Soapbox: How “closed minds house their own prisons”, or the illiberality of liberalism…

From reader Dean Sterling Jones…
I disagree with what you say, but will fight to the death for your right to say it – if by “fight” you mean “surrender,” by “death” you mean “live comfortably” and by “your right to say it” you mean “your right to shut the hell up.” Don’t bother reading the revised sentence back, it makes little sense. But you get the picture. For some, the right to freedom of speech means little more than “the right to do as I say.”
It’s easy to pay lip service to the cause of freedom. I understand. Fighting for your rights is difficult and dangerous. Why expend all that mental and physical energy when you can just stay home and watch TV? Freedom of speech? Isn’t it just an abstract concept? Some bigoted old man has to endure a few months in prison? Good! He knows to keep his evil, racist mouth shut. Let us now retreat to the chamber of social media, where only that which we wish to hear may reverberate endlessly within closed walls. Everything in its right place. Amen.
Closed minds house their own prisons. Thankfully, those seeking to punish an old man for daring to speak his mind will never again have to endure the trauma of hearing an opinion disagreeable to their delicate constitution. These are the same people who argue for limits to freedom of speech. The progression of their argument is as follows: that certain groups within society are especially vulnerable; therefore, certain groups within society are in need of protection. That scary, “offensive” words lead to violence; therefore, scary, “offensive” words must be choked at the root. Neat theory, but what does it prove beyond being able to tenuously link two previously unrelated ideas? Are we to believe that certain groups are such that they are unable to tolerate the slightest of criticisms? That the only way to counter so-called “hate speech” is to provide legal redress for the aggrieved?
One can only presume that Thursday’s decision to prosecute Pastor James McConnell for speaking ill of the Islamic faith comes on behalf of the offended, who are apparently all-too-happy to sacrifice liberty for the sake of their hurt feelings, and not on behalf of UK Muslims. I make the distinction because the law governing communications is an equal opportunity prosecutor, blindly rooting out “offensive” speech without prejudice.
The problem is the vague language used to describe the offence: if what constitutes “offensive” speech varies from person to person subject to interpretation, the word is for all intents and purposes utterly meaningless, unless we wish to enforce laws based solely on people’s subjective experiences. However, the decision to prosecute is discretionary, depending on whether there is a public interest.
Some advice then. If, as with Pastor McConnell, you happen to find yourself on the wrong side of popular opinion, you better pray nobody’s listening.

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  • Granni Trixie

    I’m in two minds about the decision to prosecute. I do not like the idea of the Pastor becoming a poster boy for such as himself. But if the authorities do not act society will pay the consequences of allowing people to come off with any insulting comment they like. This is more important to me than ‘free speech’ considerations – though I concede that I do not put free speech on a pedestal as some do.

    Then there is the problem of treating everyone equally under the law. Are we not to procecute any other person behaving like Pastor McConnel – say someone not a pathetic figure infirm and elderly (and supported by FM)? After all, let’s remember that the prosecution came about only after he refused to sign a written warning ie he would not accept any guilt.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Anthony McIntyre posted up a good blog on thepensivequill regarding the subject on Saturday “himself alone” worth a read “Support Paster Jack” Nail on the head the issue is about Freedom of Speech !

  • Korhomme

    Saying something unpleasant is one thing; inciting others to hate people is another. I’m not clear which of these the Pastor is being prosecuted for.

    There’s an interesting commentary about this from the National Secular Society, including this:

    ‘[The Pastor] has said since: “I have nothing against Muslims, I have never hated
    Muslims, I have never hated anyone. But I am against what Muslims
    believe. They have the right to say what they believe in and I have a
    right to say what I believe.” If only the law saw things with this
    clarity.’

    http://www.secularism.org.uk/blog/2015/06/preacher-james-mcconnell-faces-prosecution-for-calling-islam-satanic–the-state-again-tramples-over-free-expression

  • T.E.Lawrence

    The problem is Granni where do the authorities draw the line are they to prosecute all England Football Fans for singing F— The IRA ! You petter at the dangerous denial of civil liberties zone ?

  • Chingford Man

    “if the authorities do not act society will pay the consequences of allowing people to come off with any insulting comment they like.”

    You should visit the excellent former Stasi prison in Berlin to see where that kind of thinking leads.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Apparently his words were, “Islam is heathen, Islam is Satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in Hell” according to the BelTel piece I just googled. So a pretty balanced, well thought through argument….
    I could see him making the same speech about Catholicism 30 years ago, but be damn sure he could have said the words with impunity back then. We all remember Paisleys oft quoted views on the subject at the time and they led to nothing….
    It’s a real shame as there does need to be an open debate on Islam, but let’s not invite Father Jack to come along and voice his views.

  • Ultonian

    If you listen to the whole speech, it’s quite sinister. He makes Muslims out to be something of an ‘enemy in our midst’, as well as references the highly racially charged rivers of blood speech. He’s spreading fear, mistrust and hatred of a religious and/or ethnic group – he is abusing his right to free speech. He may say what he wants, and noone should stop him, but he has to face the consequences of what he said and of using his free speech in an irresponsible manner.

  • Tóraidhe

    “One can only presume that Thursday’s decision to prosecute Pastor James
    McConnell for speaking ill of the Islamic faith comes on behalf of the
    offended”

    Is it not fairer to assume that sectarianism is at play here, rather than liberal sensibilities?

    If
    your theory is
    correct, you could reasonably assume that both the Pastor McConnell and
    Druids incidents received complaints from the same people (offended
    liberals). Whereas it’s conceivable that these two cases saw
    complaints from
    largely separate groups, whose interest lay only in highlighting
    bigotry from “the other side”. The lines that the political
    parties are drawing on these issues shows clear evidence of this.

  • Tóraidhe

    The same legislation was used in the Twitter joke trial.
    It’s an offense to send an electronic communication that could be
    viewed as offensive (even if you didn’t intend to offend). So technically he was prosecuted simply for broadcasting it on the internet.

  • Granni Trixie

    That’s how I see it too.

  • Granni Trixie

    Your freedom of speech issue is my bigotry and incitement to hatred issue.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    And that technicality makes the whole legislation seem absurd. There’s the oft cited issue of shouting ‘Fire!’ in a theatre (or joking that you’ll blow up Robin Hood Airport) but, as you quite rightly hint, there’s always the question of choice in taking offence and there’s the question of choice in allowing yourself to be incited to action. If the issue were about what was said as opposed to how it was published/broadcast/communicated/diseeminated and by whom then the Druids issue would also be open to prosecution. I understand that the decision not to prosecute there was because no-one present at the Ardoyne Fleadh was deemed (by the PPS) likely to be offended by the Brits out message but couldn’t it still be incitement? Which of the 2 messages was more offensive or were they equally so? Well that’s a matter of taste or tribal standpoint or level of sensitivity and there’s often political capital to be gained from taking offence. The thing that offends me most was that both the Druids’ and McConnell’s statements were inaccurate. On the other hand, couldn’t constant DUP & OO cries of ‘unfair’ be deemed incitement? Experience shows us a less tenuous link there.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Couldn’t the Druids’ speech be given the same interpretation?

  • Croiteir

    Do you want a secular version of the blasphemy laws?

  • Korhomme

    Fair enough; In Paul’s case, he sent the Tweet. Did the Pastor send or cause the video (or whatever) to be sent?

  • MalikHills

    In effect what you are saying is that freedom of speech only applies when the speech is non-controversial. In other words no freedom of speech at all, only speech approved of by the great and the good.

    But who will set these limits on free speech?

    If I had said 10 or 15 years ago that marriage was an institution that could only be between a man and a woman and that the idea of a marriage being between two men was absurd, unnatural, ridiculous and beyond reason I would have been stating the bleeding obvious and no one would have batted an eyelid, indeed I would merely be repeating what most politicians and commentators of the left and right and most of society believed.

    Nowadays were I to make such a remark I would be skating on thin ice of a criminal prosecution.

    Now as a fully-paid up member of the liberal intelligentsia you might think this is a good thing (although you would perhaps object to your own parents or grandparents being prosecuted for stating something that they always believed to be a simple fact) but how can you be sure that the values you hold dear today won’t become a thought crime in the future as society swings in a different direction?

    Will you be so comfortable about police prosecuting people for having opinions that policemen don’t share then?

    Free speech Granni, you either believe in it or you don’t.

  • Granni Trixie

    He may say he has no hatred but his word actions say otherwise.

  • Granni Trixie

    I can explain my views by the infamous example of Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech. That kind of incitement to hatred in my view trumps freedom of speech considerations.

  • Tóraidhe

    The Communications Act legislation provides far too broad a brushstroke (which is why it is
    used in these cases. It’s easy to prosecute).

    AFAIK incitement requires you to be pressuring or
    encouraging another person to commit a criminal act. It would be
    difficult to prove that either Pastor McConnell or The Druids did that, barring either party issuing a definite “call to
    action”.

    Similarly, neither Pastor McConnell nor The Druids
    would likely fall foul of the Public Order Act (which requires an
    offended party to be present).

    So on the face of it, it looks likely
    that the McConnell case was pursued and the Druid case was not pursued
    solely on these grounds. If The Druids or Ardoyne Fleadh had made and posted their film, the PPS could have prosecuted. Similarly if Pastor McConnell had not uploaded his
    sermon there would be no case against him.

    The moral of the story is spout all the bile you wish, just don’t email it to anyone. 🙂

  • Tóraidhe

    The video looks professionally done (which suggests he has his sermons filmed). Likely it was streamed or uploaded onto his youtube channel which would be the cause of the infringement.

  • Korhomme

    What was particularly nasty about the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech is that Powell was being deliberately devious, implying that Britain faced some sort of racial bloodbath.

    The original comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, when the prophetess Sibyl is advising Aeneas how to get to Hades, what he will find, and how he will have to fight battles with the indigenous people of ‘Italy’ before he can realise his dream of a multicultural Rome. And Powell, as a classicist surely knew what the real meaning was.

  • Korhomme

    Thanks.

  • Tóraidhe

    His sermon was the source of the offence in that it was offensive. But the article points the finger squarely towards liberals demanding political correctness as the catalyst for his prosecution.

    But in this case I think Pastor McConnell provided an open goal, the ball was kicked mainly by nationalist/republicans and defended by unionist/loyalists.

    Similarly those protesting against The Druids were defending Pastor McConnell a few months earlier, in the interim they’d developed a sudden sense of social justice.

    In either case, the “offended” might temporarily wear social liberality as a coat of convenience, but silence in the reciprocating matter strips them of it.

    For a true closed minded liberal, both situations are offensive.

  • MalikHills

    Wow, a mainstream, democratically-elected politician making an articulate speech about an issue that his constituents felt very strongly about and which in no way incited a crime or hatred but merely expressed forcefully a point of view that was unpopular among the establishment (although extremely popular among the electorate) and you would ban him from expressing his opinion?

    Who was it said fascism would return again in the guise of anti-fascism?

    Are there any other topics the forthright discussion of which you would outlaw? Who would you appoint as your preferred thought police?

  • Granni Trixie

    At the time This speech made my blood run cold and that hadn’t really changed.
    Thanks for the background to the original – v interesting.

  • MalikHills

    So on the basis that you didn’t like what Powell said, even though his speech in no way incited crime, you would still ban him from saying it?

    So frankly you don’t believe in free speech at all.

    You and the Stasi would have gotten along very well indeed.

  • Granni Trixie

    It’s not about ‘liking’ more that inflammatory speeches contribute to a climate which increases tension and even lead to violence. At the v least, lack of respect. For example, Ken McGuinness discussing on radio the “beastiality” of gay people or indeed sectarian words and assumptions.

    I can live with believing that freedom of speech does not necessarily trump other considerations (a novelty as friends tend to label me “too politically correct”)

  • Korhomme

    While I support free speech rather than censorship, grown up people realise that there is a time for tact, a time when I may say what I like, but I must not, and a time for ‘white lies’ without which the world would cease to turn. Freedom is precious; abusing it is potentially dangerous; being aware of the sensibilities of others is something in short supply.