Tim Farron, in his recent theos talk (full text here) said, ‘in this country and across the world, Liberalism will eat itself. Is eating itself. May already have eaten itself’. Who would have thought that his comments – strikingly accurate and piercing in large chunks – would so quickly be given its own case in point?
In comments that might confer prophetic status on Farron, were it not for the interminable cycle of such stories, he said this:
Maybe ten years ago we thought social media would lead to a greater democracy, greater individual empowerment, the flowering of thousands of unmediated, unfiltered, unspun viewpoints and opinions. How naïve does that sound now? Today social media fuels groupthink, pack mentality and depressing conformity – not to mention a disgraceful lack of civility and decency. The tyrants of opinion have their secret police behind millions of keyboards.
Step forward, almost on cue, Donald Trump. The president of the most powerful nation on earth retweeted a post by a tiny, far-right pseudo-Christian group, Britain First. Here is a screenshot of the offending retweet:
As you can imagine, the internet went into something of a meltdown.
From there, UK diplomats got involved. That’s right, real diplomats because of an ill-considered retweet. From there, The Prime Minister had to ‘make clear’ that Britain First are bad (because we weren’t sure what she thought otherwise) and that the US President shouldn’t like them either. That is despite the fact that Donald Trump almost certainly knows nothing about Britain First other than what he has now learnt; they are a ‘bad’ group whom most people in Britain don’t like.
Following this, a series of interviews were conducted. We now find the Radio 4 Today programme is being hauled over the coals for daring to interview Ann Coulter – a well-known American commentator and Trump supporter – who *shock horror* defended the President and pushed back against Theresa May’s censure. She also appeared in an interview with Good Morning Britain on ITV but I’ve not seen any great pushback on that as yet.
What was ridiculous about the ITV interview was that, immediately after Ann Coulter appeared, the ‘balance’ was provided by Brendan Cox. Cox is the widower of the murdered MP, Jo Cox. His insight was sought because her murderer was reported to have shouted ‘Britain First’ during the killing.
I want to be very clear that what happened to Jo Cox was nothing less than a tragedy perpetrated by an evil man. We can all rightly be shocked and horrified by what took place in her Batley and Spen constituency. But it is wrong to continually refer to ‘the wonderful Jo Cox’ every time anybody mentions hate speech as if that is an end to all discussion and that we should, as a result, severely limit what people are allowed to say. It is nothing short of emotional blackmail by those who want to impede free speech.
The fact of the matter is, Jo Cox was not killed by what somebody said. She was killed because of what somebody did. Clamping down on so-called hate speech will not bring her back and nor will it prevent future such incidents. It actually twitterises the debate. By invoking the name of Jo Cox we immediately deem hate speech (however we define that) to be the cause of such murders and, therefore, offer an easy solution; ban the hate speech. It is the same sort of easy solution that the far-right want to offer by blaming everything on immigrants and non-white people. The knee-jerk response may be different but the underlying attitude is the same. We need easy answers to complex problems and we are going to pin the entire blame on people who use the wrong words or those who are the wrong ethnicity as determined by the one doing the finger-pointing.
If you don’t know anything about Britain First, you can read a little about them here. They are a far-right group that particularly foments anti-Islamic feeling. The group typically target places, like Oldham, that have a long history of local racial tensions. They often hold high-profile, militaristic rallies whenever there is a story in the news that can be used or turned to vilify Asian people, especially Muslims.
Britain First are so small and insignificant, made up of the last vestiges of the defunct and bankrupt British National Party, that Donald Trump has probably never heard of them. Indeed, few British people will know anything about them. Their significance does not warrant the publicity that a retweet, almost certainly based on no allegiance to the group itself, has produced. Ironically, those most outraged by the retweet are the ones who have given it the widest possible publicity.
I, on the other hand, minister in a town in which Britain First are active. Moreover, as our church is regular in open-air street preaching, we have seen Britain First out campaigning. What is more, given Britain First’s pseudo-Christianity, we have seen the sharp end of their public rallies. We have seen the fury that they can stir up – understandable anger at their vile and racist ideology – and have been asked whether we are ‘with them’ simply because we are Christians. We hate what they do because they bring the gospel – which they patently don’t believe – into disrepute by claiming to be Christian when they are no such thing and we hate their anti-gospel racism. Given all of that, you might imagine I would be first in line to call for their restriction. But I flatly refuse to do that.
To return to Tim Farron’s theos lecture, he states:
If you say you favour diversity and pluralism, then you must oppose all attempts at assimilation and forced conformity. You may like the idea that people will think the same as you, but you must not aim to build a society where you engineer that via legal or social pressure. And it is especially on this latter point that liberalism is at risk.
Now, I am not a Liberal but a Socialist. However, like Farron, I do favour diversity and pluralism. Like Farron, my belief in permitting nonconformity derives directly from my noncomformist background. I believe Christianity, with its concept of the imago dei, demands equality of value for each individual which should be borne out in rights common to all, not competing rights and special protections for some. I also believe, with Farron, that to apply Biblical law to civil law cuts against the very purpose with which the Bible itself tells us the law was given (Rom 3:20 cf. 5:20). With Farron and Edmund Burke, I agree that ‘all the laws against the Godless have not saved one single soul’. It follows, then, that people should be free to not conform. They should be free to so act, think and say things so long as they do not interfere with the common rights of others (though there is a discussion, for another day, as to what those rights ought to be).
The problem we have before us here is a group of so-called liberal people failing to act in any way that could be considered liberal. President Trump is being pilloried for sharing a video. A full-blown diplomatic incident has occurred as a result of a thought he has expressed, regardless of whether we like the thought or not. The BBC have received complaints for daring to give a platform to someone defending the President while it is presumably OK to just have voices that condemn him.
The righteous anger is justified by an emotive pointing to Jo Cox, as if that somehow means all speech we don’t like should be shut down. All the while nobody is addressing the elephant in the room: Britain First are a legal organisation. Questions then arise as to whether they should be? Further questions must then be asked as to what the limits of acceptable speech ought to be? It seems we are on the fasttrack to one ignorant retweet undoing the centuries-old freedom of speech.
As Tim Farron so prophetically put it just a couple of days ago:
The cultural leaders of our day have made the arrogant and fatal assumption that we have these shared liberal values, and have sought to enforce them via Mill’s hated tyranny of opinion and the consequences are… well, Trump and Brexit to name two!
Because every tyrant feeds and inspires the resistance that threatens to overthrow them, as a result of their own arrogance. The handwringing elite in our politics, media, education and business are as guilty of creating the reactionary politics of populism as much as Murdoch and Dacre. Why? Because they / we assumed everyone thought the same, and dismissed with ridicule and contempt any sign of eccentricity.
What we are seeing now is the chickens coming home to roost. As Farron rightly averred, ‘We do NOT have shared values and the assumption that we do is dangerous’. It is incumbent on us to acknowledge this fact and to do all we can to support nonconformity rather than coerced uniformity.
What we are seeing now is the hypocritical response of a so-called liberal elite claiming to support basic freedom for all while making it abundantly clear that any deviation from the cultural orthodoxy they have enforced will be dealt with accordingly. The creed is no longer liberal but more closely resembles the fake Ezekiel 25:17 passage quoted by Jules – the character played by Samuel L. Jackson – in Pulp Fiction:
Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers.
This is how liberals now view themselves. They are the shepherds caring for the defenceless and will bring their vengeance against any who threaten those they deem helpless which, coincidentally, marries up perfectly with those who threaten their hegemony. The liberals have, indeed, made themselves God and, in the process, destroyed liberalism itself.
Thank you for your excellent article. We must indeed not destroy freedom of speech in the name of the same.
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