Now that the BNP have had two MEPs elected, those obsessively targeting the far-right group as the greatest threat to democracy are having a field day — much wailing and gnashing and egg throwing. Forget the inconvenient truth that they only won these seats by gaining a greater share of the vote in the wake of Labour’s collapse and received 3000 and 6000 fewer votes compared to the 2004 Euro Elections (in the North West and Yorkshire respectively). Forget the fact that the national increase in their vote share from 4.9 per cent to 6.2 per cent hardly merits the fear-mongering headlines, “Not in My Name” Facebook campaigns, and mainstream political angst forewarning the rise of neo-Nazism. Whatever the hyperbole, this seems a good time to respond to Andy Newman’s reply to my pre-election article for Index on Censorship about the dangers of liberals sleepwalking into censoriousness whenever the bogeyman of the BNP appears on the political landscape.
So Andy — you claim to want a climate that ecourages “vigorous, democratic disagreement”. I couldn’t agree more. But that is precisely why we need to allow those we vigorously disagree with to have a voice in the democratic debate. For the purposes of this article, I will accept that at least some of the BNP voters had sympathy with the party’s views on immigration and race (even though it is more likely that they attracted the disillusioned, anti-political elite protest vote as much as UKIP and the Greens). Surely the best way to deal with these prejudiced views is to have them out in the open and to expose their bigotry and bile for all to see?
It is laughable when you accuse me of “calling for people to self-censor [their] own sincere opposition to fascism”. Oppose away — indeed upholding free speech for those whose views we find abhorrent doesn’t mean allowing objectionable views to go unchallenged. Instead we should go on the attack against every racist speech and against attempts at scapegoating immigrants, whoever delivers those views. But to do so requires unfettered freedom of speech precisely to persuade other people in the public arena that those views are wrong, inaccurate, divisive.
You suggest I am asking immigration minister Phil Woolas to self censor his views. But Woolas’s approach to the BNP proves my point. In the article I quoted, he doesn’t argue against the BNP, he simply blusters moral outrage and fearmongers about fascism on the march. On the substantive political question about immigration, if anything he panders to the BNP’s agenda rather than argues against it. We can declare racism no-go and kick it out of polite political debate, but unless we have won hearts and minds, too often this allows reactionary sentiments to go unchallenged, merely allowing them to fester under the surface. Meanwhile mainstream immigrant-bashing by our respectable politicians is let off the hook, comparing itself favorably to its more extreme BNP manifestation.
You are right of course that no one has an obligation to provide a platform for the BNP, and you misunderstand completely if you think I’m arguing for their mandatory right to speak whenever and wherever. Elections aside, I have more important foes to take on. However, when my fellow anti-racists make a principle of denying the BNP a platform, too often it just means avoiding their arguments, surely the ultimate act of self-censorship. Now the BNP have won hundreds of thousands of votes, we despair at the gullibility of the electorate. My concern is that No Platformers don’t even show electors the courtesy of trying to convince them politically about the merits of their own agenda, refusing even to enter let alone win the battle of ideas. This exhibits a complacent and cowardly reluctance to take on the hard task of trying to win the argument against views dismissed as “beyond the pale”. Far easier to: ban the debate; refuse to deliver leaflets to appease your conscience; shout “BNP no way — Nick Griffin go away” on demos or that old stand-by, throw eggs.
You explain that censorship is not at stake here at all, but rather the changing “social construction of shared moral and political values” means it is now OK to treat the BNP’s views as beyond the pale. But in reality what has been socially constructed is a widely censorious climate in which far too many views are considered as beyond the pale. Too many people bite their tongue and walk on eggshells to accommodate the intolerance of a “you can’t say that” society. The “pariah status”, afforded to the BNP in this instance, is a constant threat to anyone who dares offend liberal orthodoxies more generally. Try challenging climate change “truths” or the panic about child protection or indeed no platform for “fascists” and behold chattering-class illiberalism in all its glory. Surely even your group, Socialist Unity has views that might be considered offensive, provocative, dangerous, inflammatory or even beyond the pale by those not yet convinced of your glorious programme. I certainly do. Anyone interested in challenging the status quo should be wary when political debate is reduced to the anodyne, thin diet of “only acceptable ideas allowed”.
Aren’t you at all nervous about handing over the permissible parameters of these socially constructed “moral and political values” to the authorities? I found your apologia for companies’ and institutions’ use of “Codes of practice…to prevent bullying and to demand courtesy” most chilling. Today’s workplace relations have become impossibly divisive precisely because such codes are used to silence dissent, stifle controversy, discipline “troublemakers” and victimise trade-unionists, too frequently accused of offensive bullying tactics etc. Let’s imagine what the corporate code of practice response to the “heavy-handed” “bullying” of flying pickets would be.
Isn’t it dangerous to let those in power decide who can speak in public, and who can hear all sides of the argument? (And then pretend that it’s the public’s decision). You seem happy with recourse to the criminal law “in extreme cases”, when viewpoints are “regarded as abhorrent because we judge that promoting those views will lead to social harm”. No wonder this government has got away with draconian incitement and hate-speech legislation in its supposed fight against ‘terrorism’; the ultimate ‘social harm’ in many people’s eyes.
Finally, I am really not that interested in upholding the right of free speech for Nick Griffin and his nasty bunch of anti-immigrant party goons. What is at stake here is the freedom for the rest of us — the public, the electorate — to hear ALL political views, even those as divisive as race, stupid as well as sensible, reactionary as well as progressive — precisely so that we can make our own minds up and judge for ourselves whether or not to vote for these ideas, ignore them, agree with or argue against them.
It’s worth remembering that free speech is a two-way communication, the right to speak but also the right of the audience to listen to whatever they want rather than having this dictated to us. This means taking audiences seriously, as our peers and equals, respecting their ability to make autonomous judgements on the most contentious issues, and trusting them to be open-minded enough for you, or me, or anyone to have a chance of changing their minds in a political row. That is the core principle at the heart of political change. You have to win the row. Go on Andy — a challenge — go win some rows.