It's not very often I can be provoked by an idiot like Katie Hopkins. In recent months I have developed a lizard-like rationality because it's a useful tool. If there is a raging debate I find it more edifying to let it rage, sit back and watch and look for the missing element. In most cases both sides can be, and frequently are, flat wrong.
Lately I've become increasingly sceptical of free speech absolutism. Free speech doesn't exist, and it never will. We have plenty valid restrictions already such as restrictions on reporting that would prejudice a fair trail, contempt of court (for similar reasons) - and slander and libel laws. I think they serve a function in that people's livelihoods and reputations can be destroyed by wilful and malicious lying. That in itself is an excess of speech. All other offences are judged by their intent and if the intent is to cause harm by deed or by word then there is a case to answer.
Absolutism in any context is the lazy way out of a debate. With absolutes there are no grey areas, no complexities and no reason to think. And that's how most people like things. The notion that we should have unfettered free speech is one gaining traction and hasn't been subjected to any serious scrutiny. Writing in the Independent, Simon Danczuk spells it out.
Last week she attacked me on Twitter for attending a small ceremony to mark National Pakistan Day. I attend lots of events likes these, whether it be to mark St Patricks Day or remember the Ukrainian Holodomor. Some of the same people who attended the Pakistan flag raising will also be at the Saint George’s Day English flag raising ceremony next month. This is the nature of representing a diverse community, but we’ve been doing this for years and had no complaints.He remarks further that "The problem is that Hopkins has never sat down with a group of taxi drivers who have been the subject of hate attacks just because they’re of Pakistani origin. She doesn’t know of the stories of innocent people being stabbed in the face and scarred for life." I urge you to read the whole article. As a Bradford man, this smells about right to me.
That all changed following Katie’s comments, which pointedly linked the Pakistan flag to paedophilia. Employing her usual hateful and provocative shtick she went on to demand whether the nine men convicted in Rochdale of child grooming and sexual offences in 2012 were “my friends”. More abuse from Katie followed before she finished with a promise to come to Rochdale and “explain why no one messes with our white girls”.
It would be easy to dismiss this as the vacuous posturing of an ill-informed pundit except my timeline suddenly became filled with a deluge of racist bile from Katie’s supporters. Soon I was getting threats from the EDL. A far right group called the North West Infidels suddenly announced they would be marching on our town and the Internet was quickly awash with intolerant abuse directed towards anyone of Pakistani origin in our town.
The free speech absolutists have it that the establishment censors in order to protect the masses from dangerous ideas. It doesn't. If you want to make a case based on faith or religion, one is perfectly at liberty to do so if approached in an adult fashion. This is not what Kaite Hopkins has done. Her incendiary remarks are designed to cause outrage among her fellow bigots and in a Northern slum, where education is poor, with a large Muslim population and a strong constituency of what we call the far right, misrepresenting Danczuk in such an opportunist fashion greenlights bigotry. For this I feel she must be held accountable.
Society regulates things for reasons of mutual access to shared space and public safety. It does not mean we are not free to do most things as we please, but it is on the understanding that in public one must be mindful of others and the consequences of your actions. If that applies to actions, I see no reason why it shouldn't apply to speech.
Words have power. Moreover, words can be deeds. If you know what the consequences of your words will be, and you know what the reaction will be, and you know full well someone could get hurt by saying such things then you have converted speech into a deed. This is what we call incitement.
The regulation of speech does not a suppress a thought, it merely forces one in public to be mindful of how something is said and where. Go into a rough pub in Glasgow and aggressively tell a big fat bloke in a string vest that his wife is a pig in knickers and is probably his sister, then you'll get glassed. Even the the most conservative judge in the country is not going to show you a great deal of sympathy. This is because we know that certain words spoken in a certain way have highly probably of consequences, and to an extent you take a share in the blame.
If we say that speech is wholly free of consequence I would be free of responsibility for finding a weak minded person, undermining their confidence, controlling them and intentionally driving them to suicide. The decision to end their life is theirs. But that's free speech right?
The fact is that while we are all moral agents, there are degrees of intelligence, there are degrees of maturity and there are degrees of stability, and when such things are known to be low, wilful exploitation of such is is a calculated and predatory means of committing an act through others over whom you have control.
By saying speech does not have limits in civil society you are saying words have no consequences - thus no power - yet we know the pen is mightier than the sword. The old trope about shouting fire in a crowded theatre is a mere thought exercise. Whoever is trampling other theatre goers is responsible for their own actions. But the guy who shouted fire is still a scumbag and shares in the responsibility for the chain of events. But then in Britain, if someone does shout fire in a crowded theatre, we would see an orderly queue for the exit. That dynamic changes if someone shouts that a bomb is about to go off. The reaction is predictable, thus the consequence is calculated, thus the motive malicious.
At the very heart of those seemingly elusive British values is how we hand out punishment in the courts. Very often we look upon liberal judges as though they were from another planet, but as citizens we have unrealistic uncomprehending demands of our legals system and in context of the crime, the motives and the context dictate the sentence or whether an offence has even been committed. And that same equation should apply to speech in the public domain. If the individual is aware of the consequences and calculates words to that effect then it is a malicious act - not the exercise of free speech.
I don't think all people are stupid and bigoted and need to be protected from dangerous ideas. But rather a lot are. And they do stupid and bigoted things. They can be manipulated and goaded and they can do dangerous things so we have a framework to protect against that. We have a framework to protect most people from the minority of stupid and dangerous drivers - where most break the law, but the authorities have the tools available to deal with the most egregious and dangerous cases where the context matters. Why should that not apply to speech?
Civic society is about boundaries in the public sphere. It is loosely defined and lightly enforced, but it exists to curb the wilful excesses calculated to cause harm. I don't see what is especially controversial about that. In the real world, you are accountable for the things you say as well as the things you do. To throw in a verbal grenade and shrug "not me guv" is a total cop out. To assume all humans are equal moral agents and that speech is free of consequence is to deny the complexity and variety of mankind and the power of words to destroy.