Kristine L Ming

Why we should defend the right to be be offensive

Image copyright
iStock

Free speech can make for uncomfortable listening, argues Roger Scruton, but it needs to be defended even when it gives offence.

To people like me, educated in post-war Britain, free speech has been a firm premise of the British way of life. As John Stuart Mill expressed the point:

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

That famous statement is not the last word on the question, but it is the first word and was, during my youth, the received opinion of all educated people. The law, we believed, would protect the heretics, the dissidents and the doubters against any punishments devised to intimidate or silence them, for the very reason that truth and argument are sacred, and must be protected from those who seek to suppress them.

Moreover, public opinion was entirely on the side of the law, ready to shame those who assumed the right to silence their opponents, whatever the matter under discussion, and however extreme or absurd the views expressed.

All that is now changing. Under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, it is an offence to stir up hatred towards religious and racial groups. “Stirring up hatred” is an expression both loaded and undefined. Do I stir up hatred towards a religious group by criticising its beliefs in outspoken terms? Under the terms of the act, I would have to use “threatening words and behaviour” and also intend to stir up hatred.

But is giving offence a reason to convict someone of a crime? The robust English view used to be that the correct response to offensive words is to ignore them, or to answer them with a rebuke. If you invoke the law at all, it should be to protect the one who gives the offence, and not the one who takes it. Now, it seems, it is all the other way round.

Image copyright
ALAMY

Image caption

A 2006 protest in London against Islamophobia

At the time of the attacks on the twin towers, many expressed their shock at the gratuitous murder of 3,000 innocent people, blaming doctrinal Islam for the perversion of the criminals responsible. Immediately a new word entered the public discourse – Islamophobia.

The religious fanaticism of those who had flown into the twin towers and the so-called Islamophobia of their critics were both represented as crimes, hardly distinguishable in their destructiveness. The main purpose of future policy, it was implied, must be to ensure that neither crime is committed again. Pressure mounted to forbid Islamophobia by law – and in its way that is what the Racial and Religious Hatred Act has tried to do.

Ed Miliband promised last April that a future Labour government would make Islamophobia into an aggravated criminal offence, and meanwhile the consequences for a civil servant, a policeman or a teacher of being accused of this fault are serious in the extreme.

Leave a comment for: "Why we should defend the right to be be offensive"

You must be logged in to post a comment.