Stop policing our thoughts, including the hateful ones

Kicking off spiked’s proposals for which laws should be thrown in the shredding machine of history: rip up the religious hatred act.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

Presenting himself as part John Stuart Mill, part Uncle Sam, the Lib-Con deputy PM Nick Clegg last week launched his Your Freedom initiative for which he NEEDS YOU to help make Britain a ‘less intrusive, more open society’. You log on to the Your Freedom website, propose which nannying New Labour laws and other unnecessary legislation should be fed into the shredding machine of history, and who knows, says Clegg, ‘some of your proposals could end up making it into bills that we bring before parliament’. The ultimate aim, in Cleggspeak, is to ‘restore Britain’s traditions of freedom and fairness’.

Okay then. Leaving aside, for now, the small matter that freedom is better understood as a living, breathing thing that individuals exercise every day rather than as a tradition that the authorities must preserve on our behalf, spiked is going to take this initiative in good faith. Over the next two weeks we’ll call for the repeal of various acts of law, in the interests, not merely of restoring certain freedoms, but of clarifying what freedom is and why it is, in our view, the most important thing in society. And to kick off: Clegg, I want you to rip up the Racial and Religious Hatred Act.

Introduced by the New Labour government in 2006, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act is an attack on what is for spiked the most important freedom of all, the freedom upon which all other freedoms are built, the freedom without which we cannot be free-thinking, free-associating, independent citizens: freedom of speech. The act captures the dual fear that has motivated the authorities’ many, myriad attacks on free speech over the past decade and more: their fear of ideas, which they consider to be toxic and virus-like, and their fear of the masses, whom they look upon as an easily stirred-up mob, a pogrom waiting to go forth and decimate.

Building on earlier acts of law that criminalised inciting racial hatred, the 2006 act makes it an offence to ‘stir up religious hatred’, too. It makes it a crime to use words or imagery – explicitly covering everything from placards to plays performed in a theatre to making a recording with the intention of distributing it – which intend to ‘stir up hatred against persons on religious grounds’. The use of any ‘threatening words’ or ‘display of any written material’ which is designed to spread hatred of a religion or its adherents is banned and punishable by a fine or prison sentence.

One of the most striking things about the religious hatred legislation is how determined New Labour was to introduce it, and how keen it was, initially, not only to criminalise the ‘stirring up’ of hatred but also any potentially hurtful criticism and ridicule of a religion and its followers. New Labour first floated the idea of criminalising religious hatred and ridicule after 9/11, when it predicted, wrongly of course, that there would be an outbreak of mob madness against Muslims. After much wrangling, and boosted by another, post-7/7 panic about anti-Muslim uprisings (which again was wrong), New Labour finally introduced the legislation in 2006.

But its outrageously Orwellian desire to make it a crime to ridicule religion was defeated – by comedians, campaigners and, unfortunately, the House of Lords – and the final act contains a clause pointing out that nothing in the legislation ‘prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents’.

This, however, was a shallow ‘victory’. For while New Labour was forced, to its great umbrage, to give up on its illiberal ambitions to curtail open debate about religion and to police and punish some of our thoughts – such as our thoughts of anti-religious ridicule or our feelings of antipathy – it still reserved, and institutionalised, the right of government to police and punish other thoughts we might have – the hot-headed, hateful ones. So effectively we are free to ridicule religions, but not to really, really ridicule them. We are free to ‘dislike’ religious faith (thanks for that, New Labour), but not to hate it and certainly not to express our hatred of it. New Labour might have given up on outlawing the expression of any form of dislike of religion, but its criminalisation of words and images that might ‘stir up of hatred’ of religion still represents the policing of our minds, our emotions, our thoughts, our words.

The authorities’ belief that all heated language is potentially inciteful and dangerous is captured in the terminology used in the Racial and Religious Hatred Act. There was a time when, in legal terms, to incite meant to be in a close relationship with another person or group of people and to try to convince them or cajole them, face-to-face and intensively, to commit a crime. Today the term ‘incitement’ is used far more promiscuously so that everything from a speech at a rally to a Jamaican dancehall song playing at a disco to a placard saying ‘I hate Islam and you should hate it too’ can be said to incite hatred or violence. This reflects a new, degraded view of the public, those listeners to dancehall music and viewers of daft placards, as incapable of rational interpretation, judgement and cool-headedness. In the view of the powers-that-be, all public speakers are now akin to those criminal inciters of old, and all listeners are like their wide-eyed charges, easily led towards doing Something Bad.

Indeed, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act goes even further than using the super-woolly redefined category of ‘incitement’ and instead repeatedly uses the vague phrase ‘stirring up hatred’. And it clearly believes that this hatred can be ‘stirred up’ – whatever that means – in any number of ways and settings. So it outlaws the display of hatred-stirring written material on demonstrations, for example, and also says that the directors, producers and actors in a play that ‘involves the use of threatening words’ that could ‘stir up religious hatred’ are guilty of a criminal offence.

The Act’s refusal to distinguish between criminal conspiracies, heated demos or works of art shows that it believes all words, whatever the context, can be dangerous, and that all people, whether on a rowdy protest or in a quiet theatre, are easily ‘stirred up’. Context and meaning count for nothing when you view the mass of the population as one hateful image away from turning into a super-mob. And this is only one of many pieces of legislation that polices us so patronisingly. Clegg, the obscenity laws, the ban on glorifying terrorism, the treason law and all those word-curbing quangos – from Ofcom to the Advertising Standards Authority – must go too.

Unfortunately, many liberals and atheists campaigned against religious hatred legislation on the basis that it protected religious people but not atheists – us! – from ridicule. And so the final law also outlaws ‘stirring up hatred’ against people on the basis of their ‘lack of religious belief’. This is a travesty, not only because I am most inclined today to stir up hatred (well, to really, really ridicule) New Atheists, with their illiberal, intolerant, screechy streak, but also because it misses the main point: that the authorities have no business policing and punishing our hatred of anything. So long as we don’t physically attack someone or something, we should be free to hate it as much as we like and to tell people that we hate it. Hatred might not always be big and clever (though it can sometimes be a trigger for positive changes, if aimed at dumb political traditions rather than people who believe in God), but it’s a thing that lies in the realm of thought and speech, and the authorities have no business there. If we are not free to hate – that is, to think what we want to think, to feel what we want to feel, and to express it as we see fit – then we are not free.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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