People should not be punished for their beliefs
The proposal to ban British National Party members from teaching in schools is a far bigger threat to democracy than the BNP itself.
If recent events are anything to go by, then it is pretty clear that the far-right British National Party (BNP) does not have a monopoly on the politics of intolerance.
It is widely reported that the UK schools secretary, Ed Balls, is considering proposals to ban members of the BNP from working as teachers in schools. The campaign to keep far-right individuals out of the nation’s classrooms has been spearheaded by the teachers’ union, the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT). The NASWUT has called for an amendment to teachers’ contracts, which would mean no one closely associated with the BNP could take a job as a teacher.
Paradoxically, the call to fire BNP-linked teachers is justified on the basis of promoting diversity. Five members of the General Teaching Council of England wrote a letter to the Guardian arguing that the BNP’s ideas are ‘fundamentally inconsistent’ with the ethos of diversity, which ‘enriches learning opportunities for all our children’ (1). Their ideal of diversity is actually shot through with double standards. Diversity for them does not include anyone whose views contradict the prevailing consensus. So they can be very selective in how they uphold and apply the principle of ‘diversity’, and have no inhibition about banning those whose views run contrary to the contemporary ethos.
When trade unions take a lead in demanding that BNP members be denied a livelihood, it is clear that these organisations have lost touch with the positive ideals that inspired their creation. Their demands are motivated by political intolerance and frustration at the results of the recent local elections and EU elections (in which the BNP won two seats in the European Parliament). Having failed to isolate the far right through debate and democracy, some are now opting for bureaucratic measures to rid the country of the BNP.
What is really absurd about these illiberal anti-BNP crusaders is that they truly believe that they occupy the moral high ground. Nothing could be further from the truth. The proposal to ban BNP-linked teachers represents more of a threat to democracy than the racist sentiments expressed by the BNP itself.
Discriminating against people on the grounds that they hold the wrong views is no more legitimate than discriminating against individuals on the basis of their religion or race. In effect, the call to ban teachers who are members of the BNP is a demand to victimise them on the grounds of their beliefs rather than for anything they have done. It is not the competence or qualifications of BNP-linked teachers that are being called into question, but their beliefs. What is at stake is not what they have done but what they think. And penalising people for their views is, in many ways, an incitement of acts of intolerance. It also represents a direct challenge to the idea of an open and free society.
It is important to note that BNP-linked teachers are not only supporters of a particular party; they are also members of an allegedly democratic society. Despite their opinions they have a right to vote and a right to free speech. The attempt to treat them as a category of sub-citizens fundamentally calls into question everybody’s democratic rights. Once one group of people can have their rights taken away on the basis of their opinions, then it won’t be long before other people who hold eccentric or radical views are penalised.
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Democratic rights turn into paper rights if they are applied selectively and treated in such a casual and opportunistic fashion. The call to ban BNP-linked teachers from schools treats freedom of thought as a negotiable commodity that need not be applied to those with whom we fundamentally disagree.
It is also an act of political cowardice. Those who are cobbling together a behind-the-scenes bureaucratic formula for undermining the legitimacy of the BNP have done little to confront and challenge the ideas that the party holds and which they so abhor. Instead of relying on the power of democratic ideals to counter dead-end racist sentiments, the anti-BNP lobby has opted for undemocratic acts of selective repression. The outcome of this exercise in intolerance will be to make it impossible to have an open and grown-up debate about the issues that motivate some people to support the BNP. Worse still, the denial of democratic rights to members of the BNP helps foster a climate where narrow-minded bigotry and intolerance are likely to flourish.
Frank Furedi’s latest book, Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.
(1) No place for the BNP in the classroom, Guardian, 20 June 2009