In Defence of Offence

It’s sad that, after my last post, this one should largely be inspired by a very different and rather unpleasant gathering of people and that, in a sense, it should be a defence of such awful people.

Do something!

You can’t blame people, though. Whether it’s a van driven by a Wahhabist terrorist or a car driven by a white supremacist, it’s only natural to demand something be done. Indeed, something must be done. These things shouldn’t be happening.

Sadly, too many people leap immediately to the extreme that these hatemongers want. They want an end to tolerance and free speech. They want to undermine our freedoms and make us turn on one another. That way they get their religious conflict or race war. We mustn’t give it to them.

It certainly true that there seems to be a paradox at the heart of tolerance. You may have seen the cartoon doing the rounds: If we’re tolerant of intolerant people, it allows them to gather the strength to impose their intolerance upon us, destroying tolerance. Thus, it is argued, we can only safeguard tolerance by being intolerant of the intolerant. That’s great if your idea of tolerance is stifling all conflicting ideas, but that’s more usually called fascism or oppression.

Yes, tolerance and freedom make it harder to combat threats, just as pacifism can leave you prey to the violent and honesty can leave you disadvantaged against liars. But, abandoning principles achieves nothing. There’s no point to defending freedom if doing so erodes the very freedoms you’re defending. Embracing violence and lies to combat those who are violent and lie only makes the world a worse place. That’s why hatemongers and terrorists behave the way they do. Our responses to them frequently achieve the ends they seek.

Tolerating the Intolerant?

So, does that mean we just sit back and tolerate hate? Can racists abuse people in the street and get away with it? Can terrorists plot with impunity? Of course not!

We are primarily talking about freedom of expression here. (For ease, I’ll refer to it as freedom of speech, but it does, of course, cover things like the freedom to write what you wish, to protest, to hold opinions and such.) Such freedom is the foundation of all other freedoms. But, while such freedom is, in one sense, unlimited, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have boundaries. It is the failure to grasp this that features in the straw-man arguments of those who demand we curtail freedom of speech.

You have the right to say whatever you wish. That is why, at the beginning of this post, I say I am, in one sense, defending the right of white supremacists to say what they wish. They do. But, there are limits, which is why, in another sense, I’m not.

Wait! Limits? Doesn’t that mean I’m contradicting myself? Haven’t I just said people can say whatever they want? Yes, I did, and they can. The limits do not affect their right to speak, but refer to its consequences. You have the right to say whatever you wish, but you do not have the right to be listened to. People are free to block or unfriend you Facebook. People are free not to read your blog. People are free to change the channel and watch something else. People are free to not buy your book. A right to speak doesn’t guarantee an audience.

Nor is there a right to avoid a response. We are entitled to provide counter-arguments, to point out flaws, to present alternatives. Of course, just as with anyone, we are not guaranteed they will listen to us, but we do have the right to present our case.

Nor does the freedom of speech provide protection from consequences. If you advocate illegal behaviour, such as encouraging violence, prosecution is not a violation of your rights. If you abuse someone (or, in the broader sense of expression, assault someone), prosecution is not a violation of your rights. Note that this doesn’t mean you cannot advocate a change in the law (such as supporting the death penalty, wanting to ban homosexuality or seeking the legalisation of drug use) as long as you aren’t advocating doing so in an illegal manner (such as rigging elections or overthrowing the government) or calling for lynch law or lawbreaking in opposition to the law. Peaceful protests are fine, riots are not.

(I’ll set aside the consequences stemming from the responses of others as things like the justifiability of boycotts are complicated and go beyond the scope of this post and have been addressed by me in the past.)

If we properly enforce the law to protect people against violence and abuse, and if we oppose hate with counter-arguments and the provision of good examples, tolerance and freedom succeed. It’s not easy, of course, which is why so many people would rather cede their freedom for an illusion of safety.

The Threat to Freedom

Ironically, trying to quash freedom of speech often has the opposite of the intended consequences as it polarises opinion and people who might have moderate views can be pushed towards an extreme when either their views were legitimate (for example, in the Confederate statues case, people who don’t agree with the airbrushing of history or people whose relatives were commemorated on memorials to Confederate soldiers but aren’t racist) and amenable to compromise (such as putting the statues in museums) or whose views are unpleasant but mild (casual racists and the like) and who can potentially be persuaded out of such views if addressed logically and without rancour.

Also, by suppressing freedom of speech, it becomes much harder to monitor and counter unpleasant views. People don’t stop thinking unpleasant thoughts, they just move out of sight and become more cautious and, then, one day, resurface and catch us by surprise.

But, most of all, quashing freedom of speech turns you into a fascist. It’s become something of a meme that “we shouldn’t have to explain that the people who oppose Nazis are better than Nazis.” Apparently, most people have forgotten that Stalin opposed Nazism. Sometimes, those who fight Nazis are just as bad as Nazis, they just have a different agenda, and we need to be able to tell the difference between them and good people. Otherwise, we inaugurate a tyranny as bad as the one we thought we were fighting…

In Defence of Offence

I’ll continue to defend the rights of others to defend my own, even if it means defending those who view me as evil, stupid or subhuman. But, then, as I’ve said before, if it comes down to it, I’d rather have someone living next door who hated me, but left me alone, than someone who professed to like me, but kept interfering in my life. Without freedom, we have nothing and we must continue to defend it against threats from all sides.

In future, I hope I’ll get to write more about people who are like the Ahmadiya than those who are like the Wahhabists.

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  1. […] I originally planned to write this post some time ago, when Tim Farron was forced out as leader of the UK’s Liberal Democrats, but it fits, sadly, as a companion piece to my last one. […]



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