“He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
– Thomas Paine
I have been struggling with my conscience and with my ideas of liberty, to come to terms with the hate spewed by the Westboro Baptist Church, especially in recent weeks as they expressed their wish to protest at the funerals of the victims at Newtown, and the fundamental principle of free speech; the most important right. It is a real test of personal belief in the beautiful sentiments expressed by people like Mill, or at the beginning of the Age of Reason by my personal hero Thomas Paine; that my right to offend is under attack the moment I restrict anyone else’s right to offend by being offended or upset by words. How do I rationalise the right of someone to offend the innocent and broken relatives of murdered school children, in the most malicious and sickening display of hate speech possible? The Westboro Baptist Church, for me are the ultimate test in my belief in freed expression.
The only way to rationalise my thoughts, is to take away my individual emotion, and focus purely on the abstract. And it is with that, that I have come to the conclusion, that the Westboro Baptist Church should be allowed complete freedom to picket, voice their hate, protest all they want. In addition, others should be allowed to protest against Westboro, to picket them, and to voice their opposition.
I have spoken to many ‘Unite Against Fascism’ members whom appear far more totalitarian than they wish to accept. I spoke to one guy a year ago in London, who had protested outside BBC studios as Nick Griffin was set to appear on the flagship show Question Time. Griffin is the leader of the British National Party; a far right party with ties to neo-nazi groups across the World. Griffin is the most repugnant man in British politics. And I too fell into the trap of totalitarianism in voicing my opposition to his appearance, accepting everything the UAF protester was saying. The Welsh Secretary at the Time Peter Hain voiced his totalitarian principles with:
“The BBC should be ashamed of single-handedly doing a racist, fascist party the biggest favour in its grubby history.”
Having had time to think it over, it seems to me to be equally as repugnant to have supported attempts to silence Griffin simply because Hain and others didn’t like what he had to say. Peter Hain is effectively telling me, as a viewer, that I shouldn’t be allowed to hear Griffin speak. I must automatically dislike what he has to say. I must trust conventional wisdom. He is telling me that he alone is more able to comprehend and analyse Griffin’s statements, whilst i’m not. Like a father, without any sort of justifiable authoritative qualification (being a politician certainly doesn’t qualify him in this way) over me, deciding he knows what is best.
Hain is also politicising the BBC, by subtly hinting that it must only reflect the voice of more centrist viewers. The BBC must reflect secular principles, not partisan principles. By denying Griffin the right to voice his contradictory opinion to mine, I am denying myself the right to form a rounded opinion; to investigate, and to inquire. Griffin once, like David Duke, denied the Holocaust. Now, when States ban the denying of the Holocaust, they are denying the Right to listen to dissenting opinions that might challenge me to both inquire, and solidify, or modify my own. It is almost criminalising the necessity to question. Why do I believe the holocaust happened the way it is consistently documented? I’ve only heard about it from two or three sources. Shouldn’t I be given a plethora of ideas since I have no way of fully accepting just one, given that I wasn’t there to experience it first hand. By accepting the banning of unpopular, and offensive views, I am also harming the Right of others to hear a plethora of views and to educate themselves further. I am institutionalising a way of thinking that exists on the left of centre, whilst criminalising those on the fringes for saying words I do not like. This way, I become a slave to convention. I have learnt that this is unacceptable.
We grow as people when we are challenged.
Benjamin Franklin Bache, in the late 1700s, wrote a newspaper called Aurora. The paper reflected his views, and soon he became staunchly antagonistic toward the Presidential Administration of John Adams, accusing him of ambitions of monarchy and incompetent governance. Bache was arrested and never spoke another word out of place. The Adams administration could therefore go on, unquestioned. John Adams was able to abuse the power of the Constitution, by enacting the Sedition Act. Though it was designed in an atmosphere of fear that the new Republic was under threat from secessionist voices in the Southern States, the Act was actually used to silence critics of the Adams administration whether calling for secession or not. The Act made it an offence to publish:
… against government officials. It hurt political discourse, it made a quasi-Monarch out of Adams, and led to countless imprisonments and fines.
“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
I am however convinced that Westboro as a Church, are child abusers. Substituting teaching their children to be critical, rational, and to think for themselves; for teaching hate, and bigotry and forcing them to hold placards and repeat hate filled mantras that they cannot possible understand at that age, is child abuse. The children are being prevented from freely expressing themselves via systematic thought control and indoctrination.
It is true that whilst people like myself are irritated, disgusted, and offended by the speech spewed by the Westboro Baptist Church, and neo-Nazi’s like Griffin, we are also ignorant to offence caused to others, when for example, we insult, degrade, and belittle religious figures and symbols of faith. I have long been an advocate for the right to blaspheme, and judging by my posts on this blog…. I blaspheme at a rate of about three times a paragraph. It is a sign of intellectual maturity, that we can take offence without resorting to banning words, books, or calling for Salmon Rushdie to be killed for The Satanic Verses. We take offence, and we move on. Or we take offence, and we debate. Many religious people will be just as offended by my characterisation of their deeply held beliefs, as someone else is by the actions of Westboro. If the Pakistani delegate to the UN, who now has the right to publicly seek out and condemn “abuses of free speech, including defamation of religions and prophets” is able to restrict speech based on weak religious conjecture…. shouldn’t someone else have the right to publicly seek out and condemn Koranic abuses against non-believers and women? I am fully aware that I may offend the religious – be them Muslim or Christian – when I suggest Islam and Christianity, whilst having their peaceful merits, have very fundamental totalitarian and fascist principles at their core. For people who consider Islam to be a major part of their lives; insulting or degrading their faith is a sickening act. I respect their Right to be offended and disgusted. Those who call for punishment for anyone who insults their faith, are reflecting the tactics of Peter Hain and the UAF in attempting to silence anyone who fundamentally disagrees with them. If I were to claim that fundamentalist Muslim groups should be banned from, or even extradited for protesting against ‘Western Aggression’, or demanding Shariah for Britain, then I forfeit my Right to claim secularist values, and place myself on the side of totalitarianism.
I can protest, argue, shun, and degrade their view, but I cannot rightly suggest they should be banned from protesting, or throw out of the country. Eliminating what one person considers “hate speech” from public discourse solves nothing. The ideas are still there, they are simply violently repressed. In the case of the Westboro Baptist Church, by protesting the funerals of children killed in such horrific circumstances, they open themselves up to criticism, and actually, for a brief moment, unite both right winged and left winged, both religious and atheist, in condemnation. This is a positive effect of freedom of expression.
Extreme political movements tend to begin, where the freedom to express their views are oppressed. When they are allowed, they open themselves up to criticism, ridicule, and can be swiftly dealt with. The best way to counter hate speech, is to openly debate it, and shame it for the nonsense that it is. It is dangerous to silence dissent.
Words can inspire, they can hurt, they can upset. Without directly calling for violent action, they should not be shackled by convention. Westboro holding a sign with “Thank God for dead soldiers” is disgusting and shameful, Islamic fundamentalist groups calling for Shariah for Britain, Nick Griffin insisting that Muslims cannot be considered British are all offensive ideas to me. But they are not restricting my Rights by their words. The moment that is criminalised as “hate speech” is the moment we advocate the use of force, against none force, against words. Opinion is personal. The use of force cannot change the opinion, in some cases it hardens the opinion, and makes a martyr out of the individual. The use of force against words simply makes sure convention is not tested.
A rather wonderful Islamic writer, head of the Islamic Society for The Promotion of Religious Tolerance, Dr Hesham el Essawy espouses secular principles in a spectacular way:
The manner in which we conduct such dialogue is also important. And how should this be? In goodness, gentleness and tolerance, the Koran says. Each must present his evidence, and each must respect the right of the others not to accept it. “Your job is to pass the message along. Whether they believe or not is none of your concern” God said to His Messenger in the Koran…. What is important, and least emphasised, is the social function of belief, the all important earthly purpose of religion. It is what you do with your belief that should concern one, not the belief itself…. The test of your beliefs, whatever they may be, is in how you treat me….
In this case, it would be wrong to suggest that religion is solely responsible for attacks on free expression. There are certainly many in the religious community that are hardened supporters of free expression, many having tasted the cruelties that come about from restricting basic human rights.
Religion may emphasise a level of loyalty or faith, that makes offence far more likely, and so heightens a desire to silence, but it isn’t responsible for it. It is a state of mind, that seems to afflict those with such strong loyalties but also insecure loyalties, be them religious, cultural, patriotic etc. It is a totalitarian mind set, whether consciously so or not, set in fear of ‘different’. The administration of John Adams as pointed out above, or Stalin’s silencing of any dissenters, or the UAF’s attempts to silence Griffin, or Polpot’s extermination of those he considered ‘intellectuals’, or the lynching of any abolitionists in the Southern States of the US, or any pro-slavery writers in the Union silenced by Lincoln during the Civil War. It is totalitarianism borne out of the fear of ‘different’, a challenge to insecure loyalties. Usually, the anger stems from what might happen, if people hear the dissenters. Will power structures be challenged? Certainly Stalin and Pol Pot worried about this. When it comes to Westboro, I think it is just an emotional defence mechanism. Perhaps we need to be seen to show an outward display of disgust, to insist upon others, or mainly upon ourselves, that we are morally outraged for the second or two that we allow the subject to cross our minds, before we forget all about it and move on to something more inconsequential and easier to intellectually deal with. Either way, if we wish to uphold the values of the enlightenment and secularism – as I do – then we must take the bad and the disgust, with the good and the decent. The balance of the two is what separates us from the uncivilised, and the cowardly.