Taking an axe to hate speech laws

As you can probably imagine, as a raving Socialist of probably the worst kind, there isn’t always a lot of crossover between harder right Tories and stuff I think. But it probably does say something about your objectivity if you can’t find anything at all to like about those with whom you politically disagree. After all, even those who hold to your most hated political position (whatever that happens to be) will sometimes do what is good and right, no matter how much you may dislike them or other things they stand for.

There are occasional examples of people who seem to take every opposing view to the ones you hold. Those who are socially liberal on all the things you wish they were more conservative on and socially conservative where you hoped for more social liberalism. Or, you find they may be good on social issues (as far as you judge it) but woeful on economic ones (however you judge that). One of the benefits of British politics of yore, back in the days when there were significant discernible differences between the major parties, even if your party of choice didn’t get in – whichever it was – the chances were that there was something the government would do that you wish your own party would, even if it wasn’t judged the most important voting matter that led you to go elsewhere.

Two cases in point come with this current government. There was, of course, the issue of Brexit. This pushed many to vote Tory because Labour was intent on pushing cultural issues as of first importance – that said little to the concerns of many – and were openly insisting that they would seek to overturn the result of the EU referendum which was supported most strongly in those so-called ‘red wall’ areas. Whilst few in those areas would consider the Conservatives their party of choice, at the last election, the issue of Brexit proved decisive. Despite my support for Brexit, I didn’t vote Conservative because of other overriding concerns – largely the same concerns I have always had that meant I never voted for them before either. But I do recognise that their stance on Brexit was far better than Labour’s and I am grateful, on that issue, that they honoured the democratic mandate.

But the other thing for which I am grateful comes in this story from the Daily Express. I must admit to having a fairly dim view of Priti Patel in general. Her position on the many asylum seekers I count among my friends who are in membership in my church are in no way helped by her. I have equally never been a fan of her approach to immigration more broadly and her general hang ’em and flog ’em position on just about everything is not the sort of policy I like. There is some considerable blue sky between me and Ms Patel.

But one issue on which I think she is entirely right – one thing for which I can be thankful – is her recent statement that she intends to take an axe to various hate speech laws. The Express report:

A source in the Home Office has confirmed that Home Secretary Priti Patel is looking at how to reform hate speech laws which were brought in by Tony Blair’s Labour government to initially tackle racism and homophobia. It is understood that officials have spoken to MPs about changes with many Tory backbenchers pushing for a complete repeal of the laws. 

Of course, that isn’t because I think ‘hate speech’ is good. I am not in favour of people being rude and unpleasant to people who are different to them. I don’t like racism, I don’t like most of the phobic-type comments that get called such, I don’t like people who are vile about people’s deeply held beliefs. But I am broadly in favour of not criminalising thoughts and words, no matter how offensive some of us may find them.

Human rights should be just that – applicable to all humans equally. It is not equitable or fair for certain groups to have extra rights that cannot apply to others nor to have their rights privileged against other groups. If a right cannot apply to all equally, it ceases to be a right and becomes a privilege. Creating protected groups and characteristics, who are specially insulated from words that they find offensive or insulting has led us down some dangerous paths. At the same time, we cannot simply outline all words and opinions that anyone could find offensive or insulting because there will always be someone who take offence at something no matter how mildly or bland. It is for this reason that we, historically, didn’t legislate to protect feelings.

That is not to say that we are happy about everything anyone utters. It doesn’t mean we applaud vile language and rudeness. There is a difference between what people should think and say and what is permissible for people to think and say. All words and thoughts should be permissible, but that doesn’t mean your permission to utter them means should lead you to avail yourself of that right.

Those on the left used to think very clearly on these issues. Baptists have also always had – for obvious reasons – a fairly strong sense of why this is so important. As a leftwing Baptist, I have always been almost absolutist in terms of free speech. I am convinced we took a *ahem* left turn when Blair began infringing free speech with a raft of hate speech laws. It was also under him that civil liberties began to be infringed in the name of anti-terror. It was the right-wing of the Conservative Party, the likes of David Davies, and a handful of Liberal Democrats under Charles Kennedy who were pushing hard against these things. Alas, the Liberal Democrats have since followed suit and are more authoritarian on these issues than Labour of the early 2000s and the majority of Conservatives have not been troubled enough to want any of them rolling back. The authoritarianism that marked the Thatcher era was still prevalent. It was only a handful of consistent right-wingers who continued to make any noise about it, but their UKIPpy tendencies made them easy to dismiss as nutbars who didn’t need to be paid attention.

As it is, we have begun to see the logical end of these authoritarian laws some 20 years later (usually about as long as the full-effects of a policy to tell). Increasingly, the general public are seeing the problems with this policing of language. As a minister of the gospel – one who does go and preach in public, who broadcasts messages and preaches in my church – the increased policing of words and language has been a constant concern. It has been a repeated refrain on this blog that the only certainty we have that we can say whatever we want is that we allow others to say the things they want too.

So, whilst I am no great fan of Priti Patel and didn’t vote for the Conservatives, I think we can be broadly grateful for moves like this. Some will argue that this will embolden racists and the like. I suppose that is possible. But those views will not surface newly, but were always there. The only difference is that at the moment they may be hidden whereas then it won’t be. But their ability to say these things freely will also give us the opportunity to tell them exactly what the rest of us think about their repugnant views.