Published by The Telegraph on 14/06/16
Owen Jones caused an 8.9 magnitude Twitterstorm on Sunday when he dramatically walked out of Sky News’ Press Preview live on air. The Guardian journalist disapproved of host Mark Longhurst’s analysis of Omar Mateen’s motive for carrying out the US’ worst terror attack since 9/11.
Jones took issue with Longhurst’s suggestion that the shootings should not be labelled as a “homophobic attack”, prompting the journalist to tear off his microphone and walk out.
But while his swift departure was a depressing sight for fans of real debate, extracting oneself from a debate is perfectly acceptable. Extracting others, however, is not.
The most disturbing element of Jones’ tantrum was not his untimely exit, but his justification for doing so. He suggested there was little point in discussing the shootings with Longhurst and Hartley-Brewer because: “you just don’t understand this because you’re not gay.”
Now it would be inaccurate to claim that Jones entered the debate bearing this premise emblazoned on his shirt. Rather, it is clear it was a response borne out of a frustration with Longhurst’s insistence that the attack was a crime against humanity, not just homosexuals. It was not symptomatic of Jones’ contribution to the debate, but instead a prescriptive response to the state of discussion taking place.
That said, his comments were saddening. The attack on Pulse is undoubtedly a gay issue. But the suggestion that an astute understanding of the event requires you to be gay is absurd – even if said in the spur of the moment. The insular and increasingly common premise that only those affected by a debate can participate stems from an anti-humanist perspective of rationality. It completely denies that, as humans, we are able to empathise with one another and form a valid opinion. Most worryingly, in a time when we constantly appeal to the hackneyed notion of a multicultural society in which everyone can express themselves, Jones’ comments undermine the value of debate.
Of course, those directly affected by an issue improve debate by providing details that may otherwise be excluded. Giving a voice to those oppressed by an issue can only enlighten analysis into the problem.
But Jones’ method of ending the debate shifted the responsibility for its restriction from his decision to call it a day onto the host.
It disturbingly demonstrated the value of free speech is in a worse state that previously assumed. Previously, the oft-cried “You can’t say that!” placed its emphasise on the that – on what was being said. People were being censored for what they were saying.
Now, however, the same tune is being sung but to a different melody. Jones’ statement was an alternative manifestation of “You can’t say that!” based not on what is being said, but on the you who is saying it. Regardless of what you are trying to say, who you are determines whether it is acceptable.
This narrowing of debate has become endemic within our society. Whether it manifests itself as the dismissal of an argument because the speaker is a “straight white male’ or as an appeal to loosely-qualified “experts”, discussion is being limited not just by what is said, but by who dares to say it. The fact that Jones only alluded to it passing suggests it has only become more insidious.
Crucially, this tendency to focus on the speaker rather than his or her words is a direct result of the rise of identity politics. Rather than viewing individuals as universal citizens participating in a discourse within a pluralist society, we are told that our words and actions should be defined by our sexual orientation, gender and ethnicity. It is who the debater is that determines whether they can take cultural ownership of an issue.
Jones was correct to explain that the shooter targeted the gay nightclub “because it was full of people that he regarded as deviants”. But his dismissive attitude towards the potential for debate is worrying.
If accepted, it sets a precedent for an unhealthy and personalised restriction on the right to free speech. By suggesting that you have to be gay to understand the disastrous events in Orlando, Jones demonstrated that he had walked off the debating stage long before he got off the sofa.