Monday, 2 February 2015

Freedom, Trust and Responsibility

Continuing to think about the questions of free speech and its responsible use, I thought I would clarify something that I’ve hinted at or mentioned in passing to or three times in previous posts, and that’s my attitude towards laws against inciting religious or racial hatred, or hatred at all for that matter.

My first thought when presented with these concepts was “Great idea!  Speech should be free, but clearly persuading people to commit acts of violence is not on!”  But that’s not what these laws mean.  Incitement to violence is a crime, and, I think, rightly so, but inciting hatred?  I have become convinced that making this illegal isn’t right.  Don’t get me wrong, hatred is a terrible thing, both for the hated and (perhaps especially) for the hater.  However, stopping incitement of hatred is not the same as stopping hatred itself.  People shouldn’t hate, not because they’re not allowed to (or rather because they’re not allowed to speak or act on it), but because they’ve seen that there is no reason to.

For me, the question of an open society, and of having an open mind, is that all ideas be allowed to sink or float on their own merits.  It is true that some ideas are more subjective than others, others are less so.  The point is that any idea should be allowed to be aired, and people have the right to decide whether or not they think it makes sense.

A few years ago, Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party was to appear on Question time.  The organisation Unite Against Fascism campaigned to prevent him from being allowed to air his opinions on national television, and tried to physically prevent him from entering the BBC building.  I can only assume that their name is meant ironically.  Happily, the BBC stuck to its guns and allowed Nick Griffin to speak.  As expected, when he did so, he showed himself up for the ignorant, unpleasant little man he is.  His ideas were permitted to be aired in public, and taken on their own merits, which were very few indeed.

If I stand on a soap box in the middle of the street, and cry out loud and clear that all people who make their porridge with water, salt and pepper (ick!) are vile sub-human morlocks who deserve to be stoned to death, I will rightly be judged to be a blithering idiot, and my opinions given the scant credence they deserve.  If I cry out that all black people are sub-humans that deserve to be subjugated, then my views should be treated in exactly the same way.  That is, they should be able to be aired, considered and judged on their own merits (in this case, none whatsoever).  Such opinions are certainly offensive, but they are also completely idiotic.  Should they be illegal though?  If I produce a radio broadcast trying to persuade people that Methodists are all insane and evil fanatics who ought to be swept up into ghettoes and not allowed out, my views should again be considered and judged on their merit or lack thereof.  For my own good, I should probably then be committed to a reasonably secure institution.  Bur should there be a law against being a blithering idiot or a frothing lunatic?  Does using the term ‘lunatic’ constitute hate-speech against people with mental health problems?  If it does, should that be illegal?

I’ve said that incitement to violence is rightly a crime, but I’m now not even sure of that.  No matter how persuasive I can be, am I ultimately responsible for someone else’s actions?  If I told you to go and kill the first blonde person you meet, and you do so, am I responsible for your actions?  In the case of someone who is emotionally or mentally vulnerable, and therefore isn’t necessarily fully responsible for their own actions, then yes, possibly.  For most people though?

Ultimately, what this comes down to is whether or not we think that human beings can be permitted the responsibility to make their own decisions.  Do we trust people to be able to listen to a wide variety of conflicting theories and opinions and beliefs, and judge them as objectively as it is possible for us to do, weigh their flaws and merits and come to a reasonable conclusion?  Can we trust people to listen to the imam who preaches death to non-Muslims, the pastor who preaches death to homosexuals, the imbecile preaching death to salt-and-pepper-porridge-eaters, and expect them to be able to say ‘You’re an idiot’?  Not because they feel pressured into saying it, but because that’s what they actually think, and are not afraid to say it.

Take it a step further.  We talk about ‘freedom’.  Can people be trusted to be free at all?  Can we trust people to use their freedom responsibly?  If we can’t, then why do we hold the concept of freedom so highly?

I am an idealist, especially when it comes to human nature.  I believe that we can be trusted, but only if we ensure that people are able to hear all the arguments, in every direction, not some sanitised and carefully filtered version of the world, in which speech is limited only to what we agree with, or don’t find offensive.  The case of Nick Griffin ably demonstrated the adage ‘remain silent and be thought a fool, or open your mouth and remove all doubt’.  We need to allow every fool to open their mouth and allow people to see them for what they are.

That’s my opinion anyway, but I trust you to take it or leave it on its own merits.

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