Demagoguery and Freedom of Expression

Have you ever been offended by something someone has said, and as a result, have you ever wanted to silence them? The temptation to ‘shut up’ those we disagree with is exceptionally high, yet such a practice triggers many controversies.

Let’s start by deducing whether you should have the freedom to say what you want. Most of us will feel fairly entitled in this matter and will feel that your own freedom of expression should be respected.  Now how about that nasty person over there that you can’t stand… you know, the one who gets under your skin, who epitomises all the values you hate, the one you find especially obnoxious… You know, the one that you feel schadenfreude towards when they are made a fool of. Should they have freedom of expression? More of us will be less willing to bestow the same freedoms for them that we wish for ourselves. Why is that?

In a world of subjectivities, the chances of not liking someone (based on what they’ve said or who they are) varies from 100% to 100%. We are all capable of being one (or many) of the following: harsh, bigoted (sexist, racist, homophobic, ageist, classist, an intellectual snob and/or a religious bigot), getting personal, slandering, prejudiced, malicious, marginalising, humiliating, offensive, intolerant, scapegoating and stigmatising, to name just a few; and we don’t have absolute power and control of how people express themselves.

One approach would be to criminalise forms of bigotry – from repellent ‘pick up artists’ (Julien Blanc banned from the UK) and those with ‘toxic’ rhetoric (Dapper Laughs previously slammed for his unironic, misogynistic comedy stand-up routine). However, very little can be done regarding odious speech. The grey areas include trolling, hate speech and defamation, which become more overt with anything deemed extreme or abusive. ‘Inciting’ has become another buzz word, which is obscenely tricky to empirically define. When a bigoted attitude becomes a damaging and unlawful action that is when lawful process can intervene. Until then, liberties remain, and this can be frustrating when it grates against our trained understanding of what we think is right and wrong, ethical and unethical, good and evil, moral and immoral.

A few years ago, Nick Griffin spoke at Oxford University. This led to disruptive (but peaceful) protesting against the BNP party leader having a platform to speak. (Admittedly, ‘platforms of speech’ is another grey area with a different context to ‘freedom of speech’). Many felt that his attitude to immigration and his previous membership with the National Front meant that he was a dangerous racist. I would strongly disagree with the BNP, the EDL and other far-right nationalist outfits.

However, I am reminded of Noam Chomsky’s response when protesters were attempting to criminalise Ernst Zundel, a Holocaust denier and Nazi sympathiser, for his “hate speech”. Liberal/progressive lefty Chomsky paradoxically defended him, and so people assumed that Chomsky was also a Nazi sympathiser. On the contrary, the Jewish Chomsky found Zundel’s speech totally odious and abhorrent but explained how criminalising a non-violent bigot like Zundel would harm freedom of expression as a whole – where systems of power could simply imprison someone for having a controversial opinion.

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” – Noam Chomsky

The nature of subjectivity, means that everyone’s ‘extreme’ might have a different interpretation. The clichéd idiom resounds: “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. How can you legislate for what speech is and is not odious speech when ideological interpretations can have such a vast parity? Is there a difference between outright crime and odious speech?

In 1950s America, the Republican Senator McCarthy, set out to rid the world of Communism. Within the context of the Cold War, he believed that Communist affectations were the cause of the greatest threat to society and felt there were too many sympathisers of this cause in the US. His approach was to censor any publicised sympathy towards hard-left ideological thinking. He charged various people with communism, communist sympathies, disloyalty or homosexuality to attack a number of politicians inside and outside of government. Dalton Trumbo (a famous playwright who won two Oscars under a pseudonym during Hollywood’s Studio System Era where alleged Communist sympathisers were blacklisted) would be a prime example.

This intimidation was an attempt to criminalise left-wing thinking and in particular, left-wing public speech. Centre-left thinkers could also be considered dangerous within this orthodoxy. Detractors of McCarthy would call this a “witch-hunt”, as the vast majority of leftists prefer a peaceful, egalitarian, democratic construct now deemed socialism. These were not Stalinists or Maoists committing empirically provable humanitarian atrocities; these were regular schmoes trying to figure out how equality should work in practice. The subjectivity of what “extremism” means to a specific person, makes the world of criminalising free speech a very murky one. We are clearly not in the austere, censored times of expression found in 1950s America.

In today’s political climate, I much prefer socialist Bernie Sanders to nationalist Donald Trump, Democrat progressive Hillary Clinton to Republican Ted Cruz, Labour socialist Jeremy Corbyn to Conservative David Cameron, the EU to UKIP… Yes, I even think Kanye West would make a better president than Donald Trump. That’s right, Kanye has announced his candidacy for the 2020 election race. Both Trump and West are a pair of loose cannons, but I would still find Kanye less insufferable as POTUS!

In Kanye’s defence, he is a musical genius up there with the likes of Kendrick Lamar; a wordsmith and music producer of the highest order in the genre of hip-hop that continues to re-invent itself in manifold ways. So despite the fact he would be a liability in such a high position of political power, I still prefer his ideology to that of Trump! Kanye is a loveable rogue whose misadventures (where he has a habit of putting his foot in it), I certainly have sympathy for; whilst Trump is actually dangerous.

Should Donald Trump be banned from the UK as some form of poetic justice for his political agenda to ban all Mexicans and Islamic people from the US?

When it comes to a demagogue like Donald (who is definitely outside my Overton Window – which is defined as the ‘acceptable frame of debate’), whose opinions I find damaging and abhorrent, I would still not ban his speech.

It echoes that iconic idiom (arguably Voltaire’s) that “I may disagree with what you have to say but I defend your right to say it.” So then the question that remains is: do we only believe in our freedom of expression and everyone’s we agree with, or is everyone included within this premise?

Think of the Human Rights Act (enshrined in EU law) and the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which both support freedom of expression as a foundational principle of societal interaction. To protect one’s own freedom, we must protect the freedom of others, even if disliked.

The potential Tory leader, Theresa May, wishes to add ‘hate speech’ within policies on extremism. According to the Human Rights Act and the First Amendment, this is murky at best. What can be identified as ‘hate speech’? It reminds me of subjectivities regarding ‘trolling’. Do we end up criminalising political opponents who may be perfectly peaceful, but according to whoever is in power, is suddenly deemed ‘extreme’? This is why vague definitions need to be countered in aid of a prevailing freedom of expression.

For democracy to truly work, we also need to protect those whose opinions we find odious – so as much as I can’t stand Donald Trump, I wouldn’t ban him outright. I would simply campaign assertively against his platform of speech. An open playing field is hard to maintain but is also crucial. Arbiters of opinion can have a deeply negative effect on the liberties we aim to uphold as a society . We have freedom of speech, freedom to be offended, freedom to counter, freedom to persuade, and have the opportunity to use our communicative skills in aid of democracy.

And as for what God thinks about all of this…golly! I’ll have to deconstruct it theologically in another blog. If you have actually managed to get to the end of this discursive monstrosity, I heartily commend you.

Simon Cole-Savidge

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