Sunday, 18 January 2015

Is David Cameron not simply arguing for the right to bully?

Like much of what David Cameron says, his response to Pope Francis' condemnation of 'provocation' by Charlie Hebdo in its 'survivors' issue' sounds quite reasonable. Until you think about it for a while.

His argument is that "there is a right to cause offence about someone’s religion" (or anything else) "as long as it’s within the law." In a sense of course this is a truism: if something is not against the law then it is not against the law. However Cameron seemed to be exhorting the right to cause offence as a mark of a free society and seeing the law as the sole arbiter of whether one should exercise that right or not.

You see I think there are two issues here that Cameron and others are dangerously conflating:
1) Should the right to free speech (even where that free speech causes offence to some) be defended? and
2) Should people be encouraged to use their right to free speech to offend others?
For me the answer to the first question is manifestly Yes, but the answer to the second is Absolutely not. Or rather, people should be encouraged to cause offence to those who hold power and dominion over them (or others) and use it unfairly, but to cause offence to no one else.

David Cameron has of course put a caveat into his exhortation of the right to offend, namely that it applies only so far as is allowed within the law. On the face of it, does this not negate any possible danger? Well no. And in fact for me it points up the fundamental issue here.

The fact is that laws are written by those in power, so inevitably they are likely to reflect the morals, attitudes and priorities of those who define them, and this is where the problem lies. In previous generations in this country, when homosexuals constituted an oppressed minority, there were no laws against homophobic insults. So in David Cameron's formulation any right-minded person should have defended the right of small-minded bigots to use terms of homophobic abuse towards anyone they felt was insufficiently macho. The same applies to racial minorities. Would David Cameron have defended the right of B&B owners in the 60s to put up signs saying "No dogs, no blacks, no gypsies"?

Or if you want a more extreme example, there were no laws against anti-semitic language in Nazi Germany (or I imagine in present-day Iran). Should the right of citizens in those jurisdictions to cause offence to people of Jewish heritage be defended?

Thankfully the right of present-day citizens of this country to offend people on the basis of their sexual orientation or racial background is severely curtailed. I am eternally grateful that it has been deemed unacceptable to use the racist words that I know deeply offend many black and asian people or the homophobic language that in the past used to eat away at the self-esteem and confidence of gay people. It would (thankfully) be unthinkable now to tell a black girl who has been called a nigger that the person saying it had the right to free speech and she simply had to live with the offence it caused if she wanted to get by in this country.

So why does the same logic not apply to a young muslim girl who has been hurt and offended by the breaking of one of the central taboos of her religion?

The answer is simple. It is because the views of the muslim community as to what does or does not constitute unacceptable offence are not yet well represented (or even understood) amongst those in power who write our laws. That is not particularly surprising- a few decades ago the same was true of homosexuals or those of black or asian origin.

Yet surely, even before the law deemed it to be unacceptable the right-minded in our society did not defend the right of bigots to use racist or homophobic insults, did they? Yes, people like Bernard Manning peddled their filth to large audiences, but would any prime minister of the day have responded to outrage in the afro-caribbean community with a sanctimonious "there is a right to cause offence ... as long as it’s within the law"? The powers-that-be were guilty of even worse blindness to the offence caused to their society's underclasses than are today's but would they honestly have gone on national television to hail that blindness as a principled commitment to free speech?

The thing is, David Cameron's line is really nothing more than a bully's charter. What he is saying is that until and unless the powers-that-be step in to defend a particular group they are fair game as regards causing offence. He comes close even to encouraging that offence (that abuse) as the defining feature of a free society.

There is (as far as I am aware) no specific law forbidding the causing of offence to Jains- members of an ancient religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living things. Devout Jains wear mesh over their mouths to avoid inhaling and accidentally killing flying insects and walk barefoot to avoid crushing ants and beetles. The death of any living thing is a source of distress to a Jain.

Let us suppose that someone took against Jainism for some reason, and stationed themselves at the door of a Jain temple spraying insecticide in the air and scattering ant-killing powder on the ground. Say they went further and set up a (legal) abattoir next door, for the sole purpose of causing offence to the worshipers. Would David Cameron go on national television to defend that person's right to cause offence and distress in that way?

Myself, I think that one of the key markers of a civilised society is that people behave in a civilised way, whatever the law may or may not permit them to do. I am not so prudish as to wish to outlaw the causing of any offence to anyone, but in a civilised society the boundaries for such causing of offence are drawn not by what is deemed legal by those in power but by what is acceptable within the universal code of human interaction: do as you would be done to. And whilst causing offence is sometimes part of the natural cut-and-thrust of a vibrant society causing distress never should be.

The thing is, the less like oneself another person is the less certain one can be as to where they draw the line between offence and distress. And in such a situation it behooves all of us (and most of all our prime minister) to adopt the precautionary principle. If you are not sure whether what you are saying (or drawing) will cause offence or actual distress, then DON'T DO IT.

Whether it is against the law or not.

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