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Let’s hear it for contempt

The Blairite ‘Respect agenda’ is bunkum. We must all be free to insult each other or else only bullies will prevail

18 September 2010

12:00 AM

18 September 2010

12:00 AM

The Blairite ‘Respect agenda’ is bunkum. We must all be free to insult each other or else only bullies will prevail

Stealthily, an idea which was born under New Labour has wormed itself into the imagination of post-millennial Britain. It is the concept of Respect, not least as applied to how we talk or write about each other. The implications of the ‘Respect agenda’ for free speech are perilous, and subterranean — the more insidious for imposing self-censorship by means of a model of supposed 21st-century good manners backed by laws which ‘send a message’ and chill the climate in which ‘hate-speech’ might otherwise occur.

The message is that we may argue at will in abstract terms, but should not offend other groups in society by speech or writing that they find personally hateful.

At first glance this rule sounds innocuous. But I believe that the freedom to give gratuitous offence, to mock, sneer, scorn, belittle, deride and verbally abuse, is one of the most important pillars in the power of language to challenge belief and behaviour. Hate-speech, far from being gratuitous, is a cornerstone of our liberty.

I know from the response whenever I write contemptuously about religious belief or practice that many readers think my error has not been arguing against what some believe, but being ‘gratuitously’ offensive to the people who believe it. Words like ‘superstitious’, ‘idiotic’ or ‘delusional’, all of which I’ve used of certain religious believers, fall into this category.

I know from responses to my somewhat lonely defence last year of Jan Moir’s right to publish her oblique attack on the late Stephen Gately, that sneering at him personally — not arguing against homosexual practice in general — was the error many thought the Daily Mail’s columnist should have been censured by the Press Complaints Commission for committing.

Readers outraged that a columnist should call Roman Catholic relic-worshippers ‘superstitious’ form an almost entirely different set of people from the readers outraged that Jan Moir should use the word ‘sleazy’ of a gay man’s death after drinking heavily in a club. Indeed, many in each set would have defended a columnist’s right to offend those in the other set as gratuitously as she or he chose. But both sets implicitly base their objection upon the same assertion. Others should be entitled to make a general argument against a cause, they would say (at least as regards their own cause), but not ‘gratuitously’ to hurt the feelings of real people associated with that cause.

It was Blairites who coined the term ‘Respect agenda’. Catch-all in its ambit, it carries a distinct message, a streetwise thought but suitable for embroidering onto a cushion. Respect — modern, cool, liberal and multicultural — finds equal favour with reactionary conservatives and free-thinking leftists, for it seems to be about common courtesy. Cool Britannia and Middle England meet in their shared distaste for what Respect’s slang calls ‘dissing’ (showing disrespect). It isn’t smart, it isn’t cool, to diss another’s faith, race, values, culture, gender, appearance or sexual orientation.

Post-millennial beneficiaries of Mr Blair’s ‘new Britain’ (and maybe David Cameron’s ‘modern Conservatism’ too) have as a foundation to the edifice of their social ethic, not an idea of deference to rules or hierarchy, but the free and manly thought that each of us, of our own volition, should respect the sensibilities, beliefs and tastes of our fellow citizens.

The idea has a wide range of applications, many of them unobjectionable, from leaving the pub quietly and taking care not to piss into other people’s privet hedges, to helping the elderly across the road, or disregarding race, gender or sexuality in the processing of job applications. But the Respect agenda also spawned the paraphernalia of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) and the concept of hate-speech as a prosecutable crime.

The application of the Respect agenda to what it dubs hate-speech is exceptionally clear. Polite discussion is acceptable; vulgar abuse is not. We may dispute, but must not diss. Had Voltaire approved, he might have said ‘I disagree with everything you say, but will defend to the death your right not to have your opinions dissed.’

Except that Voltaire never would have approved. He lived by dissing. The great French polemicist’s talent for rational philosophical argument was limited; it is for impertinence and insult that he is remembered, and mockery at which he shines. Voltaire’s genius was for confronting blind, cruel or arrogant faith with common abuse; for pricking pomposity with vulgarity; for raillery; for taking down the pious a peg or two. The writer and his work become unexceptional if you remove from Voltaire’s imagined coat of arms the two-fingered salute, or from his imagined signature-tune the verbal raspberry.

The last Labour government’s legislation on hate-speech might well have criminalised both. Published into the climate of religious sensibility that prevailed in Voltaire’s day, some of his work would probably have been illegal under modern Britain’s laws against religious hatred. Some existing Biblical, Talmudic and Koranic characterisation of homosexuals, too, would probably be criminal under our new laws against anti-gay hate-speech if the legislation had not been amended to exempt religious teaching (and these faiths’ respective characterisations of non-believers would probably be criminal under our religious hatred laws). The Bible and Koran routinely descend to the level of gratuitous insult in their references to many groups.

Less discussed is the reason why. Why does religious teaching share with secularist teaching (and gay activist literature share with anti-gay literature, and feminist literature share with anti-feminist literature) such a ripe and fruity anthology of common abuse? Why, throughout history, have protagonists in so many of the great arguments about human faith, behaviour and ideas, ‘stooped’ (as the Respect agenda’s apologists would say) to gratuitous attacks of a personal nature, calculated to offend real people? Were we to forbid all that, insisting on polite and unpersonalised general argument, what would be lost? ‘At least half of it’ is the answer. In compiling my own published anthology of verbal battle, I quickly settled on Scorn as its title because scorn — and, yes, gratuitous offence — has always been so sharp and prominent a weapon in the battle of ideas. This I believe, for a range of reasons, three of which follow.

First, without intensity and passion, few great political or philosophical causes ever prevail. When human beings do believe, with intensity and passion, that other human beings are slaves to a wicked or groundless set of beliefs or habits, they cannot in practice make an issue of it without carrying the fight to the flesh-and-blood individuals concerned. To say that what people are doing is wicked, without calling them wicked, to say that what people believe is a delusion, without calling them delusional, to say their ideas are foolish, without calling them fools, is so at odds with the structure of our language that the stopping-short will always sound like a failure of total conviction.

Second, many faiths, cultures and hierarchies depend for their ascendancy on a measure of moral or social intimidation. They scare people. I’m afraid I think the Catholic Church used to and in some benighted places still does; and that Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and the Indian caste system still do; that the oppressors of women do and that homophobia did until quite recently. The way to dispel awe, fear or unmerited deference is to show open di
sdain: to defy by mockery, contempt or scorn. To deflate a balloon, prick it. Ask Jane Anger, whose 1589 Protection for Women included sustained passages of hate-speech — ‘[Men’s] slanderous tongues are so short, and the time wherein they have lavished out their words freely hath been so long, that they know we cannot catch hold of them to pull them out, and they think we will not write to reprove their lying lips’ — which heartened her supporters and invigorated her cause as no reasoned argument could have done. Against bullies, rank disrespect can succeed where argument fails.

Finally, the propensity of words (or indeed cartoons) to give offence is not unrelated to the propensity of their targets to take offence. If offence is the touchstone then this allows some groups to attract to themselves an unusual degree of protection from criticism simply by making a bigger fuss whenever criticised. This penalises modest or level-headed groups at the expense of hot-headed, aggressive or self-righteous ones. I would include gay ‘community’ spokesmen, some commentators on Jewish issues, and many Muslim groups in that category.

Despite the Respect agenda and our recent (largely unprosecuted) laws on hate-speech, England’s ruling legislation on speech and publication remains the law of defamation. Procedurally flawed and un-equal as in practice it is, it has at its heart a simple and compelling idea: that citizens are not free to publish untrue factual claims about each other, where those claims are likely to be believed; but if their words amount only to common abuse then their targets are not defamed and have no remedy.

With the piecemeal and disgraceful extension of law-by-injunction, the development of dangerous Continental ideas of privacy, and the huge expense of bringing actions in defamation, government will sooner or later turn its attention to all-encompassing reform. Whatever shape that reform takes, let it keep to heart an idea more ancient than Tony Blair’s Respect agenda: that the open expression of contempt, anger and dislike is more often a part of our liberty than a threat to our liberty.

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