David Langwallner: Why I Disagree


From top: Gardai arrest a man protesting covid restrictions on O’Connell Street, Dublin 1 on St Patrick’s Day; David Langwallner

“My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.” Christopher Hitchens.

I am increasingly interested in what constitutes deviance, dissidence, and political subversion in an age of the criminalisation of same, and when it is necessary, or desirable, to obey or consent, and when not. Questions crucial to our age.

Many of my professional experiences have shaped an understanding of these questions and have fed into further questions of legitimate punishment and social retribution or denunciation.

But the ultimate question becomes, denunciation by whom and why, and for what motives?

We must always ask: who should be punished as a criminal subversive and/or as a deviant? And are those inflicting punishment the real deviants, quashing dissidence and dissonance from Gandhi to Martin Luther King from the organisers of the Catalan Referendum to those behind anti-lockdown protests.

Deviation from what? Well, it is deviation from a social construct or a norm or a law. Of course, the norm may be morally fallible or sanctionable and thus the norm or law itself may be deviant.

The norm of Inca civilization was blood sacrifice of human victims. Euphemistically phrased, the norm of Nazi law was the ‘evacuation’ of the Jews or the Final Solution of the Jewish question. Now all of this is deviant, or the putative authorities of state are deviant. Thus, the deviants impose on others their deviant norms.

The control of deviance and subversion is also intimately related to the control of dissidence and dissent and the two terms are conflated and confused. Thus, the dissident or conscientious objector is prosecuted as a deviation from an oppressive norm. Sakharov is imprisoned by the communist state subversives. Salman Rushdie is prosecuted by religious mullahs. Thought censorship rules.

Thus, I disagree.

One of the perennial problems of the dissident is to accept, at any level, the legitimacy of their oppressor’s viewpoint. This is a psychological condition or conditioning known as Stockholm Syndrome and, in our age of compliance, it is to accept the legitimacy of a point of view devoid of rational foundation. To accept the torturers’ right to act in the manner they deign fit.

Moreover, in our increasingly controlled and controlling society, the channeling and control of behavior has become what Foucault would term an internalisation of punishment by those who seek to exercise control. The controlling of deviant behavior in schools and hospitals. Foucault also chastised against what many writers have termed blind obedience. Yes, boss. I was only obeying orders. The Eichmann defence.

In the recent Gros book on disobedience (Disobey!, 2020), the question of surplus obedience is mentioned like surplus to requirements where one obeys for the rewards or pledges, assumed promises, and out of a visceral sense of gratitude – the sort of nonsense compliance that neoliberalism engenders from a fractured undeserving sense of noblesse oblige. Be happy with your lot, Bob Cratchits of the universe. Do not, like Oliver Twist, ask for more. Comply in your self-destruction.

So, I disagree.

It is not, as Kant said, that in purely pragmatic and potentially ethical terms a measure of obedience is good; it is just that unconditional or non-reasoned obedience is bad, an excess of obedience. The loss of civic dissidence and its replacement by a Brave New World rushing into Covid compliance led to self-destruction with only partially proven vaccines and a disproportionate interference on rights.

Peter Ustinov said what the Eichmann trial revealed uniquely was the penalisation of obedience and that is what we should do now. Penalise compliance and obedience. Just say no.

Act with some measure of personal integrity and engage in peaceful civil resistance. Well, if you can, and, in the present universe, you must weigh the consequences. The consequences of not putting people on trains for you.

Though, not to resist at one level is to participate in one’s own self-destruction and, as Habermas points out, civil disobedience vitalises democracy and provides a corrective to purely technical decisions. What he terms decisionism.

Those who are overly docile or rely on precision and efficiency without outside-the-box thinking become, at best, part of the serf capitalist proletariat or, at worst, easily replaceable models. Our society, through neo-liberal austerity, as Gros correctly identifies, is now bordering on the indecent. The moral compass is now gone.

Surplus obedience and fawning also creates obsolescence. The casual disposability of useless people? Will all god’s children have wings or, at least, deserve a measure of protection and support or leniency.

The norm that is being enforced is a deviant norm and the intolerance and contempt for human frailty and what has been termed a laxity in conduct except of course by the power elite who can do anything they choose is marginalising the truly exceptional from contributing to our society or indeed any society and not giving them a voice.

Leaving that aside, political dissidence has become controlled by the technology of mediocrity, such as Facebook and other social media, creating a brand-new world of disinformation and, worse still, bland uniformity of discourse.

Trial by media and smear. The deviance of hysteria and semi-literacy. The destruction of talent by mere accusation in our sensationalist age. Nefarious tactics often used by trade competitors. The mare of criminally motivated people.

Whistleblowers are, of course, also branded as deviants and subversives and prosecuted or persecuted.

Now Ibsen is not an overtly political a writer but in An Enemy Of The People he is. The premise is simple: a prominent and well-connected local engineer whose brother is the town mayor is asked to conduct a survey of the waters of the town. The town in question has become famous as a spa resort attracting a great deal of tourism but when he tests the waters, he finds that they are polluted and informs the town and indeed his brother.

Now, it is the reaction to this that is interesting. Rather than lauding him and complimenting him for his finely attuned sense of ethics and correct analysis, they turn on him with ever-increasing ferocity. A storm of hatred is unleashed.

He will destroy the local economy. Our livelihoods will be affected. The industry of the town will be negated. He is shunned, ostracised, victimised. His family is torn apart and he becomes an enemy of the people. The mob descend in all their unfettered glory.

Now at the time the play, though I enjoyed it very much, did not as such have an emotional resonance for me beyond intellectual stimulus. I was not an enemy of the people nor had I represented at this stage enemies of the people. I had represented many deeply unpopular human beings but not truth-telling, ethical ones who got into trouble for the crime of telling the truth. I, or my clients, had not yet become a target for the mobocracy.

The problem thus, in a nutshell, from a whistleblower perspective is that if you blow the whistle, increasingly the solution is ‘frame and kill the whistleblower’. Frame the innocent to protect the guilty. Frame principle and integrity to destroy the innocent. Make an enemy of the people and a subversive of he or she who is trying to expose corruption. The fundamental problem in Ireland, and indeed the United States, is the lack of accountability for state criminality or state subversion.

So, Assange is pursued to the ends of the Earth and Sugarman in Ireland not heard in the banking inquiry until after the event where one Redneck says we have heard far too much of that, now, move on.

So, I Disagree.

Unless we are to consent to serf slavery and servitude in practical terms and become morally bankrupt as well as probably financially bankrupt and desensitised then it is time to change.

Practical disobedience is up to us personally and in community terms. Integrity is non-delegable. Protest and survive against these draconian times with draconian executive and legislative remedies undermining our very ability to function.

Preserve the previous right to speak out and say, ‘I disagree’. Rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light, even though frankly your disagreement and protest will lead to nothing except perhaps the deferral of the inevitable but, at the very least, it is the assertion of speech and intellect against the vectors of control.

So, I Disagree.

David Langwallner is a barrister specialising in public law, immigration, housing and criminal defence including miscarriages of justice. He is emeritus director of the Irish innocence project and was Irish lawyer of the year at the 2015 Irish law awards. His column appears here every Tuesday and Friday. Follow David on Twitter @DLangwallner


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22 thoughts on “David Langwallner: Why I Disagree

  1. Donald McCarthy

    In the age of extinction, when resistance is futile, we become, not war heroes but war criminals by encouraging further resistance. This is Planetary Hospice and it has no welcome for giddy idiots exhorting us to get better and leave. No kale smoothies, no early morning runs, no drum circle will alter what is set in stone by laws we did not make and can not break. That so few choose to look at the science of extinction and instead retreat into the most vulgar display of human exceptionalism and entitlement is all the proof needed to convict us of choosing ease and comfort over honesty and intelligence. The best minds consider we have fewer than eight years left while the rest laugh and ridicule. And so it goes. Nothing to see here.

    1. Clampers Outside

      8 years now….. 8 years to the end.


      Why not just open a window and shout at the world… WE’RE ALL GOINGG TO DIE! It might help relieve a little of that tension you’ve clearly built up.

      1. Clampers Outside

        And it’s 9 days past the ides of March… You’ll have to put off paying your debt to the planet for another year :)

    2. Nilbert

      Pushing thru the market square
      So many mothers sighing
      News had just come over,
      We had five years left to cry in
      News guy wept and told us
      Earth was really dying
      Cried so much his face was wet
      Then I knew he was not lying
      I heard telephones, opera house, favourite melodies
      I saw boys, toys electric irons and T.V.’s
      My brain hurt like a warehouse
      It had no room to spare
      I had to cram so many things
      To store everything in there
      And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
      And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
      I never thought I’d need so many people
      A girl my age went off her head
      Hit some tiny children
      If the black hadn’t a-pulled her off, I think she would have killed them
      A soldier with a broken arm, fixed his stare to the wheel of a Cadillac
      A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest
      And a queer threw up at the sight of that
      I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour
      Drinking milk shakes cold and long
      Smiling and waving and looking so fine
      Don’t think you knew you were in this song
      And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor
      And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there
      Your face, your race, the way that you talk
      I kiss you, you’re beautiful, I want you to walk
      We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
      We’ve got five years, what a surprise
      We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
      We’ve got five years, that’s all we’ve got

  2. Nigel

    In the age of disinformation it’s uselss to praise dissidence for the sake of dissidence. If you’re not making value judgements you are engaging with the bland mediocrity of power enlising disobedience to reinforce power.

    Maybe someone is extolling Trump as a divine avatar, or a strategic genius of near-supernatural ability whose every move and utterance are de facto proof of said genius. Maybe someone is telling us that action against climate change is either futile or anti-human. So we can say ‘They have freedom of speech and the right to protest,’ but if you devote your time and energy to endlessly arguing with those who oppose them that they have freedom of speech and the right to protest, if you yourself do not actually bother to ever oppose them, disagree with them, even denounce them if they are particularly repulsive, then you are hiding like a coward behind the argument, gluing yourself to the fence for fear of being branded ‘woke.’

    Subversion and deviancy are not value-free – what you are subverting and what form your deviancy takes and from what norm are what counts. Subverting an election? Deviating from the reality of an impending ecological catastrophe? Sometimes subversion and deviancy are what the powerful use to keep power. There are plenty of countries that remember both being used to tear them apart in the Cold War.

    1. Kev

      Yeah loons don’t do Beckett. Too self-effacing for them. I am a big believer in the succinct civilisation, it makes everything so much simpler. Onwards.

  3. Clampers Outside

    I enjoyed the piece…. But I’d have gone for the Aztecs instead. The Incas were civilised by comparison :)

  4. johnny

    ..as always enjoyed it (frantically googling did not detract) ,thanks ok,ok went a bit over my head, but i do read them, really never have much to say, other than gosh i so have to read more:)

    i work with black market (illegal) now white market(legal) cannabis growers,a component of progressive cannabis laws in some states is ‘social justice’,the awarding growing licenses to those harmed by this stupid war on drugs.

    disobedience deviants the lot them….

  5. Chris

    This reads like a teenagers call to action, I would have enjoyed reading it in my rebellious years. I like the sentiment but it is truly immature. This man is a barrister and he is encouraging those with less means than him to go out and break whatever laws they like? Yes freedom can seem like a moving goalpost but is this the best this man can come up with. It’s just rabble rousing, what about an insight into how we draft or achieve fairer laws? I haven’t even mentioned yet, nor did the author, that there is an actual pandemic still underway. It’s hard to quantify just how nefarious a marauding virus actually is, drafting clever Ancient Greek style articles about personal freedoms has no impact on the virus, it can’t read and does not care about Aztecs, Incas, the Magna Carter, Brexit, Irish independence or any other topic we continue to attempt to lecture it in. Breaking inconvenient emergency laws is not a protest against those laws it is purely an opportunity for the virus to spread more, dragging out this whole affair, it is frankly just self harm. Reverting to teenage instincts will not get us anywhere, while it still seems to be the best suggestion on offer by a lot of people who frankly should show more maturity.

    1. Kev

      Bang on Chris.
      It’s a fupping virus.
      Not an ideology.
      God how I hate that “J’accuse” style pomposity.
      And while Foucoult was pretty hip on prisons he wasn’t too hot on hospitals.

      1. ce

        “And while Foucoult was pretty hip on prisons he wasn’t too hot on hospitals.”

        Some Philosophy PhD student will read this and thank you for naming their dissertation

        1. Kev

          Whatever service I can provide.
          It’s all about helping your fellow man.
          Being an idle contrarian is not good for the mental health.
          Look what it did to John Waters.

    2. f_lawless

      “Breaking inconvenient emergency laws is not a protest against those laws it is purely an opportunity for the virus to spread more, dragging out this whole affair, it is frankly just self harm”

      This is the Stockholm Syndrome Langwallner is talking about. At this stage the international is evidence clear: lockdowns have not stopped the spread of the disease in any measurable way. There is no correlation between more stringent lockdown measures and a lighter impact of the virus. Nor is there a correlation between lighter measures (to none) and a heavier impact.


      “the reality is that most people are just not actually interested in finding out the truth for themselves. They are much more interested in conforming with what they perceive to be what one could call the ‘moral truth’ – the prevailing moral norm. The prevailing moral norm of 2020 is: lockdowns are the ethically right thing to do because they keep vulnerable safe from dying. To argue against that moral norm is, by definition, both immoral and abnormal. This is the most salient factor in governing behaviour in our society right now.

      Lockdown sceptics have made all kinds of important, well-reasoned, fact-based arguments against the lockdowns and other restrictions that have been imposed upon us…None of it has cut through, because most people just don’t respond to fact-based argument. They respond to what they consider to be the moral truth. “

      1. Kev

        I don’t see this as feeling. I see it as fact. If there is a virus the less people you see the less chance it has to spread. Some empirical data: just look at the cowardly Xmas pub openings, it took us three months to recover from that.

  6. Darren

    Why if you Clampers do not agree with a man’s clearly held belief then why do you need the reason then to address what you see as an underlying tension in his manner of delivery? If it is there, it’s not without obvious cause. He has clearly stated it. And you have acknowledged it by responding. If you disagree or have your own cause to at least reserve room for doubts then surely offer it to your fellow man. Seeing him as a mole to whack with a hammer of judgement is only further highlighting your use of caps lock. We are ALL going to die. That wouldn’t be news to anyone.

  7. Darren

    Why if you Clampers do not agree with a man’s clearly held belief do you need the reason then to address what you see as an underlying tension in his manner of delivery? If it is there, it’s not without obvious cause. He has clearly stated it. And you have acknowledged it by responding. If you disagree or have your own cause to at least reserve room for doubts then surely offer it to your fellow man. Seeing him as a mole to whack with a hammer of judgement is only further highlighting your use of caps lock. We are ALL going to die. That wouldn’t be news to anyone.

  8. f_lawless

    Speaking of barristers at law, Irish barrister Tracy O’Mahony sends out an urgent message to Irish citizens to contact their Irish MEPs ASAP in order to voice their concerns about the looming vaccine “freedom pass” legislation. Apparently MEP’s are due to meet tomorrow morning and will be asked to agree that the new legislation be fast tracked. Worth a listen to understand what’s going on.


    1. david langwaLLNER

      very dangerous not just the pass but what other data can be stored

      i have just finished a 6 hour hearing so no idle contrarian !!!

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