Accidental Fascists: Progressive Politics and the Dilemma of Censorship

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PRESCRIPT: This is the text of an article I originally published in Engage.mail, the online journal of the Ethos Centre for Christianity and Society. The original article can be found here.

Let me be clear: I hate Fawlty Towers. Indeed, I have loathed it for decades. To this day, I cannot fathom why so many people think it is comedic ‘genius’.

The reason why I hate Fawlty Towers is not because I think it is ‘racist’. On the contrary, I hate Fawlty Towers because I think it is a chilling study in workplace bullying. To my mind, there is nothing funny in the spectacle of an aggressive martinet who humiliates and victimises their co-workers – regardless of whether they happen to be family members or immigrant workers.

Indeed, I suspect that, for many in the hospitality industry, Fawlty Towers reads less like a comedy and more like a documentary.

That said, I do think the decision to pull Fawlty Towers – however briefly – over ‘concerns’ about its portrayal of race relations was deeply misguided. For as long as I have hated Fawlty Towers I have also held the view that the hardest thing about being a social and political progressive – which is how I view myself – is allowing others the same freedom we claim for ourselves.

That includes the freedom to be a fascist.

Which isn’t to say that we allow fascists to ride roughshod over us, that we simply give up and surrender the field to their bigotry and hatred. On the contrary, we resist – and vigorously. But we don’t resist by silencing and banning and prohibiting. We resist by speaking up and speaking out, by arguing and debating and ensuring that every inch of ground the fascists want to occupy is contested and re-occupied.

Because here’s the thing: when we ban and silence and prohibit, we not only allow the fascists to claim victim status, we become fascists ourselves. Because the only way fascism can sustain itself is through the absence of opposition. That is why fascists ban and silence and prohibit: not because anything anyone else might say is ‘offensive’ or ‘obscene’, but simply because it is anti-fascist. And for so long as there is even an ounce of anti-fascism in public discourse, the fascists lose.

Am I saying Fawlty Towers is fascist? Of course not. For all its horribleness, it is just a reflection of a demeaning workplace reality. But what I am saying is that anyone who wants to ban Fawlty Towers on racial grounds is missing the point. Banning Fawlty Towers isn’t going to stop people watching it. It’s only going to give any racists who take any kind of comfort from it – which I frankly find hard to believe – a sense of legitimacy and purpose. Because when you allow people to believe they belong to a persecuted minority – even if the opposite is true – you hand them the moral high ground.

And a sense of rightness and righteousness is a powerful motivator.

The same applies when we have reached the point where broadcasters and streaming services feel the need to pull movies like Gone With The Wind – again, however briefly – because keeping it on their schedules might make them ‘appear racist’. When our response to any form of bigotry is to create an atmosphere of reactive fear, then we have essentially created the atmospherics of fascism.

Because we don’t respond to the depiction of race relations in Gone With The Wind by banning it. Rather, we respond by confronting those issues head on, by squarely facing the realities it depicts and by committing ourselves to not replicating them in our present societies. Gone With The Wind serves as an object lesson in the historical truths about race relations – and their continuing relevance today.

That’s why, to my mind, the brilliant Netflix series Hollywood  ultimately fails. For all that makes it wonderful viewing, by depicting a Hollywood that never was – one in which people of colour and LGBTIQ persons could openly be recognised, both in terms of their personal identity and their merits as entertainment professionals – it sanitised, instead of highlighted, the issue of bigotry. For all that the audience ‘gets’ that this is not the ‘real’ Hollywood, we also have that reality obscured, smudged over, hidden away.

For Christians, Jesus serves as the exemplar in resistance. The Gospels tell us that, time and again, he responded to his critics and detractors by meeting them in debate and argument. He didn’t try to overthrow them from their positions of authority, or seek to use his popular support to silence them. Indeed, its was precisely because of their fear of Jesus and his following that the religious authorities of the day tried to silence him.

But that was not Jesus’ way. He didn’t try to silence and prohibit. Rather, he debated and argued and resisted. He used sarcasm and irony and humour and story-telling. He met his opponents in temples and market-places, in wayside inns and on the road. He even went to dinner with them. And the fact that, at the end of the day, his opponents’ only recourse was to try to silence him is indicative of their ultimate failure. Because, however you understand the phrase, Jesus still ‘lives’ today – and his voice still speaks.

It may be that no-one involved in the present protests actively sought for either Gone With The Wind or Fawlty Towers to be pulled from the air. But the very fact that this was deemed necessary indicates that something has gone wrong with the approach adopted by progressive politics. Because when individuals and institutions respond to our words and our protests with fear, they’re not going to listen to us. They might temporarily comply with our demands – but in the long run, they’ll try and undo everything we stand for.

The accidental fascism of censorship is ultimately self-defeating. All those of good will who seek to oppose racism, whatever their political persuasion, must learn this object lesson. And perhaps it’s those of us on the progressive side of politics who need to learn it most of all.

© Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2020. All rights reserved.