Far-right figurehead Steve Bannon has been back in the news recently for being invited to headline the New Yorker’s annual festival, and then promptly disinvited after a liberal outcry that this was giving legitimacy to his xenophobic ideas. One of the more surprising defenses of Bannon’s invitation came from writer Malcolm Gladwell, who said in a series of tweets that the festival’s audiences should be exposed to competing ideas, and that he hoped Bannon’s views would be discredited by a public debate.
Gladwell has been roundly criticized for the first tweet in particular, with people noting that he’s making an apolitical, process-oriented claim (“we should be able to discuss different ideas”) about a set of ideas which are deeply political (xenophobia and white nationalism). This discussion sets two valid points in tension with each other. I certainly think that freedom of expression is important. But it’s also true that there’s a real cost to saying that racist ideas should be discussed on the same footing as ideas about diversity and social justice. When it is appropriate to say that an idea is so bad that it shouldn’t be given a platform for debate? And how can we take a more nuanced approach than simply banning all ideas that don’t agree with our own politics?
Medical ethics has a concept that’s useful in this situation: clinical equipoise. Equipoise means that the medical community is genuinely uncertain about whether a treatment will be effective. They have reason to believe that it could help patients, and at minimum won’t harm them, but don’t yet have proof of its benefits. This is the ethical justification for conducting randomized controlled trials to determine whether the treatment works. If a researcher knew in advance that a treatment would definitely help a patient, then there would be no ethical justification for randomly withholding the treatment from the control group. Similarly, if a researcher already knew that a treatment didn’t work, or might even injure patients, there’s no ethical justification for testing it at all. RCTs are a tool to improve medical quality of care, not an excuse to test out harmful procedures for the ostensibly neutral sake of “scientific progress.”
The ethics of public debates are arguably similar to those of medical trials. Debates let people try out new concepts and see how others respond to them, and are ideally done with the goal of leaving the world a better place for having had the debate. Like clinical trials, they’re most productive when they focus on issues with a range of possible solutions, and with genuine uncertainty about which one would be best. You could pick any number of examples here: how to best reform failing schools, how to manage the opioid crisis, how to balance the gains from free trade with the harm caused to industries exposed to trade, and so forth. Debates on such topics can bring out useful arguments from various sides, and enrich the overall conversation.
Many of Bannon’s ideas fail the equipoise test because we already know with certainty that they are harmful to people, and don’t bring any commensurate benefits. Take his desire to ban all immigration to the US from majority Muslim countries. This is justified with an ostensible concern about terrorism. However, there’s data showing that right-wing groups in the US carry out significantly more acts of random public violence than Muslim groups, and that Muslim immigrants in particular virtually never participate in this type of violence. In addition, many studies have shown that immigration is on average good for economic growth in both sending and receiving countries. Banning immigration on the basis of religious or national identity is thus discriminatory, harmful to the immigrants themselves, and harmful to citizens of their countries of origin and reception. The only “benefit” of this policy is that it provides comfort to racists, which clearly should not be the goal of an ethical public policy.
Inviting Bannon to headline a prominent festival suggests that his ideas are worthy of discussion and could enrich the overall debate. It’s an unethical position to take with someone who has a clear interest in causing harm to others and no credible data on the supposed benefits of his ideas. The New Yorker made the right choice in disinviting him.