Endangering the security of the whole society

Those exertions of natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments.

Adam Smith (1776)

I think of myself as a free speech absolutist. There is no point of view that is not open for debate and all perspectives are invited to join. Jews are descended from apes and pigs. Well, that’s one way of looking at things. Jews are murderers of Gazan children and use their blood to make matzohs. Speak the truth as you see it. There was no holocaust but if there were one we would do it right this time round. Interesting, please tell me more.

As you may imagine, I am disgusted and outraged by each of these but the principle is more important than the abuse that some make of the principle. Public discourse is very dangerous, but beliefs that cannot be challenged in public debate is where the greatest dangers lie. Bring them out into the light. Go on, discredit yourself, because if there comes a time when saying such things in public does not make you a social leper, then things have already gone too far. Your rabid, racist, repulsive views are genuinely useful information for the rest of us. It requires judgement to know what can and cannot be said in public without consequence, but there should be nothing to stop you from saying what you want.

But racist rants in public amongst strangers, people abused on the streets by others they do not know, are out of bounds in a civilised community. It is just not on, rightly illegal. In the workplace or amongst those known to each other it becomes trickier but I side, with a heavy heart, on the side that this is just one of those things up with which we must put. But I also understand those who take a different view.

Ordinary people are not political philosophers. They are not social theorists who have read, absorbed and contemplated the arguments of John Stuart Mill. They are not people who are immune to abuse for their religion, skin colour, gender or anything else. Most people are prepared to debate all issues but they are not prepared to have to deal with some idiot shouting abuse at them on the street or where they work.

If the government cannot distinguish between free speech in a civilised community and a racist rant individually one-on-one in a public place, then it should not have gotten into this debate in the first place. And had they made this distinction, they could have presented their aim in terms of doing something positive, that being stopping racists rather than protecting the rights of bigots. What a loser argument that was! Why didn’t the government show they were providing something that will aid comity in the community, not taking something useful away. I fear by not thinking this through, they have damaged the cause of free speech in this country.

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