Difference, Free Speech and Universal Values

The proposed hate crime clauses of the Scottish Crime Bill are being redrawn because of claims they will criminalize ‘legitimate acts of expression’.

Climbdown on the Scottish Hate Crime Bill: a small setback for those who believe that attacking freedom of speech is the way to deal with prejudice and hatred of minorities. Without free speech there wouldn’t have been any vocal minorities in past decades demanding their rights, nor would they be heard now.

The ‘debate’ around freedom of expression has become a war zone and the attacks on it are coming as much or more from progressives than from conservatives. There are already adequate laws in most western countries against incitement to violence or to other illegal acts and that’s as far as legislation needs to go or should go.

Behind many of the attacks from progressives is the postmodern affect culture. The predominant attitude is ‘ If you make me uncomfortable I needn’t talk to you. I’m different from you and I don’t need to persuade you or listen to your views’. Difference is all. Members of each group busy not making each other feel uncomfortable are enclosed in a self-referential bubble. Applied consistently, this solipsistic language game leaves no possibility of arguing against Trump’s wall or against western wars, or against “white identity” or even against racism. Racism can only be just another attitude held by another identity goup busy not making themselves feel uncomfortable.

The fact that “white identity” has taken off in recent years is partially a product of the same liberal affect culture. Some progressives have painted themselves into a corner. No amount of buts and howevers and special pleading can manoeuvre them out of it. If I can identify as a woman then others can identify as white men. The only way to escape the dilemma is to admit there’s something flawed in the idea behind the myriad identities sprouting all around us. The clue to this lies in the Foucaultian absurdity, so beloved in class-privileged academic race, culture and gender studies departments, that everything is socially constructed. This ‘theory’ is not even wrong. Much like saying ‘everything is up’, it makes no sense because having no reference point outside of itself it can neither be proved nor disproved. In the commonsense world outside of university seminar rooms some things are and some things aren’t socially constructed. Our identity as humans, unlike culture or cultures, is not a social construct but a real existing fact of nature.

When  ‘I won’t talk to you’ is taken a step further, speakers get de-platformed; like Meghan Murphy in Canada hounded by angry Trans activists, because her view that there are only two genders in nature makes them feel uncomfortable. Just shut down what we don’t like. Going still further, the withdrawn part of the Scottish Crime Bill would make “stirring up of hatred” or “posssesing inflammatory material” even without the intention to do so an offence – both vaguely enough worded to mean almost anything. Standup comedians would have to be very careful where their jokes go, and bookshops would have to avoid books that might contain offensive sentences to be sure of not getting prosecuted. Imagine Catherine Tate taken to court for “how very dare you”.*

The ‘even without intent’ clause of the proposed bill is clearly derived from the idea that racial and other micro-aggressions are still hurtful when they’re not intended. This is certainly true and makes it encumbent on people generally to develop their sensitivty and empathy for others. It’s not a good idea to assume that a gay man can’t help carry a wardrobe, to speak in pidgin English to someone with a foreign accent, or to assume that someone with an Asian-looking face who speaks with a London accent isn’t British. There are social mechanisms to deal with this, from disapproving looks, to ‘c’mon man or ma’am’, and to stronger social disapproval – but not social exclusion (unless the aim is to encourage unconscious discrimination). But it’s a very big step from social disapproval to criminal prohibition.

The attitudes ‘I will prosecute you’, or ‘I will shut you down’ or ‘I won’t talk to you’ are both counter-productive and defeatist. Shutting people down inflames them to stronger conviction, and not talking with them increases any sense they might have of being part of a shunned group. Just look at Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”; working people from the Rust Belt (some of them previous Obama voters) who turned to Trump for salvation from their justified sense of being neglected and left behind. They are part of the first US generation in history to experience lower living and health standards and shorter life spans than their parents. They have generally white skin, but they are cheated and have their deprivations imposed on them by others who have white skin. Their experience needs to be taken seriously, not sneered at from a high moral place.

Refusing to talk with people is fundamentally defeatist, as is legislating to prevent speech, even of the insulting kind. It means giving up on the idea of discussing and persuading, and at the same time on the need to listen to other points of view however much you disagree with them. In an article I read recently a writer argued for talking with and listening to people he saw as extremists. Only by doing so would it be possible to persuade them of the wrongness of their ways. That is not an example of listening, nor is it a conversation. Listening means being prepared to see the mistakes of your own ways, or at least to get some new perspective from someone coming from a different place. The writer was making the common mistake of assuming his own, or his identity group’s infallibility.

The politics of difference is the politics of division. At the extreme end of this, universal values, including freedom of speech, are seen as arising from European culture, an imperialist imposition or even a white supremacist attempt at cultural defacement of ‘inferior’ traditions. Behind this view itself lies an imperialist assumption: that Europeans invented universal values. They didn’t. They described them, that’s all, as did others in other cultures. (And they ignore them, flout them and mock them, just as other, albeit less powerful cultures do). The assumption enables the not infrequent opinion in the west that Arabs, for example, don’t mind living under dictatorships.

This leads to the question – just ducking around all the intellectual theories, the moral philosophy, the religion and all the rest of the obfuscating verbiage, and coming down to everyday experience – what do universal values grow out of?

No human likes to be tortured, arbitrarily imprisoned, to be violently attacked, to have their city or their village bombed or napalmed, to see their children mutilated, to see their family murdered, to be overwhelmed by war, to suffer hunger or famine, to be worked to death for a pittance, to have their small piece of land stolen, to be driven from their home, to be cheated and exploited by governments, to have their earth and their water poisoned by giant corporations., to lose their livelihood or have it reduced to hardship. Out of universal suffering grows a feeling of empathy for others who are suffering and the sense that there are limits to what can be allowed. People who are suffering injustice want to be heard by others. That basic connection is what universal values are about.

A politics of connection can grow out of empathy and a willingness to listen and will lead to the question, how deplorable are the basket of deplorables really. Some white supremacists, particularly those committed to violence or murder, or are neonazis, are almost certainly unreachable; but most of those who blame immigration or refugees or people with darker skin for their problems, have been conned by propaganda and dog-whistling in politics and in the corporate-owned media into the ages-old trap: divide and rule. To see them as deplorables or as the enemy or as stupid Brexiteers is to fall into the same trap. Shutting down communication or reducing freedom of speech, not hearing them, perpetuates the divide or at the very least makes it even more difficult to cross.
Feeling comfortable is a boutique luxury that’s not worth the price..
*Popular British comedy series in which Catherine Tate parodies among others a gay man

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