Illiberal liberals and the narrowing sphere of acceptable values

Tolerance is a word that is often bandied about by liberals the world over. Being tolerant towards divergent viewpoints and ways of life is supposedly a cornerstone of liberal democracies like the United Kingdom. It is also a key tenet of free expression; respecting a person’s right to say – or not to say – what they think, even if you viscerally disagree with their point of view.

Yet, to what extent do we, as a society, really adhere to real tolerance? How often do we provide the space for those we disagree with to put forward their views? Further, has the state started mandating on matters of conscience, and if it has, what are the implications for free expression?

I would argue that in Britain and elsewhere, the value of tolerance is under threat. Lets take as an example the recent so-called ‘Gay cake’ case, where the Christian owners of a bakery in Northern Ireland were taken to court by a gay rights campaigner – Gareth Lee – over their refusal to produce a cake with the words ‘Support Gay Marriage’ on it.

As so often happens with cases like this, the facts were misrepresented, and there was little reporting about what was really at stake here.

Fundamentally, this case was about free expression, not about discrimination on the basis of sexuality. Ashers bakery were asked by a customer, Gareth Lee, to produce an iced cake with the message, ‘Support Gay Marriage’ on it.

They refused to print the message, on the basis that doing so would be to essentially write something that contravened their deeply held beliefs about traditional marriage.

Lee took them to court, and won the case, despite the fact that Ashers were simply refusing to endorse an idea – gay marriage – and were not refusing to serve him because of  his sexuality.

So, how did the judges justify their verdict ? Well, they ruled that Ashers had acted in contravention of the Equality Act, which mandates that: ‘A person (A) discriminates against another person (B) if – on grounds of sexual orientation – A treats B less favourably than he treats or would treat other persons’.

As explained above, the owners of the bakery did not discriminate on the basis of sexuality, and nor did they treat the customer less favorably than any other: they would have turned away a heterosexual customer asking for the same message.

Peter Tatchell, the prominent gay-rights campaigner, was one of the few people to speak out against this judgement. Writing in The Independent, he said, ‘Discrimination against LGBT people is wrong and is rightly unlawful.’

‘But in a democratic society, people should be able to discriminate against ideas they disagree with. I am saddened that the court did not reach the same conclusion.’

The worrying implication of this ruling is that it sets a precedent. The state has mandated that the owner of a business must print a message asked for by a customer, even if they disagree with that message.

On this point, Tatchell writes, ‘This verdict is a defeat for freedom of expression. As well as meaning that Ashers can be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage against their wishes, it also implies that gay bakers could be forced by law to decorate cakes with homophobic slogans.’

Indeed, what if someone asked a  bakery run by a Muslim family for a cake adorned with a picture of the Prophet Muhammad (depictions of Muhammad are prohibited in Islam)? Could they be plausibly punished for refusing to produce the cake? This case says they could be.

Or what if a Jewish-run commercial printers were approached by neo-Nazis who wanted to knock-up 500 propaganda leaflets? Its the same principle.

Somehow, I don’t think either of the last two examples – deployed to illustrate a point – would ever result in a court judgement.

That’s because the collective ideology of the State wouldn’t allow it, no-one likes neo-Nazis, and everyone agrees that it would be wrong to punish Muslims for refusing to depict the Prophet Muhammad in print.

Yet on the flip side, the judges in this case adhered to a very strange and unjustifiable reading of the Equality Act, and one can’t help wondering if it was because they themselves agreed with gay marriage, which should of course have been irrelevant.

Further, there are plenty of heterosexuals who agree with gay marriage, and some homosexuals who disagree with it, and this again illustrates the point that so few commentators failed to make: the sexuality of the customer was irrelevant.

The fundamental issue here is that we are failing to uphold our own values; toleration isn’t about agreeing with an expressed viewpoint, it is instead about allowing said view to be aired.

Instead, tolerance seems to be being disregarded when views, values and beliefs do not fall within an acceptable sphere that appears to be getting narrower.

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Intellectual diversity and free speech

News emerged last week that students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) want to have the majority of ‘white philosophers’ removed from courses run by the university, in order to ‘decolonise’ the institution.

Further, they argued that ‘if white philosophers are required’ then they should be taught from a ‘critical standpoint’.

Just a little note on the latter point; shouldn’t all philosophers be taught from a critical standpoint? Are they implying by their assertion that the work of black philosophers should be accepted unquestioningly rather than critically analysed?

Getting to the point of this post, what, you might ask, does this news have to do with free speech?

First of all, as I alluded to in my first post, the right of free speech which is so important to our society can only be recognised as such if its origins are properly understood. That means learning about the writings of the likes of John Stuart Mill and others, most of whom happen to be white men.

So by relegating the importance of the likes of Mill, simply because of the colour of their skin, these students are asking to be deprived of some of humanity’s greatest works, and in the process will be ignorant about why the right to free expression is important.

They are, in fact, demanding to have a deciding influence in the content of their course, before they’ve even learnt about those figures they want to exclude. To me, that seems more than wrongheaded, and instead verges on authoritarian.

Sir Roger Scruton, an eminent philosopher and white man, put it well to the Telegraph when he said, in response to the news,  “You can’t rule out a whole area of intellectual endeavour without having investigated it and clearly they haven’t investigated what they mean by white philosophy.”

“If they think there is a colonial context from which Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason arose, I would like to hear it.”

Indeed, Scruton touches on an extremely important point. It is that the works of many of these now-pigeonholed “white philosophers” have universal appeal to all human beings everywhere.

Nothing speaks more to the human spirit than Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s brilliant assessment of the modern state, that “man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains”; or indeed John Locke’s somewhat apt pronouncement that “The mind is furnished with ideas by experience alone”. It certainly is.

What I find distressing is that our society has made significant progress towards judging people by the content of their arguments, rather than the colour of their skin, or any other physical characteristic. Yet this move by SOAS’ students’ union is another example of what seems to be a regression to where colour is again taking centre stage.

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What is the ‘Harm Principle’ and why is it important?

The importance of J.S. Mill’s arguments in favour of free expression

So, I’ve decided to jump straight into the deep end by writing about John Stuart Mill and his so-called ‘harm principle’. I’ve done this because I think it’s really important to lay out some basic principles straight off; free speech really is absolutely foundational to a free society, and therefore it’s crucial to go back to first principles in order to understand why it is so important.

Mill (1806-1873) was an English philosopher and politician, and his writings form much of the basis of Liberalism as an ideology.  His most famous work was On Liberty, published in 1859, and it is where his argument in favour of free expression can be found.

The full passage that concerns us can be found very early on in the book:

‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’ (page 13)

As mentioned in the ‘About’ page, controversy over the years has arisen over what Mill intended harm to mean. The problem is that Mill himself wasn’t particularly clear about what he meant by harm, and he re-visited his concept on a number of occasions both within On Liberty and in other works.

Part of the issue is that One’s conception of harm will vary depending on their cultural and moral outlook. Take, for example, the furore provoked by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish publication a few years ago.

These cartoons were deemed by many Muslims to be extremely harmful, and they did in fact lead to a number of protests and violent demonstrations. Western commentators argued that they were nothing more than offensive, and that to not publish them elsewhere – for fear of reprisals – would constitute self-censorship. You can see here the competing notion of harm, and it is a potential problem for policymakers.

It would take a number of blog posts to go further into the issues around Mill’s principle, but the one I’ve highlighted above is perhaps the most pressing. However, we can still continue and look at Mill’s specific reference to free expression.

In Chapter III of On Liberty, in specific reference to opinions, Mill writes that, ‘…On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act’.

To illustrate his point, Mill uses the example of a corn dealer. He says that the opinion that corn dealers are ‘starvers of the poor’ ought to be ‘unmolested’ when simply circulated in the press, but if it were delivered to an ‘excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer’, it may rightfully be curtailed’.

This passage is crucial for us, for it directly concerns the incitement to violence, and in my opinion it is the only justifiable limitation on free expression.

So, Mill gives a privileged position to free expression with regards to actions. Why does he do this? He argues that, even if a potential assertion is known to be true, it is important for said opinion to be allowed to be expressed in open debate.

He explains his reasoning in this absolutely fundamental passage:

‘But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.

‘If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

‘It is necessary to consider separately these two hypotheses, each of which has a distinct branch of the argument corresponding to it. We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.’

This is, indeed, why I wish to adhere so strongly to the single limitation on free expression that I have already mentioned. If we are confident in our opinions and beliefs, then we should be equally confident in defeating opposing points of view, including those which upset or offend us.

By stifling opinion, even the most abhorrent, what are we saying about our own deeply held values? Surely we are undermining truth and reason in the very act of coercive suppression?

Further, as Mill says, we can’t ever be sure that the stifled opinion is a false one, nor can we be sure that our own beliefs don’t contain falsehood. Surely the only way to come to solid, confident conclusions about the most pressing issues is through free discourse, and that is why all of us should hold the right to free expression very close to our hearts.

Jonathan Wolff, author of An Introduction to Political Philosophy, refers in his chapter on Mill to a very telling story. A group of politics students, in the repressive atmosphere of Franco-era Spain, were given only a ‘few minutes’ on Mill and his arguments, whilst the theories of Karl Marx were explained in far greater detail.

Wolff writes that the regime had chosen to censor Mill rather than Marx because whilst Marx’s arguments were unlikely to ‘turn the heads’ of ‘affluent’ students, Mill’s writing on free speech and liberty was ‘quite another thing’. The regime were well aware that the right to free expression would have been normatively compelling, and hence they were fearful of the students learning too much about it.

Everyone – even those who seek to undermine it via subterfuge –  now pays homage to free speech, even as we argue over its implications, and that is surely an indication of its enduring value to our society. That is why it should be defended at all costs.