Brendan O’Neill

She’s wrong, but Katie Hopkins has a right to call migrants ‘cockroaches’

She's wrong, but Katie Hopkins has a right to call migrants 'cockroaches'
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I know we’re all supposed to be spitting blood over Katie Hopkins’ Sun column about African migrants. In fact, anyone who isn’t currently testing the durability of their computer keyboard by bashing out Hopkins-mauling tweets risks having their moral decency called into question. Hating Katie has become the speediest shortcut to the moral highground in this slacktivist age, when people prefer to make a virtual advert of their moral correctness than to do anything so tough as try to change the world outside their bedroom door. And if you aren’t hating Katie, if you aren’t partaking in this orgy of competitive benevolence, what is wrong with you?

And yet, I find myself far more infuriated by the Hopkins haters, especially those who want her sacked, than by Hopkins herself. Sure, her article, with its comparison of migrants to cockroaches and its suggestion that gunships be dispatched to the Med, was nasty. It also expressed polar opposite views to mine: I think we should open Europe’s borders.

But the ideas she expressed, and the language she used, are rare — that’s why we found them so shocking. In contrast, the response of her detractors, their demand that Something Must Be Done — the ‘something’ ideally being Hopkins’ sacking — are all too common in this censorious century. Hopkins gave vent to a thankfully now rare form of intolerance. Her haters are expressing a more mainstream, and thus more dangerous, form of intolerance: intolerance of offensiveness, of extreme views, of anything that isn’t in tune with the political hymn sheet all good people are expected to warble from these days.

It’s the casualness with which people now demand the censure of people who have offended them that is most shocking. The storm from the Twitterati arrived almost immediately. She’s a fascist, they said. She’s a Nazi. She’s indistinguishable from the authors of the Rwandan genocide. Her comments would have made Hitler blush, said an Independent journalist. Congratulations! You win the war of hyperbole, the thesaurus-thumbing competition to see who can hate Hopkins the most and in the process show the Twittersphere what an upstanding guy you are.

After the Twitterstorm came the petition. It always does. This one says the Sun must ‘remove Katie Hopkins as a columnist’ if it wants to ‘redeem’ itself. Don’t be fooled by the polite language, by the ‘remove’ euphemism. For what is really being said here is: ‘This woman offended us, so sack her. Throw her out. You shall never be redeemed until you do so.’

So far, more than 190,000 people have signed up to this virtual mob, this 21st-century version of those gangs of fire-wielders who once descended on the homes of alleged witches to demand they be shushed or punished. Who are these 190,000 who believe their sensitivities are so important that anyone who offends them deserves expulsion from public life? The arrogance is breathtaking.

That there are tens of thousands of people in Britain who will casually call for the punishment of a writer who shocked them worries me far more than the fact that Britain also has some newspaper columnists who say inflammatory things. A writer for Open Democracy even said the police should investigate the Sun. Sounds like it’s time that website changed its name. Perhaps to Open-Only-For-Those-Who-Agree-With-Us Democracy? OD has got what it asked for: this afternoon, in a move straight out of the GDR, the Society of Black Lawyers reported Hopkins and the Sun's editor to the police.

And then after the petition came the protest. Yesterday, protesters turned up at LBC in London, where Hopkins was doing a radio show, to demand that the media ‘Drown (Out) Katie Hopkins!’. Note ‘out’ is in brackets, because the real message is ‘Drown Katie Hopkins’, just like those migrants drowned! Geddit? What a nasty line. It also gives an insight into the mad mood of the Hopkins haters: she must be drowned like the witch she is. Sack her, silence her, drown her out, all because she said things — said things — we don’t like.

The Hopkins fury shines a light on the key intolerance of our time, which is not violent hatred for immigrants — most people will balk at Hopkins’ cockroach talk — but rather an intolerance of free speech; a censorious, stifling culture of ‘You Can’t Say That!’. Whether it’s Dapper Laughs being thrown off TV at the behest of a few hundred angry feminists or hapless students being arrested for having said vulgar things on Twitter, Britain has become alarmingly intolerant of out-there or edgy speech. We have become casual censors, Pavlovian pullers of any content that riles us. We seem to have forgotten that freedom of speech either extends to everyone or it is enjoyed by no one. If we are not free to call migrants cockroaches, then I’m afraid to say we are not free.

The Hopkins haters rail against Katie for being hateful. Yet their urge to censor, their Medieval instinct to silence those who utter extremities, is packed with some nasty snobbery of its own. These people want to Stop Hopkins because they fear the impact her words will have on Them — the little people who read the Sun, who didn’t go to Oxbridge and probably have an instinctive loathing for immigrants because, well, they’re working class, and all working-class people hate immigrants, right? Katie’s dream of stopping migrants with gunships is never going to happen. But her haters’ equally elitist, equally prejudiced desire to stamp out certain words in order to pacify the masses and keep in check their rough and ugly instincts — that’s already happening. That intolerance thrives.