Belfast Telegraph

Telling Mike Nesbitt to apologise for his reference to Goebbels quote makes critics sound like the real fascists

Alliance acting as our self-appointed thought police is not a good look for an increasingly pious and puritanical party that has lost its way, says Fionola Meredith

With all these Nazi references flying about in politics and the media, from Boris Johnson to Ken Livingstone, it's really starting to feel like springtime for Hitler*.

Or can I say that? Will the very mention of the Fuhrer be enough to produce howls of angry outrage from the permanently offended?

Mike Nesbitt felt their rage this week when he posted a saying from Joseph Goebbels on Twitter: "A lie, repeated a thousand times, becomes a truth."

Even the most spittle-flecked of Nesbitt's detractors would have to admit that he was not quoting Goebbels because he thought that the Nazi minister for propaganda was an admirable individual. Rather, Nesbitt was attempting to make the point that people spread lies on social media, and that a lie, if retold often enough, begins to sound like a fact.

Which is true, just as Goebbels said it was. Being an evil Nazi doesn't mean you're not right sometimes, though of course Goebbels used that knowledge of mass culture to unspeakable ends.

Unfortunately, we live in an increasingly hysterical, infantile culture - fuelled by self-righteous twits on Twitter - which has a debasing effect on political discourse. Mention any kind of reviled or otherwise controversial name and immediately a hundred red flags go up, a thousand trigger warnings are launched. Whatever point you were trying to make gets lost in the mob of people yelling: "You said a bad man's name!"

Frankly, this is exactly what I expect from our local branch of Twitterstorm-troopers (sorry, I just can't help myself), who fulminated so predictably about Nesbitt's "gaffe", in their usual uber-PC manner. Yeah, whatever, guys. Knock yourselves out.

But I was disappointed by the likes of Stewart Dickson of the Alliance Party, who got all preachy about it on the airwaves. "There are plenty of ways in which to get that message across, but linking it to the Nazis, linking anything to the Nazis either positively or negatively, I don't believe helps anyone," he said sniffily. "I believe he should apologise and there are a whole range of people he needs to apologise to in respect of any raising of the spectre of the Nazis and Goebbels."

The demand for an apology: it's the instantaneous reaction to anything deemed to be offensive. And not just a single apology will be enough. A whole round of them will be necessary this time, according to Dickson, if Nesbitt is to be assuaged of his guilt. Sorry, sorry, sorry. And again sorry. To everyone, everywhere. Simply for daring to reference a powerful truth from a deeply wicked man.

Honestly, have our brains become so atrophied that we can no longer hold two contradictory ideas in our heads at the same time?

Even the DUP had a super-sensitive moment, with one obscure Ards and North Down councillor fretting about the effect Nesbitt's tweet would have on the Jewish community.

Interventions like Dickson's make me wonder what has happened to Alliance. It used to be the decent-if-dull party you opted for when you couldn't stomach voting along sectarian lines. Now we are hearing more and more of this kind of pious, right-on puritanism from it. Acting as the self-appointed language police is not an attractive look for a party that claims to be open-minded and progressive.

According to the Ulster Unionists, Nesbitt's tweet was in response to "a politically motivated rumour, which is spread over social media from time to time suggesting Mr Nesbitt supports public funds for a mosque in Belfast". This rumour, apparently, is untrue. To be honest, I don't care about Mike Nesbitt's preferences when it comes to the funding of mosques, or indeed anything else. What horrifies me is the shriek of the mob as it rushes to claim another scalp.

The cult of 'You Can't Say That!, that's what the writer Brendan O'Neill calls it.

Please don't tell me it's anything to do with being compassionate and respectful and protective of vulnerable people: all excuses regularly trotted out to defend such behaviour. Rather, it's intolerance in action, disguised as concern.

The irony of this is that the impulse to shut down and silence words which are deemed to be offensive is actually pretty fascist in itself.

If someone makes a comment that you find questionable, the answer is always more speech, not less. Otherwise, you're closer to Goebbels than you think.

* I refer, of course, to the fictional musical in Mel Brooks' 1968 film The Producers. The musical's full title is Springtime For Hitler: A Gay Romp With Eva And Adolf At Berchtesgaden.

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