Allan Massie: Free speech cannot become poison

The English Defence League protest outside Downing Street. Picture: Getty
The English Defence League protest outside Downing Street. Picture: Getty
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With every opinion comes responsibility, talk of radical imams and attacking mosques demands that we police ourselves, writes Allan Massie

There is a problem about free speech. People demand it for themselves and for those with whom they agree, but many would deny it to those whose opinions offend them.

There’s nothing new about this. Intolerance of opinions you dislike or fear is natural and common. Fortunately, because for a couple of centuries Britain has been, for the most part, a country at ease with itself, and a fairly homogenous society, such intolerance has usually been reserved for private life. There was no need for laws prohibiting what are now called “hate crimes”. Inflammatory language and rabble-rousing could be dealt with under that old catch-all, “conduct likely to lead to a breach of the peace”, but prosecutions were fairly rare.

Things are different today, for reasons that don’t need to be spelled out. The murder of Drummer Lee Rigby has once again exposed the divisions in society. It is clear that there are British Muslims, influenced by radical preachers, who hate our way of life and the political actions of successive governments, and are moved to violence.

It is equally clear that there are British people who hate and fear Muslims. You have only to read posts on newspaper websites to realise this. Since the Woolwich murder, some ten mosques have been attacked.

Someone appended a post to an article I wrote in another newspaper in which he – or perhaps she, for the writer employed a pseudonym – said that if people were denied the right to express their strong feelings in words, they would be more likely to resort to violent action. There may be some truth in that – words can be a safety-valve. Yet I wondered if the writer would have extended the licence he demanded for himself to radical preachers. No doubt it is only a small number of people who post their opinions on newspaper websites, or express violent opinions through other social media.

It would be easy to exaggerate both the number or their importance. But those who do so, animated, as it appears, by resentment, fear and hatred of Muslims, don’t, it seems, stop to consider, first, that it is an even smaller number of Muslims who are inspired by Islamism and commit crimes, or, second, that the violence of their own language may alienate young Muslims further. Extreme language provokes extremist action.

During the Second World War, George Orwell argued that “objectively, the pacifist is pro-Nazi”, because “in so far as it hampers the British war effort, British pacifism is on the side of the Nazis”.

Some – and not only pacifists – may have found this opinion repulsive. Yet it made sense. Likewise today, those who inveigh against what they regard as the iniquities of Islam are, objectively, aiding the Islamists because their hostility may serve to radicalise Muslims as surely as any preaching. People should be careful of how they express their opinions.

We generally deplore censorship of opinion; this is a principle of a free society. Nevertheless, the acceptance that there is such a thing as a “hate crime” means that censorship of opinion is now common. Post something that may be deemed racist or homophobic on Twitter and you may get a call from the police. This being so, many find it extraordinary that radical Islamist preachers have been allowed to spew out hatred with impunity – and so respond with comparable expressions of hatred.

We should, rightly, be clear that incitement to commit acts of violence is abuse of the right to free speech and should attract the attention of the law. Prosecution of radical preachers is in the interest of British Muslims, and especially of those among them who fear that their children may be influenced by subversive propaganda.

To quote Orwell again, from that same essay: “Civilisation rests ultimately on coercion. What holds society together is not the policeman but the goodwill of common men and yet that goodwill is powerless unless the policeman is there to back it up.” This is an uncomfortable truth, but one which needs to be spoken again now. There are times when coercion is necessary, and this is such a time.

Yet goodwill is even more necessary, and this appears too often absent in too many places and among too many people today. We are where we are, living in a multi-racial and multi-cultural society, and this isn’t going to change.

Goodwill is necessary if such a society is to function agreeably: goodwill and self-restraint.

This means that there are opinions which people are better to keep to themselves, because their public expression is not in the public interest. We can‘t all be tolerant in our minds, but we should all be capable of being tolerant in speech and action. In present circumstances, the right to free speech is one which should be exercised with care. We should consider that words have consequences, and these may be unpleasant.

In any decent society people always practise a degree of self-censorship, and are more restrained in what they say or write than in what they think. This is merely good manners, and if Orwell was right when he wrote that “civilisation rests ultimately on coercion”, it is even more true to say that in everyday life it rests on good manners.

There is one restriction which I believe newspapers should practise. They should refuse to permit readers to employ pseudonyms when they post their opinions. In the correspondence columns of the print paper, newspapers generally require writers to submit their name and address.

The same requirement should apply in the electronic form of the paper. This would not be censorship, since the writer would still be free to express his opinion, but it would encourage the self-censorship which good manners often demand. The right to free speech is important, so important that we should not only grant it to those who are not of our mind, but should be careful not to abuse it ourselves. Anonymity permits, even encourages, such abuse.