I detest all forms of racism, sexism and bigotry but have no desire for the state to police the opinions of racists, sexists and bigots. I hold, perhaps naively, to George Orwell’s maxim that liberty, if it means anything, is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
That makes me something of an oddity, apparently.
I say this because it is increasingly unexceptional for the law to be marshalled for the purposes of silencing those whose opinions we find disagreeable. Like so much in politics, this is not done in a clear and fair-minded manner, but is instead cloaked in euphemism and portrayed as an extension of the very freedom it seeks to squash.
Yesterday I took part in a radio debate with a young lady from the Lose the Lads’ Mags campaign. The debate was amicable enough. I felt, however, that my points were not hitting home.
The argument that I rather unsuccessfully tried to convey was the most basic one: that it is not necessary to agree with a point of view to not want to see it suppressed. Like a broken gramophone record I droned on but could see that I was flailing: whatever I said my opponent was convinced that glossy sheets of paper were responsible for ‘fuelling violence’ and ‘underpinning attitudes that promote violence towards women’ – and should therefore be banned (you may notice that both points are irrefutable).
In writing this I do not wish in any way to belittle campaigns which target sexism in the media. Far from it. In fact, I will support any movement which seeks to combat misogyny and – worst of all – rape apologism. However, I stop at the point where this becomes an argument for directly or indirectly suppressing undesirable publications. First, because that approach does not work – people read lads’ mags because they are stupid; lads’ mags do not create stupid people – but equally because a much bigger principle is at stake: do I want to live in a democratic society or not?
Politics is healthiest when people are democrats before they are socialists, conservatives or liberals. It is at its worst when the democratic process is treated like a bus which one may disembark from at the first opportune moment. Free expression is also the most important component of the democratic principle. I would sooner live under dictatorship with free expression than multi-party democracy without it; principally because any autocracy which permitted free expression would soon collapse, whereas a democracy without free speech would resemble a house without plumbing.
Far more significantly than my small-time radio squabble, on Friday parliament agreed to introduce what is effectively state regulation of the press – albeit via royal charter. As someone who grew up venting his spleen at the likes of the Daily Mail (which both my mother and grandmother insisted on buying ‘for the TV guide’) I should be happy. And yet I am not, for it feels as if we have taken the lazy (and sinister) route of trying to control rightwing newspapers because a small part of us has given up on the more arduous task of trying to persuade people we disagree with that they are wrong.
Considering it is now unexceptional to hear of a person being arrested for a tweet, to argue with someone who believes passionately that a magazine should be suppressed, or to hear on the news that control of the press is passing to the state, there is no question that we are becoming, as a society, more intolerant of dissent.
And it is not hard to see the appeal. It is easier, after all, to evoke lawyerly arguments about the ‘legality’ of an opponent’s wrong opinion than to face it head on and risk being wrong.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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