The opthalmologist Li Wenliang was first to raise the alarm on Covid, yet he was to die from the disease just months after his appeal. Wenliang, who worked at Wuhan Central Hospital, had noticed unusual symptoms and suspected a serious new respiratory illness. He was summoned by the authorities and made to sign a statement in which he was accused of spreading rumours and disrupting social order. Wenliang’s assertion that “there should be more than one voice in a healthy society” was a brave one to make in a totalitarian state. The UK and the US are supposed safe havens of liberalism and democracy, but those values are crumbling. Li Wenliang would be disappointed, and so should we.
It is no longer enough to silence those whose views are considered objectionable. No, they must be “cancelled” – that is, rounded upon, bullied and harassed until the baying mob has satisfied itself by destroying the reputation and often the career of the unfortunate individual who has been deemed unsatisfactory.
The intellectual lethargy displayed by suppressing those you disagree with rather than engaging with them has gone on to infect the great institutions of liberal democracy, most notably the media.
It is difficult to track exactly how we got here. The fashion for closing down discussion with anyone who does not share a particular view appears to have emanated from university campuses in America and has now infiltrated those establishments in the UK. But who it is who makes these rules remains unclear.
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, in their book The Coddling of the American Mind, argue that overprotective parenting has led to emotional ‘safetyism’, trumping all other practical and moral concerns. The fear of psychological harm that words can inflict is hence cited as justification for the muzzling of debate.
Winter 2021 saw Kathleen Stock, an academic, resign from her position at Sussex University after being branded transphobic for expressing views emphasising the importance of biological sex. Journalists have also been subject to mob censorship. The resignation of James Bennet, the former opinion editor of The New York Times, is a case in point. After presiding over the publication of a piece advocating for military action to be taken against protestors in June 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Bennet resigned following public furore.
Over the summer, as restrictions were lifted, I immersed myself in the magnificence of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. As I looked up I noticed an image of Nicolaus Copernicus, the Renaissance polymath, in the corner. It was he who, in 1543, advanced the theory of heliocentrism, that the earth moved around the sun, which itself lay at the centre of the solar system. It sparked a scientific revolution and posed a direct challenge to the Catholic Church. Copernicus was an exemplar of the quest for knowledge, the ability to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. He is an exemplar of the fact that while you may be dismissed as a fruitcake, a loony or even a dissenter, you may, in fact, be right.
In contrast, a virus of groupthink now pervades many of the key institutions in our country, as was highlighted in a damning report from MPs last month following a joint inquiry into the handling of the pandemic by the health and science select committees. It found that planning for a pandemic was “too narrowly and inflexibly” based on the idea of a flu-type outbreak and declared its handling as “one of the most important public health failures” in the country’s history.
Polarisation of discourse
Diversity of thought has been subjugated. The Enlightenment ideal of rational thinking – the formation of one’s own opinion having considered various arguments – has been jettisoned in favour
of tribalism and identity politics, where what you think is driven solely by what you are. It has also rendered nuance, subtlety, and the exploration of thorny subjects in good faith, redundant.
The old divisions between left and right have been cast aside. The new battleground is centred around values: pro-Brexit/anti-Brexit, pro-lockdown/anti-lockdown, pro-vaccination passports/anti-vaccination passports, pro-woke/anti-woke.
These are the new faultlines where division is spurred by the cauldron of social media, reductionist thinking is championed, understanding of the other is weakness, words are considered tools of violence, self-censorship is rife, moral certainty trumps objectivity, and an arms race of victimhood is being fuelled. All this is perpetuating a pandemic of conformity.
Convictions shape the future
I have always been fascinated by people who have the chutzpah to challenge the status quo. This fascination is not because I always agree with them, as I often don’t, but because they have deep convictions and often shape the future.
The Contrarian Prize was established to recognise them. All nominations come from the public via the website for individuals in British public life who have demonstrated independence of thought, courage and conviction in their actions, made a personal sacrifice for their beliefs, and introduced new ideas into the public realm or had an impact on the public debate. There are no corporates or philanthropic foundations behind this prize. The costs are funded by a handful of individuals, including myself, which is in keeping with the ethos of maintaining its independence.
The winner of the prize is invited to deliver the Contrarian Prize lecture, which provides a platform to engage in a public conversation encouraging debate.
The shortlists over the years have been varied and are not a reflection that the panel of judges necessarily agrees with the views of the individuals concerned, but rather is a recognition of the stand that these individuals have taken out of principle.
Previous winners include the first CEO in history to blow the whistle on his own company after discovering a $1.7 billion fraud, a UK-based human rights lawyer who campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty in the US, an MP who pressed the case for an investigation into historical child abuse, an economist who railed against the academic consensus in favour of remaining within the EU, a headteacher who challenged the prevailing educational orthodoxy on how to raise standards within inner-city schools and a social commentator who champions the right of free speech.
The prize itself is represented by an iconic sculpture designed by the renowned Pop Artist, Mauro Perucchetti. It is entitled The Three Politicians, the one who does not see, the one who does not hear and the one who does not speak. The Contrarian is the antithesis to this.
Contrarians rail against the subjugation of diversity of thought. They adopt a contrarian view, not for its own sake, but because they believe it is the right thing to do. They refuse to be silenced, cowed or bought off. They are an essential part of what makes our society advance, and they also add much needed spice to public discourse.
We should applaud their contrarianism and their abiding commitment to the Enlightenment – the mantra of which, lest we forget, comes from the philosopher Immanuel Kant: Sapere aude, the Latin phrase meaning ‘dare to know’.