Finally, a fashionable case of free speech we can get behind which speaks into our problem

Yesterday, I wrote about the case of Hatun Tash and her wrongful arrest by the Metropolitan Police. The issue in that case was impediments to free speech and protecting those threatening actual violence.

By some coincidence, also on Friday, a story appeared next to that on in The Times. It concerned a Chinese diplomat – Zheng Xiyuan – who was filmed attacking a Pro-Democracy campaigner in Manchester. The consul-general argued, ‘He was abusing my country, my leader, I think it’s my duty.’ And so, just like that, he and other dragged a peaceful pro-democracy campaigner into the consulate grounds and began to beat him. Interestingly, in this case, a foreign office minister announced in the House of Common that “diplomatic consequences” would follow.

What is interesting is the different reactions to the respective cases. In both, someone is peacefully – even if forcefully or colourfully – espousing certain views. In both cases, a larger group either threaten violence or carry out physical violence. Yet in one case, it is the speaker who is dragged away and arrested by police and in the other it is the larger group perpetrating the violence who come under sanction.

The difference, so far as I can tell, is to do with the specific views and opinions being proffered. In the first case, deeply unfashionable Christian views are in view. Views that the majority of people in the UK no longer hold. What is more, the biblical claims to exclusivity have a tendency not to be well received by those who stand outside of Christ. In the second case, the views being stated are pro-democracy views. And who in the West doesn’t like democracy? Anti-democracy is not a value many people in the UK would claim to own. Even those people typically accused of being anti-democratic want to insist they’re not. It’s hardly a label anyone would want to wear.

The problem here is when we determine which views are acceptable and which aren’t. If we only allow those views with which we are in sympathy, what do we do when the majority begin to find our particular views outmoded, offensive or even dangerous? Unless we want to insist in law, enforced by the police, that people can only utter the blandest of the bland cultural orthodoxies and nothing more, we have to have a firmer ground than merely allowing views with which we are in sympathy.

Most people ostensibly acknowledge this. They insist they are happy with a range of views that they aren’t sympathetic too. But even then, they tend to draw the line at things they find deeply offensive. And so, whilst they are willing to tolerate views they don’t hold, they are not prepared to accept views that go well beyond what they deem ultimately acceptable. The problem being, we are still making ourselves the arbiters of what is wrong-but-acceptable. We are still working within the bounds of orthodoxy. These are orthodox disagreements; these are unacceptable forms of hate speech. But unless our understanding of free speech extends even to that which we find deeply objectionable, grossly offensive are utterly horrible, we are still ultimately only permitting views with which we are fundamentally comfortable.

But free speech means very little unless it includes the right to say deeply unfashionable, offensive, annoying and objectionable things. What I deem acceptable should not be a grounds to determine what you can or cannot say. Rather, what I deem acceptable should be a grounds for what I choose to say in response to whatever you might have said. If we want to protect our right to agree or disagree, to voice our outrage and offence even, then we have to defend other’s right to say what we might deem outrageous and offensive. Otherwise we can kiss goodbye to our right to say anything heterodox or non-mainstream. We may even have to say goodbye to what is currently mainstream but, in a few years time, is deemed verboted. What we certainly don’t want to do is saw off the branch we are sitting on because that never ends well.