When the mother-lode of Western democracy debates the nature of freedom, we should all pay attention.

Posted: January 13, 2012 in Political musings, Popular Culture et al, Religion
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Protect free speech

An historic moment looms

As British blogger Cranmer (aka His Grace) discusses here http://archbishop-cranmer.blogspot.com/2012/01/we-must-be-free-to-insult-our-neighbour.html, Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 outlaws ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’ words or behaviour if they are likely to cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’.

The matter is also discussed by civil freedoms campaigner Old Holborn here: http://bastardoldholborn.blogspot.com/2012/01/pay-attention-your-last-chance.html

Whatever you think of His Grace’s religious views, (or Old Holborn’s ruminations, for that matter), he argues persuasively that this is increasingly being used by certain people to get the police to arrest and silence Christian street preachers, prosecute hotel owners for chatting about their faith with a Muslim hotel guest, and to prosecute a teenager for calling the cult of Scientology, well… a cult. (Which it is. So sue me.)

The Home Office is conducting a wide-ranging online consultation to help them decide whether or not to introduce an amendment to clarify the situation in the proposed Protection of Freedoms Bill, and the Christian Institute, along with others, is campaigning to have the word ‘insulting’ removed from this Act.

The campaign has cross-party support, including Edward Leigh (Con), Tom Watson (Lab), and Alan Beith (Liberal Democrat), along with very many others inside and outside of Parliament. They believe that the freedom to disagree and to challenge received wisdom lies at the heart of a democracy, leave alone healthy religious discourse.

My thoughts on this are simple. When we remove the right for people to make pejorative remarks in defence of an argument or position because they could be considered insulting (as opposed to threatening, or abusive, where abusive clearly means many things, but to my mind primarily meaning an insult unsupported by facts, argument or logical principle), then we weaken democracy, and perhaps irretrievably.

For example, if I call an idea idiotic, or an action (say bad driving), am I therefore also referring to the proposer/practitioner of that idea as an idiot?

And if I am construed as doing that, should that person be entitled to make a complaint against me for being insulting? And should I then be liable for prosecution?

In a robust democracy, ruled by commonsense, my answer is “No, of course not!” Ideas are frequently idiotic. Indeed one of the most insulting activities around – racism – is, in itself, is an inherently idiotic idea. And those that propose racist ideology are, in my considered opinion idiots. Should I not be permitted to call them such?

But what if there were safeguards? Should a court be allowed to decide what is reasonable and what is an insult? Would reasonableness be a defence to such a charge?

Quite apart from the infringement on one’s rights as a free citizen to be forced to defend the matter in court (with concomitant costs) the answer is again “No”, because it arrogates to the courts the right to decide what is reasonable, instead of using our own commonsense as free individuals.  It is just another drift to a centralised, nanny state where freedom of expression (and freedom to scrutinise the actions of others) is curtailed.

Imagine it. Eventually a body of case law builds up on the question of reasonableness. Then one day, dismayed by the matters clogging the courts, Government decides to legislate all the possible situations where one using the word idiotic can be used reasonably.The courts then continue to further develop case law. Eventually, rather than risk prosecution, we the People simply stop saying “that’s idiotic” for fear of prosecution.

And now multiply that effect by a hundred words, or a thousand.

Alarmist? Perhaps. But words are the currency of freedom. They each have vital nuances of meaning. They allow us to freely participate in discourse, with each other, with those who influence our lives, and with our State. The very complexity of English is its strength, it is why it stands head and shoulders above other world languages in its ability to explain, reveal, illuminate and inspire. Anything that reduces our right to revel in its range of expression is lunacy.

I am on record as saying that I support rules that prevent us racially abusing one another. Consistency demands that I here explain why. The history of the world, especially in the last hundred years or so, reveals racism as a uniquely pernicious habit of human behaviour, the genesis of which is speech, and the result of which has been unimaginable suffering. It is also the least supportable bias, when analysed through any prism, that we humans are prone too. Under these circumstances, I believe it justified to curtail our right to racially abuse one another, as a deliberate exercise in mass opinion and behaviour moulding, just as I believe poor driving can be legitimately curtailed by speed limits and the breathalyzer.

When the laws to prevent racial vilification were initially formulated, in the UK and elsewhere, the most common argument against them were that they were a slippery slope towards a general curtailment of freedom of speech. At the time, I recall clearly liberals of all political persuasions vowing to prevent that slippery slope from becoming a reality, myself included. This far, and no further, was a clear agreement amongst politicians and commentators of varying ages, backgrounds, and political hues.

Which is why I raise my voice now in support of the campaign to have “insulting” removed from the law. It is far better to have a ruling principle in a free society that people have recourse to other, civil arenas to resolve feelings of distress. Apart from continuing the conversation, which is always an option, of course, strong libel and defamation laws (at least in the UK and Australia, albeit less so in America), also protect people from being the object of obviously unreasonable aspersions.

Take the survey yourself, but hurry

You are welcome to take the Home Office survey yourself, but I warn you that you have less than a day to do so. It ends on Friday 13th. (Spooky, or what?) And you don’t have to answer all the questions if you don’t want to, just answer the ones on insulting words, and then skip to the end.

https://www.homeofficesurveys.homeoffice.gov.uk/v.asp?i=41428bwhlr

But in any event, internal consultations of this kind are very rarely of any major use in either promoting greater freedom of or preventing infringements of civil liberties, as they are usually a cynical PR exercise.

What works best is the white hot glare of publicity when laws are actually formulated.

So feel free to re-blog this article, Facebook it or whatever. And then keep an eye on the news for the moment when consultation turns to law making, and the restrictions placed on us are re-legislated. And when that happens, defend, with every fibre of your being, my inalienable right to call you an idiot. And to be called an idiot.

And if you don’t agree that’s right and proper, then frankly, you’re an idiot, and slippery slopes were made for people like you.

Comments
  1. Andrew Metcalfe says:

    We are of course far too sensitive to the power of words and far too easily offended. It’s a PC world out there. More’s the pity. If we’re serious about the sort of freedoms inherent in this discussion however, we have to be braver.
    Is it any more offensive to insult someone who is black, by calling them such, than to call someone ‘idiotic’ for holding a point of view with which we disagree or perhaps, in the incompleteness of our understanding, totally misconstrue?
    Idiotic: characteristic of an idiot
    Idiot: An utterly senseless or foolish person, or in psychological terms, having a mental age of less than 3 or an i.q. of 25 or less.
    No, real racism is about deeds, not words. if we want the freedom of language, we cannot afford to be selective. Insult all equally and there’s nothing to worry about. Is there?

    Like

  2. Garry Otton says:

    The article says that a defence of free speech is backed by the extremist organisation, the Christian Institute which wants the freedom to shout homophobic abuse in the streets. It should also be noted that is also backed by the National Secular Society that wants the freedom to criticise religious institutions, for example in wantonly covering-up thousands of cases of child sex abuse.

    Like

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