conservatives are out to harm the poor.

  • Peter Risdon


  • Jonathan

    Good post Peter.
    Many on the left seem to be in favour of every kind diversity except diversity of opinion. See here for instance:
    I consider myself to be a classical liberal. I generally find left wingers ascribe a set of beliefs to me which I do not hold and they’re remarkably resistant to correction. Part of the problem is in the use of the terms Left and Right Wing. Very often in the media, any person or idea is described as Right Wing purely as a shorthand for ‘Bad’.

  • Scott

    In response to BenSix,

    Classical liberalism; free speech, freedom of religion, respect for property. Basically, MYOB. All tenets of individualism. I’m not sure how you can define an individualist as being tribal.

    No matter the spin, Socialism, Statism, Corporatism, Communism, Fascism all share the same root which is the propensity for the state to strongly interfere in others lives. These terms are all manifestations of the modern tribe. Someone’s will prevails over another, the ultimate theft in my opinion. No. You’re raising an argument which smacks of moral relativism which means to slip, slide and obscure.

    Let us not forget that NAZI, a derivation from Nationalsozialismus, stood for the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. There is no getting around that. That it turned out to be something else later on is not a surprise to a classical liberal or individualist. Supplicants of socialism will need to deal with that. The way that many do, is to project their failings onto others as Mr Risdon has noted.