Don’t you just hate the Illiberati?
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on why we should be free to say who we hate.
If anything is likely to incite me to violence against my television, it is hearing the home secretary talk about extending the anti-hate speech laws in the name of defending freedom. If I am not free to say what I believe and hate whom I choose – be it the Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, David Blunkett or David Beckham – then I am not free at all.
Blunkett says that he wants to make incitement to religious hatred a criminal offence, alongside hatred on the grounds of race, sexuality or disability, so that ‘people feel free to express sensible views and have sensible arguments’. He complains that, whenever he tries to do something sensible such as barring a dangerous cleric from Britain, ‘I usually get the Liberati on my back for being against people being able to express themselves’.
The alleged influence of Blunkett’s ‘Liberati’ is about as real as that of David Icke’s Illuminati (giant lizards inhabiting world leaders’ bodies). In truth public discussion is now dominated by a ban-happy Illiberati. Instead of a debate about the principle of free speech, we have a censorship contest to see who can get their least favourite hate-mongers banned. For some that means Islamic clerics such as Abu Hamza or al-Qaradawi, for others far-right parties such as the BNP.
There are a few things the Illiberati seem to have forgotten. First, free speech is not divisible. You either have it, or you don’t. ‘Free speech for sensible people but not extremists’ is no more freedom than ‘free speech for men but not for women’. Those opinions that Mr Blunkett’s sensible people find offensive are the ones that need defending against censorship most staunchly. The mainstream can look after itself.
Secondly, going on the BBC to say that Palestinian suicide bombers can be martyrs is not the same thing as going into a city centre to detonate a suicide bomb. An offensive opinion should not be treated as a criminal offence. Incitement to hatred sounds an ugly business. But so long as we are talking about words and not violent deeds, ugliness is not a crime. It is ironic that those who would treat minorities as vulnerable children, in need of protection from hurtful speech, seem to have forgotten the old playground rhyme about the difference between sticks and stones and words.
Thirdly, this is not really about somebody else’s ‘right’ to be a racist or a ranting crank. It is about the freedom of all of us to hear, discuss and decide for ourselves, without the interference of Mr Blunkett’s sensible earmuffs. The way to deal with dangerous ideas is not to suppress them, as if we have something to hide, but to expose them to the full glare of public debate, ridicule or indifference, as we see fit.
So what are we afraid of? Why do so many now want to ban whatever they deem hate-speech? Al-Qaradawi is apparently considered a moderate in the Muslim world, yet his appearance in Britain has caused consternation bordering on panic. It is as if any expression of strong belief now unnerves us. Ours is a society where faith, conviction and ideology are in short supply. It is the anodyne state of our public debate that makes somebody such as al-Qaradawi seem so shockingly extreme. The idea of martyrdom for a cause appears incomprehensible when our politicians cannot inspire people even to vote in an election. But trying to ban him will not make the underlying problem go away.
It is worth remembering that, at times when Western society too has had strong beliefs, hate has not been seen as the preserve of the bad guys.
Hating the enemy has always been the dark flipside of the human passions that go into fighting for a cause. It was not Hitler, but President Harry S. Truman who said that he dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki because ‘when you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast’. It was not Orwell’s Big Brother but Labour’s Nye Bevan who spoke at a rally of his ‘deep burning hatred’ for Tory opponents he considered ‘lower than vermin’. This is not to suggest that Blunkett organise an Orwellian ‘Hate Week’ to whip up support. But if the Illiberati had a more passionate belief in principles of their own, they might be less scared by the zealotry of some others.
In our insecure, post-September 11 society, it is more important than ever to stand up for such a fundamental value as free speech. While we are still free to write what we believe, it seems entirely ‘sensible’ for me to express my loathing of Blunkett’s illiberalism along with the obscurantism of Islam and other religions. If that incites some to send me hate mail – feel free.
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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