Professor Linda Bauld recently wrote an interesting article in The Herald
on the extent to which the pandemic has led to an increase in folks taking a critical interest in the doings of their neighbours, and making us more judgmental. It is easy to understand how the pandemic has made us all feel more vulnerable and more likely to see threats to ourselves when there may be none. But the issue is wider than that created by the pandemic. It concerns our right to criticise, and it is on that topic I shall offer an opinion.
We should first distinguish what we might call the professional relationship situation from the person in the street situation. The professional relationship situation is constituted by the roles we are in. As a tutor, I had a right to criticise a student's essay. There is no problem about that as stated because it is part of the job. There is, however, an issue which arises. The criticism must be positive and encouraging. Indeed, on the eve of an examination, it might be desirable not to exercise the right at all. More generally, harsh criticism can kill off enthusiasm for the subject.
But what a tutor has no right to do is to criticise a student's mode of dress or hair-do. But even here there can be exceptions. I remember noticing in a class of medical students that a young woman had black lipstick and was wearing a t-shirt with an aggressive slogan. It wasn't my role to comment on that but it would have been in order if a medical lecturer had taken her aside and explained that her mode of dress might block a positive relationship with a patient.
Nowadays, of course, the boot is on the other foot. It is the students who are in the forefront of criticising others. This takes the drastic form of 'cancelling' speakers whose views they disagree with, or 'no platforming' them in the first place. It is very sad that students who should be eager to listen to and discuss assorted views nowadays stop their ears against views which differ from their own. In that direction lies fascism.
Other occupational roles face complex situations of a different kind. For example, social workers are instructed to be 'non-judgmental'. It is obviously true that a social worker will not make much progress with a client if he/she preaches at them. Nevertheless, the client may be in trouble because of bad behaviour. The difficult job is then to transform the criticism into a form which enables the client to come to a realisation of this.
A harder situation is the one where the client's behaviour is actually criminal. Caring for the client is the central part of the role of social worker but the public must also be protected. Readers will remember the shocking case in north England in which young girls were being abused. The social workers and the police were aware of this but, deplorably, did nothing for fear of being called racist.
As public health doctor, Professor Linda Bauld is herself in an interesting position. Public health medicine and health promotion are by their nature top-down activities. A clinician, by way of contrast, is typically in a one-to-one relationship with a patient who has requested an interview because of a felt problem. The clinical imperative is therefore that something must be done including the giving of advice. Public health specialists, on the other hand, do not have specific patients with whom they are in a special relationship, and have received no request from a patient. The public health specialist therefore is making a judgement about what it is in people's interest to have, whether they have requested it or not, and dealing with populations, groups or societies, rather than individuals.
In situations of crisis, public health doctors acquire a right to criticise the behaviour of social groups. But the important point is contained in the Acheson Report definition of public health medicine which Professor Bauld quotes:
Public health is the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging
life and promoting health through organised efforts of society.
The point here is that although public health doctors have a right to criticise our behaviour, the criticism must not be top-down; health must be promoted through the 'organised efforts of society'. In other words, for a successful public health intervention, it is important to get the public on your side. This was obviously the point of a public platform in which politicians flanked by public health doctors explained the importance of accepting the restrictions on our movements which the public health experts deemed necessary. The majority of the public will accept judgements on their behaviour provided these are well-explained.
So far, I have been considering how the right to criticise operates in occupational contexts or in conditions of national emergency. How does it work in everyday life situations?
When I was postgraduate student, I had a bedsit in a block of flats. Occasionally, I passed the time of day on the stairs with a lady of eminent respectability. Another occupant in the block was a female student. One day, the lady approached me and said in a hushed voice that a young man regularly visited the student and when she paused at the student's door she thought she could hear the bedsprings creaking, and this was worrying her. Keeping my face straight, I advised her to consult her priest. When I next met her, she told me very indignantly that the priest had told her to mind her own business! And that, of course, is the not unreasonable response to many occasions of the expressed criticism of others.
But it is a view which very much represents the philosophy of liberal individualism, a philosophy in which people are thought to have a right to do or think or say what they like, provided they are not harming others. But that philosophy is very much in retreat. The pandemic is one reason. The fear it has caused has led some of us to outdo public health officials in their criticism of social behaviour, to see threats to their health when there are none or when they are minimal.
However, the problem is much wider. There are a number of social movements all of which have their passionate advocates. For example, there is the 'Black Lives Matter' movement; the 'Anti-racism Movement'; the 'LGBT movement'; the 'Extinction Rebellion movement'; and many others. I will not comment on these movements as such – they all have considerable merits – but they have in different ways given rise to the creation of 'no platforming', 'cancelling' and 'language police'. If you fall foul of the language police, you would find yourself facing highly judgmental comments and perhaps even prosecution for a 'hate crime'.
Universities have been in the forefront of this illiberal movement. Bring back George Orwell who showed how language control leads to thought control leads to totalitarianism.
Even that most illiberal ruler – Oliver Cromwell – wrote in a letter of August 1650, to the equally illiberal General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the following very liberal words: 'I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken'.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow