Monday, January 12, 2015

Hypocrisy and fallacy over censorship

Some of the arguments being made about censorship in the wake of the appalling Charlie Hebdo massacre are so silly and irritating that I want to say something about them.

The central claim of a lot of the response to the massacre is that the Freedom of the Press must be upheld: the 'right to offend'. What is hypocritical is the making of this claim, at least by implication, by leaders who do not allow the kind of freedom used, or misused, by Charlie Hebdo in their own countries. In the UK and the USA it is simply delusional to think that we have 'the right to offend'. Every week people lose their jobs for causing offense, often against Muslims, but also against Gay activists. Expressing any kind of religious conviction has become a sackable offence within the UK's National Health Service and many liberal American Universities. Admitting doubts about same-sex marriage can end your career in the secular world of internet companies, as Brandon Eich discovered. We have been moving sharply away from free speech in the Anglosphere for at least thirty years. And now we are all in favour of it? Gimme a break. As Norman Tebbit has written, now that our politicians have decided it is such a good thing, can we have it, please?

But here is a subsidiary claim: 'censorship doesn't work'. If you want to know how effective censorship can be in an otherwise fairly free society, just consider the effect of the repression of discussion of issues relating to sexual morality in the UK and the USA. In educational establishments where you'll get sacked from your job for even talking about Gay Marriage, what do we find? Well, we find very, very little discussion of views dissenting from the secular orthodoxy. Weird, or what? No, not weird, just a rational response to crushing incentives. Could we pull off the same trick in relation criticism of Islam, mocking of Mohammed, or indeed depictions of him? Silly question: we are almost there already. Critics of Islam have a very, very tough time speaking on University campuses on either side of the Atlantic. The BBC won't show even harmless cartoon representations of the man they call 'the Prophet'. Such cartoons, on T-shirts, were regarded as unacceptable at a University Fresher's Fair Atheists' stall this very academic year. Of course it can be done: it is being done.

I say all this because we can't have a rational discussion if we are living in some kind of fantasy world. I don't say it because I am in favour of gratuitously insulting Muslims: or homosexuals, or indeed anyone else. Indeed, the next absurd and delusional claim that has me chocking on my corn-flakes is this, which I saw on Twitter re-tweeted by Louise Mensch:

If a cartoon can weaken your belief, then your belief is worthless.

Compare this:
If hate-speech can weaken your self-esteem, your self-esteem is worthless.

Who is going to agree with that? But it is the second proposition which is more to the point. It is obvious that hate-speech can undermine some people's self-esteem, and it is equally obvious that it doesn't follow that vulnerable people should be trodden into the ground for that reason. What sort of a person wants to use vituperation and abuse to destroy another human being, psychologically? A sociopathic bully, I suppose. If that is the mindset behind the 'Je suis Charlie' movement, they can keep it.

There has long been a debate between the Politically Correct crowd and the Freedom of Speech crowd over hate speech. The PC people think it is offensive to say 'fireman' or fail to bake a cake for a same-sex couple; the Freedom of Speech people think that we should all be allowed to say what we like. It is understandable that Freedom of Speech should be emphasised right now, but the reality is that this side of the debate has comprehensively lost the battle in Universities, in the public sector, and in the legal treatment of 'offensive language'. We are not in a position to 'defend free speech': we don't have it. But it is also important to recognise that, whatever idiocies have been inspired by Political Correctness, the principle that bullying and the systematic denigration of groups are serious moral issues which on occasion need to be dealt with by the law, is correct. We can't defeat Political Correctness, and restore the freedom necessary to discuss issues of national importance freely, by denying the obvious, or by appealing to the fantasy that censorship doesn't work. It can only be defeated by having a rational debate about what limits there should be to free speech.

Some very naive people (the Catholic journalist Stuart Reid is one) like to say that Political Correctness is just 'politeness'. It isn't. It is a system of prioritising some groups over others to determine who can insult - and sometimes even murder - whom, on the basis of some theory of which group is most 'historically oppressed'. BBC coverage of the Middle East is incomprehensible unless you understand that Palestians outrank Jews, and while Yazidis and Kurds can outrank militant Islamists, Christian Arabs can't. Hell will freeze over before we see BBC treatments of the historic Arab trade in black slaves, and the English language does not have an extreme enough metaphor to describe the impossibility of their tackling Muslim enslavement of white Europeans. The extent to which we can talk about honour killings and female circumcision depends on the outcome of turf battles between feminists and anti-racism campaigners. Tragically for the victims of the Rochdale abuse rings, the anti-racists have long had the upper hand.

The lack of coherence in the system is turned to advantage, since this enables it to re-arrange priorities in accord with political fashions. The aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, however, may yet test its flexibility to the limit. They will claim that the only alternative to Political Correctness is a hate-filled free-for-all. The free-speech crowd will tell us the only alternative to free speech is a theocracy. Both claims are absurd. It is perfectly possible to have principles on hate-speech and slander which are based on a genuine consensus and which don't arbitrarily privilege one group over another. That is what Political Correctness and the libertarians have, between them, largely destroyed, and what needs to be restored.

We know all about tolerance. Stained glass from Belmont Abbey, showing
St Thomas More, St John Fisher, and St John Houghton.

Support the work of the LMS by becoming an 'Anniversary Supporter'.


  1. Lack of coherence in the system is not only the result of inconsistency in public discourse, but a reflection of the fragmentation of culture and thought in society. In the circumstances it is difficult to get censorship right. Far better to address the issues you raise by a reluctance to use the law to limit free speech, and a willingness to use it to establish protection in the workplace for those who exercise it in a responsible manner. Law and regulation are a necessary evil which we do well to limit, especially in the heat of the moment.

  2. Doesn't it seem strange that protection against offence always seems to benefit the Muslims? We have seen Christians chastised for wearing a crucifix (or even a cross) whereas Muslims are allowed to wear burkhas & hijabs which (in 1 case) allowed the murderer of a policewoman to leave the country dressed as a woman.
    If censorship of any kind is introduced then it MUST be applied fairly across the nation.
    Christians can (& are) being offended by such cartoons as those published in Charlie but we either turn the other cheek or don't buy the magazine. We don't resort to murder especially when some of those killed had no connection with the offenders.
    Perhaps we should resort more frequently to the prayer to St Michael such as is prayed after every EF Low Mass

    1. No, it doesn't seem strange at all.
      Sorry to disagree but I do.

      Christians, particularly in the persons of the leadership of the Catholic and Anglican churches in the UK at least are bowing and scraping to the state for whatever reason and the state is walking over us.
      Just like any situation where you have a weak child and a school bully. The churches are offering their biscuits to the government who is taking the whole lunch.
      A very pathetic campaign against "Gay Marriage" is the best the Church has come up with. You refer to Christians being chastised, or worse, for daring to wear a Crucifix. Where was the Church in supporting them?
      Yesterday my son came home from (Catholic) school having learned that the worst thing about China's one child policy is that children have less confidence at school because they don't have any siblings there.

  3. A good article Mr Chairman.

    Western democracies defend a right of free expression, but within limits. It is a question of deciding where those limits are. Gratuitously insulting Catholicism, as in the recent cartoons, or Islam, is wrong and must be restricted by law. This also applies to individuals i.e., homosexuals etc. It is almost certainly already dealt with in French and British law already.

    Equally, people must be allowed within such limits to express considered views i.e. that Islam is a heresy, the product of a disordered mind and in application, is inherently evil. Or, that there is undue homosexual influence within the Catholic bishopric and that a homosexual “mafia “exists in the in the Vatican, and that active homosexuality is intrinsically wrong and against Catholic teaching.

    The murder of the French cartoonists was not a blow against freedom of expression it was punishment for offending Islam. What the murderers did was permissible within Islamic law (if not French civil law), and may well earn them rewards in their heaven.

    Until we all, Catholic and Secularist alike, understand this, we cannot begin to cope with the problem, which incidentally is only just beginning.

    By the way I noticed that even dear old ultra cautious (or frightened) Auntie Beeb, reported openly on Islamic atrocities in Pakistan and Nigeria today!

    Now when can we get back to the restoration of the Catholic Mass as the norm in these Isles?

  4. Anonymous4:56 pm

    Morals are not determined by consensus, they are either revealed by God or discovered by right reason reflecting rightly on the creation He made, the order He established in it by nature. Only a state which accepts both can establish consistently just laws, on speech-rights or anything else.

  5. Putting limits on free speech is a complex subject but it is astonishing that Edith Cresson (former Prime Minister of France) should think that there is an absolute right to free speech without limits - particularly coming from a country where philosophy is held in higher respect than in the UK.

    There are three levels of limits or sanctions in respect of free speech:

    1. A purely moral one where perhaps the sanction is to have what is said refuted and the person perhaps ostracized from some social activity. I would have thought this was where Charlie B lies.

    2. Remedies in the Civil Law. The law of defamation in awarding damages to those defamed is supposed to have been introduced to provide an alternative remedy to challenging someone to a duel. There is also the law of confidentially where the civil law can intervene to stop or punish the revelation of confidential information in some circumstances.

    3. Then there is the Criminal Law to stop extreme abuse of the freedom which can result in serious breaches of the peace. Again the Official Secrets Act imposes criminal sanctions for breaking confidentiality.

    Thus it is not necessary to jump straight to the Criminal Law to deal with blasphemy of the kind perpetrated by Charlie H.

    There was an excellent Panorama program on the BBC on Monday night. Several moderate Muslims were interviewed and they all said the danger was the growth of a NON-VIOLENT extremist version of Islam which was spreading in the UK. Another label was Puritanical Islamism. In the words of one this is taking Muslims by the hand and leading them right up to the front door. Such as ISIS then open that front door and take them into violent extremism.

    There was a clip of Mrs May saying she wanted to have new legislation that would sanction such speech which while not sanctioning violence in the UK remained just short of current law. Personally I have great difficulty in knowing how you could draft a law which sanctioned speech which stopped short of advocating criminal acts. Such laws tend to end up being used against quite different targets from what the legislators intended. But above all this emphasises the contradiction between what was being celebrated in Paris - total freedom of speech - and approved by many in this country including our politicians and the proposal to sanction the propaganda put out by non-violent Islamic extremists.

    It was interesting though to see Muslims who seemed to have a better grasp of the problems than those from whom we have heard so much in the past week.

    I have always thought that one of the greatest errors of our age is to believe that one create a perfect society through legislation alone - in general you end up trying to treat the symptoms but never the causes.