Crucifying public debate
If we aren't free to 'incite religious hatred', we aren't free.
UK home secretary David Blunkett is having another go at banning the incitement of religious hatred.
He first proposed such a ban as part of the 2001 anti-terrorism legislation, ostensibly to protect Muslims from Islamophobia. It was thrown out in the House of Lords. His latest proposal seems to be geared more towards protecting moderate Muslims from their own firebrand preachers.
But the substance of the issue is the same. Laws against religious hatred will grossly infringe on our right to free speech and our ability to criticise religions however we please.
‘Religious and political extremists are a scourge of modern society who prey on the most vulnerable and insecure’, lectured Blunkett today (1). Such extremist speech has to be reined in, believes Blunkett, in order to create ‘a positive, inclusive sense of British identity and citizenship’, so that people can ‘settle their differences in ways that don’t develop hate and where people feel free to be able to express sensible views and have sensible arguments’.
On BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, Blunkett dismissed the concerns of what he called the ‘Liberati’, who get ‘on my back for being against people being able to express themselves’. He’s not saying that people can’t criticise religion, after all, so long as they hold ‘sensible views’ and are not too ‘extremist’ about it.
But the whole point about free speech is that it is free – and that it’s not up to Blunkett or anybody else to decide whether your opinion is reasonable or not. Unless we are able to be wrong, rude and offensive, about Allah, Jesus or even the home secretary, then the right to free speech exists only in theory rather than in practice.
Blunkett’s vision for Britain is one in which people are ‘able to express their identity within a common framework of rights and responsibilities’. So you can say what you want, so long as it isn’t too fiery or offensive. This would lead to a society that is sterile and fractured rather than open and cohesive. We will have to tiptoe around one another, careful not to tread on the toes of any other ethnic/religious/political group.
A more genuine kind of community would mean people being completely free to bash out ideas in public and to hold each other to account. The British National Party and mad mullahs would be able to rant away as they please – and others would be able to tell them why they are talking rubbish.
Through debate, we may be able to find common points of agreement and a new sense of what values and ideas we should hold dear. It seems that Blunkett would rather block up our mouths and ears, than engage in such debate.
spiked-issue: Free speech
(1) Sideline the extremists, Home Office press release, 7 July 2004
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