Friday, 20 February 2015

The Right to be Wrong 3: The Right to be even Wronger

I confess to being slightly confused about the apparently schizophrenic attitude we seem to have towards the concepts of offense and free speech that we have as a society.  A month ago, we proclaimed Charlie Hebdo in Paris as a beacon of free speech and defiance for publishing cartoons of Mohammed, knowing before they did so that a great many people would find them deeply offensive.  This week, there has been widespread condemnation of a group of football supporters, also in Paris, for racist chanting, to the point where they have been banned from their football club, one has been suspended from work, and they all potentially face criminal prosecution.

Now, I have to be very careful here in case it seems that I am in any way supporting these racists morons, or condoning their behaviour on any level at all.  I am not.  I am also aware that there was an element of physical assault involved in the incident, when they blocked a black man from getting on a train, and then physically pushed him off when he did get on.  This is inexcusable, and I am perfectly happy to see them prosecuted for this.  However, I would like to address what to me seems like a strange double standard, in which we agree that people have the right to be offensive, just as long as it’s not us who’s being offended.

The question is whether the men involved have the right to chant racist things in a public place, or say racist things to someone in the full knowledge that they, and anyone else who might hear them will find it deeply offensive.  We can be shocked that they should do so, in this age of equality and given the comparatively high level of education people in the UK and France receive, but I wonder how, in the light of the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, we can say that these people deserve to be prosecuted, banned or suspended from their places of work?

It might be said that Charlie Hebdo was a work of satire, and so different from a group of yobs shouting at people in the street (or, in this case in a train station), but if so, it was (in my opinion) poor satire, and what’s to stop these men from claiming that they were being ‘satirical’ or ‘ironic’?  Artistic merit can’t be brought into play, and is in any case highly subjective.

Nor do I see how the fact that one of these twerps is a racist has any bearing on his ability to work in a financial company.  He wasn’t, to my knowledge, representing the business in any way; he wasn’t wearing their uniform or sporting their logo, and wasn’t present in any sort of official capacity, and so there is no implication that his views reflect those of the company.  I am more than happy for people with such erroneous views to be ‘named and shamed’, ostracised, and mocked in the same way they feel it’s acceptable to mock others, although I’d much rather see them educated as to why their views are so incorrect.  However, for a company to suspend an individual for (vile, offensive) opinions expressed as a private individual away from their place of work is one that I find uncomfortable.  For the football club to ban them makes a little more sense, since they were present as supporters of that club, and their racism can be seen to reflect badly on the club and its supporters as a whole.

I’ve mentioned that there was an element of physical assault to this incident, and this clearly must be punished.  Being offensive might be a right, but physically attacking, or even just shoving, someone is Not On.  But that brings me to the subject of hate crime.  This has been defined as a crime “with an added element of bias against a person's race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”  Now, should this make a difference?  If I punch a man in the face, I have commited the crime of assault.  If I punch a man in the face because he’s black and I hate black people, does this make it worse, as a crime?  It would make me worse as a person, and reflect my ignorance and unthinking prejudice, but should the motivation have any bearing on the severity of the crime?  My victim is no more or less punched in the face, his nose no more or less broken.

The FBI’s policy is that "Hate itself is not a crime - and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties."  But surely by making a ’hate crime’ more serious than a plain crime of the same sort, you’re doing just that?

Now, hopefully it doesn’t need saying that this post isn’t intended as a defence of hatred, which should be rooted out as effectively as possible through education, dialogue and emphasising compassion and empathy.  Obviously we don’t want every public space to become a slanging match between different groups, all yelling their own, potentially offensive opinions, but if we accept that free speech is a right, then we have to accept that it is a right for all, not just the people we agree with.

I actually have a problem with the very concept of ‘rights’, which I will elaborate on in another post, but if one accepts the premise, then one must accept that it applies to all equally.  People should have the right to be offensive, ignorant and unpleasant, even when their offensiveness, ignorance and unpleasantness is aimed at us.  However, as I have quoted before, “to have the right to do something is not at all the same as to be right in doing it”.

It is in educating people, and explaining this, that the answer lies, not in making those opinions subjectively odious to ourselves illegal.  That is the top of a very slippery slope, and one that makes me very uneasy indeed.

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