Censoring the BNP 3: Claire Fox responds to Andy Newman

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.

Read Claire Fox’s original article, ‘Censorship is the wrong way to Beat BNP’ here

Read Andy Newman’s response, ‘It is not censorship to deny the BNP a platform’ here

It is not censorship to deny the BNP a platform

We expect Claire Fox’s views to be challenging. However, she does a great disservice to the defence of free speech from censorship by her muddled and inaccurate recent article about the BNP. Indeed Claire unwittingly is actually calling for censorship of those who oppose the BNP; and she is mistaking censorship with vigorous, democratic disagreement.

Claire describes action by West Country postal workers who refused to deliver BNP leaflets as, in her own words, “overt censorship”. However, what actually happened here is that a group of manual workers personally found the BNP leaflets offensive and sought to exercise a conscience clause in their contract to opt out of delivering them. In response, according to the CWU trade union, Royal Mail management quizzed individual postal workers about why they were opposed to the BNP, and pressurised them not to use their opt out.

This was not censorship by the trade unionists, this was the exercise of an individual contractual right by each postal workers to express their own personal opposition to the BNP. The chair of their trade union branch made it clear that they were not seeking to subvert the Representation of the People Act — their collective aspiration was to get Royal Mail to sub-contract out the BNP leaflet delivery. The postal workers wanted to collectively underline the pariah status that feel the BNP deserve, and individually to express their opposition by not delivering the leaflets.

Where Claire is mistaken is in confusing the concept of censorship with the entirely different process of robust disagreement with a political viewm to the extent of seeking to place it outside of the socially sanctioned mainstream of debate. Refusing to handle the mail was actually a means for the postal workers to express their own political judgement on the BNP.

The social construction of shared moral and political values is a dynamic process, that has, for example, changed over the last 50 years to create far greater tolerance of diversity; however, some viewpoints are regarded as abhorrent because we judge that promoting those views will lead to social harm. In extreme cases, the criminal law is invoked to prevent advocating certain forms of criminal behaviour; which is a form of censorship, although one with widespread social approval. But many of the behaviours that society disapproves of are not criminal –– for example verbal bullying, and rudeness. Most companies and institutions have codes of practice in place to prevent bullying and to demand courtesy in order to mark out the socially sanctioned limits of behaviour. More informally, individuals who are anti-social are shunned by their workmates and neighbours and find difficulty in making friends. This is not censorship, this is the collective process by which we socially construct the shared expectations of social interaction.

So when Claire Fox quotes Phil Woolas saying in the Daily Mail: “If you are not supporting Labour then … please go out and vote for one of the main parties. If you don’t, the UK will have Euro MPs from the far-Right BNP,” he is not seeking to censor the BNP, he is in fact promoting a perfectly legitimate contribution to democratic debate himself — that the BNP are beyond the pale. By criticising a government minister from seeking to delegitimise the BNP, Claire Fox is actually calling for people to self-censor our own sincere opposition to fascism; and to inhibit society from developing a collective consensus about the shared expectations of which views are compatible with the values by which, together, we define our society.

Claire argues that “to effectively Tipp-ex out one of the options by demonising ‘extremist’ views effectively denies the electorate their free speech”. But affording someone free speech does not mean that other people have an obligation to provide a platform for that free speech, or to hide their own opposition to the views they find abhorrent.

Claire is being disingenuous, because of course the BNP are actually strenuously afforded the same legal opportunities as any other political party. What Claire is arguing against is not censorship of the BNP, she is arguing that people have an obligation to provide the BNP with an opportunity to promote themselves, and that we shouldn’t point out the threat that the BNP represent to tolerant, liberal values.

If the organisers of an election hustings decline to put the BNP on the platform, that is not censorship, rather that is the exercise of the hustings organisers’ own political freedom. Claire Fox argues that there is a principle at stake that all parties in an election should be afforded equal rights to address the electorate; but this would actually censor an opponent of a particular party to express their own political views by excluding that party.

At root, Claire is making a philosophical error. John Stuart Mill argued that each individual should have a private sphere that should be as large as is compatible with the interests of society. Affording political parties that we find abhorrent the same legal status and privileges to free speech as mainstream parties satisfies this requirement that we respect the liberty of those we disagree with. The BNP are afforded that legal equality.

However, this liberty for a private sphere does not imply that it is virtuous for individuals to always exercise that liberty. The fallacy deriving from Hayek is that individuals not only have a right to a private sphere, but that they are morally obliged to remain private and not participate in the collective construction of civic morality. As Margaret Thatcher pithily expressed it, “there is no such thing as society”. This is effectively what Claire Fox is advocating by saying that we should not collectively construct a set of social values by which we judge whether the views of a political party make it a threat to our society.

In terms of political debate, the fact that we consider it virtuous that political parties can put forward whatever policies and social programmes they choose does not imply that there is a moral obligation to treat all political parties as equally worthy of a platform to espouse those views.

Andy Newman is editor of Socialist Unity