Defending the expression of unpopular views with ‘free speech’ arguments is easy but ineffective. It assumes an intellectual tolerance which no longer exists.
Last week two apparently unrelated events occurred. A bus bearing a “hateful” message was impounded in Madrid, and a Christian street preacher was convicted for a public order offence. Although these occurred in different countries, and the individuals concerned are not affiliated, both show a striking degree of intolerance by the powers that be.
The incidents and their connection need unpacking.
The NGO Hazte Oir (“Make Yourself Heard”) found themselves in hot water after they commissioned a bright orange bus with the message “Boys have penises. Girls have vaginas. Don’t let yourself be fooled.” (A response to a poster campaign in Spain which depicted four naked children including a boy with a vagina and a girl with a penis along with the caption “There are girls with penises and boys with vulvas. It’s as simple as that.”)
The predictable outrage from much of the media and the loudest fringes of the LGBT lobby ensued. Following the usual social media storm, threats of violence against both person and property were directed against the group. Furthermore, it turns out that what Hazte Oir did was such an egregious act of hatred that the Mayor of Madrid was practically forced to illegally impound the bus with the offending message upon it.
(Chelsea Clinton engaged in some first class virtue signalling and the drama continues to unfold.)
Meanwhile, in the UK, Michael Overd and Michael Stockwell were found guilty under Section 31 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, for using “threatening or abusive words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, thereby, and the offence was religiously aggravated.”
From precisely which sections of the Bible Mr Overd quoted is not clear – no doubt he quoted something too unpalatable to be thought, let alone said, about the immorality of homosexuality – but he did make comparisons between Islam and Christianity.
It seems that the Michaels were convicted for quoting parts of the Bible that their listeners did not want to hear. Subsequently, they have been ordered to pay £2016. A pound for every year of Christian “hate” preaching since the Nativity?
Now, what are we to make of these incidents? Both of these are examples of formerly(?) mainstream views – the immorality of homosexual acts and the belief that being male or female is to a large extent, if not entirely, determined by ones genitals – which have rapidly gone out of fashion, and which, to the extent that some backward people and the “deplorables” among us still hold onto them, must be eradicated from society entirely.
There seem to be two broad approaches to dealing with these kind of attacks on free speech and expression.
The first, in theory at least, is a point of unity across the political spectrum. This is a broadly liberal approach. It says “I’m not especially interested in the content of what you say, I’m much more interested that you not be prevented from saying it”. The state can do this by not preventing/punishing you for saying certain things, and also by protecting you from other non-state actors who might be attempting to prevent you from saying what you want to say.
So for the “hate” bus and the “hate” preacher, short of them promoting imminent physical violence, they should be permitted to make whatever political statements they want.
This is often easier to argue because the burden of proof is usually taken to be on the one who would restrict speech, and not the other way around. It takes the form of a challenge: “Who are you to say what can and cannot be said, and by extension, what can and cannot be thought?”
In the present cases: “Who are you to say I cannot write messages about what I think is basic human biology on a bus?” and “Who are you to say I cannot quote from a book?”.
The second approach involves making a substantial argument for your position. This is harder, because the one who holds the minority view assumes the burden of proof.
The burden of proof for either view, on either side, is heavy in cases like these.
Both require somewhat developed philosophical ideas about the nature of “marriage” and what it means to be a man or a woman. In our current intellectual climate, we don’t have a widely-understood, rich vocabulary concerning sexual difference or the nature of marriage. We’ve winnowed that vocabulary down, and flattened sex and marriage down to another question of contracts between individuals which express the interaction of their arbitrary preferences.
When we have the shared assumption that marriage has little if anything to do with sexual complementarity, and that questioning someone’s self-declared identity is tantamount to “discriminating” against that individual, arguments against SSM and transgenderism are viewed as nothing more than hateful bigotry.
Yet this is precisely why the argument must be made. Insofar as your view is thought to have some rational grounds, it is far harder to dismiss as hateful bigotry.
While it is easier to fall back on the first strategy and insist on the right to be wrong and on the right to teach our children to be wrong, this sort of argument only works with truly tolerant people.
The problem now, as the cases under discussion demonstrate, is that many people are profoundly intolerant. They have no interest in letting you say what you want to say, because, as far as they are concerned, you are simply spreading hatred and bigotry. And, fair enough, the spread of true hatred and bigotry is certainly not something to be encouraged.
What I am doing here, in this article, is certainly an example of the former style of argument. I have not made a substantive case for the views held by Hazte Oir and the Christian preachers – at least in part because I don’t agree with them.
I have only barely hinted at a liberal argument in their defence – an argument which questions the role the state is taking in silencing/punishing these people. I do this because it has wider appeal, because the case is easier to make, and because I have limited space here.
Perhaps next time, I’ll up the ante and make a real, substantive argument in favour of one of these groups. Then again, given that I’d like The Quad to continue existing, and given the threats of violence we have seen above, it might be rather imprudent to go after these golden calves – or golden geese? – of progressivism.
Christina Bradbury is a part-time clicktivist and a full-time troublemaker.