Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on Freedom Of Speech: A Reluctant Fisking

There are times when I feel sorry for Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I’ll see her on some TV program or other, commenting on this or that, and for a few moments I’ll think “she seems like a reasonable lady”, and then she’ll tangle herself up in equality knots, trip over her diversity and morph before my very eyes into a nasty totalitarian. The sad thing is that I don’t think she wants to be, in fact, I think that’s exactly what she’s trying to avoid.

The article she wrote for the Indy looking at freedom of speech issues in the wake of the recent twitter/blogosphere bitch slapping of Jan Moir is a case in point.

She starts off badly muddled already, making me wonder if she’s been drinking. In this paragraph, she seems to be attempting to construct some sort of bizarre naval metaphor for freedom of speech.

The ship flying the flag for free speech is often unsteady, sometimes leaky, as it sails capricious, tempestuous seas. Sometimes even the captains jump off and struggle to keep faith with its mission. Like the supremely erudite Stephen Fry who has always, to my knowledge, been an uncompromising champion of free expression, keeping watch on deck whatever the provocations.

I mean, seriously, what the fuck ? How exactly is freedom of speech like a leaky boat with an interchangeable plunging captaincy ? Who made Stephen Fry one of the captains ? And how did you manage to avoid the more obvious seaman gags ?

Luckiliy, Yasmin provokes herself into abandoning her leaky metaphor before the next few paragraphs, in which she accuses Fry of oppressing Jan Moir. Really.

Yet this Friday came the moment when Mr Fry couldn’t abide by his own credo and ferociously assailed the Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir for her freely expressed views on the young pop star Stephen Gately. His gay lifestyle, she suggested, was “more than a little sleazy” and his death was unlikely to have been from natural causes. Now Fry commands a virtual army on the web. He can make or break someone with under 140 characters.

Oh my GOD! How did he acquire such awesome power, and has anyone told the PRIME MINISTER ? Seriously, I think you overstate the rheumy old queen’s influence, but even were it so, it does not follow, as Yasmin goes on to suggest, that in motivating his “virtual army” he is necessarily causing Moir to loose out on her freedom of expression.

After all, she was free enough to publish her opinion in the Daily Mail, and many many people read it, and it is, in fact, still available on the Daily Mail’s website

Between the Mail’s comment section, twitter and the many many blogs who took issue with it, it turns out that many of those people didn’t much like what Jan had to say, and they took the opportunity to let her know in no uncertain terms.

That, to me, sounds like everyone got a pretty fair hearing. and so I’m not sure what this to do with freedom of speech issues, particularly given that I’m still trying to work out the boat/flag/captain gestalt metaphor, Yasmin feels otherwise

I can understand their rage. The column was ugly, insensitive and homophobic. However, though I passionately believe in free speech, I am not an absolutist nor a hypocrite. The only real argument is where the line is drawn. Perhaps fundamentalists like Fry will now be more honest and accept that there are limits. Even for them.

Ah, now here we are, this is where we finally get to the nub of the issue, this is the part where after seeming a bit confused, but generally sort of nice, Yasmin is about to morph before our very eyes into her very own version of the incredible hulk.

You’ll notice, dear reader, that Yasmin needs to consult a good quality dictionary and possibly a book about logic, as she has here set pen to page and committed that great logical fallacy : the supposition that their should be ‘limits’ on freedom of speech.

The most obvious thing to say is simply that if it’s got limits on it, it aint free.

To try and shake you out of this point of view, Yasmin proposes that we have a little quiz. Yes lets.

Seven events this month reveal the increasing tension between freedom and responsibility. Each case is testing and spawns its own, particular dilemmas. Only libertarian fools and fanatics would give set-piece answers. Test yourself.

I’m pretty sure I know where you’re going to go with this, and I’m pretty sure what my answers will be. Let’s see, shall we ?

First came the national furore over “Pakigate” and Strictly Come Dancing.

What ? That’s not actually a question you know ? I don’t what you’re asking me here. As such, I’m going to declare that one invalid.

Then a picture of Brooke Shields, aged 10, nude, was withdrawn from view by the Tate Modern. The photographer had paid her mum $450 for the image. Shields herself has tried to have this object of exploitation removed from the public eye. So a good call, I think, by the Tate.

Ah, I’m on firmer ground here, but you aren’t. This has sweet fuck all to do with freedom of speech.

It is left as an exercise for the reader to figure out why the Tate decided to (very briefly) use an image that almost certainly breaches the UKs very strict child protection laws in the opening of an exhibition, knowing that it would certainly attract a lot of comment from the press.

Frankly, I think the only ‘dilemma’ raised here is why Yasmin thinks it’s OK to heap child protection issues in with what purports to be an article about freedom of speech. It’s become as of cliché as Godwin’s law that people engaging in public hand wringing about practically anything will eventually use child protection issues as a battering ram for their agenda, and it is really not very cool at all.

The BNP’s bulldoggish Nick Griffin, a white supremacist, admired by the Ku Klux Klan, opponent of Jews, Muslims and mixed-race families, is invited on to the nation’s most prestigious TV programme.

Ah! Now we get to the actual meat of the issue, like so many other people, Yasmin is worked up about the BNP. Let’s take this one, since it actually is about freedom of speech. Firstly, let’s deal with “the nation’s most prestigious TV programme”, which I think is something of an overstatement, to say the least. certainly if we measure by viewing figures, QT is not even in BBC1’s top 30 most watched programs. According to the same source, BBC1 itself accounts for a mere 20.7% of audience.

According to this article in the Telegraph, QT’s biggest ever audience was about 4 million – is the number of people who thought it would be fun to see Margaret Becket destroy her career – which still wouldn’t put in in last weeks top 20. Average audience is 2.6 million, which wouldn’t even put it on the top 30 BBC1 programmes.

I suspect Thursday’s viewing figures will be even higher. That’s what “No Platform” gets you, so well done Retards Against Fascism and associated subsidiaries of the BNPs PR wing.

Moving swiftly on

He, who would deny millions of us the vote, is an emblem of democracy and his violent thugs who try to silence so many of us black and Asian Britons become beneficiaries of free-speech doctrine.

That’s not the question, the question comes later, but this is where Yasmin, like so many other seemingly well meaning folk, is starting to trip her self. Yes, the odious little prick that is Nick Griffin is indeed the beneficiary of ‘free speech doctrine’. And that is as it should be. We can’t just go around making exclusions to the ‘doctrine’ (or law, in fact) just because we don’t like what people are going to say. Yasmin is about to argue otherwise – or at least insinuate heavy handedly that other people ought to – of course, but the simple fact is this : The BNP represent a significant minority viewpoint. If you remove any of their rights, you are persecuting that minority.

The fact that you (and indeed I) may find them a hateful, despicable, minority is really central to the point. Indeed, Yasmin made this argument herself, although clearly not on purpose He, who would deny millions of us the vote, is an emblem of democracy and his violent thugs who try to silence so many of us black and Asian Britons

He wants to silence and disempower those (and plenty of other) groups, and that is bad. You want to silence and disempower the group he represents, and that is also bad.

Free speech simply ceases to exist when you deny it to groups of people that you detest. There are no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’, no matter how many times people twist themselves around this argument, speech is either free, or it is not. It is an absolute. There really are no grey areas to be found.

Cue the Hitler comparison. Griffin is nothing like Hitler, I don’t understand why people keep making it. He probably sits in front of his PC all day with his tiny flaccid cock in hand searching Google News for “griffin hitler”.

Hitler won the votes of the majority. Would the BBC have done him the honour, too? I say the BNP should be interrogated on news programmes but an appearance on Question Time is a privilege which the BBC now bestows on racists. It sickens those of us who expect better of the corporation.

Oh. OK, that’s new. Unlike the thuggish boot boys of the new left, Yasmin is only concerned about Question Time. Listen, Yasmin, the beeb has to be impartial, it has to be representative. Those are in the charter. If the BBC denies the BNP a platform it is neither. This is quite simple. Thus, it isn’t, in fact, a ‘privilege’ to be bestowed but a duty undertaken by a political program. When you say you “expect better”, what you are actually saying is that you expect them to enforce your personal prejudices. One of the common whinges levelled against the BBC by the various odious practitioners of race politics is that the BBC is “pandering to political correctness” by selecting non white members for it’s programs, and we don’t expect the BBC to enforce their prejudices, do we ?

Let’s move on to the next of your seven, because it’s a doozy.

Then comes the ghastly Dutch MP Geert Wilder who overturned the order banning him from entering Britain imposed by the former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. He curses the Koran, damns and insults European Muslims, is a fearless xenophobe and seems to enjoy the hurt he churns up. … I agree that he should be allowed into Britain and I was proud Muslims responded with good sense.

A British youngster politely explains why Geert Wilders must die

But to see him fêted as a hero in parliament was an affront. This must mean free passage for proscribed hate-makers – rabid imams, anti-Semites, homophobic black rappers. If not, it only confirms outrageous double standards.

Ah, see now, you’re almost there. Proscribed hate-makers – rabid imams, anti-Semites, homophobic black rappers – must indeed be treated in exactly the same way that is entirely the point.

The most serious threat to free speech has come from David Miliband, now a skilled double-dealer. He talks the talk on good British values and yet rejects the judgement of two senior judges who demand disclosure of information that could prove our intelligence services colluded with the US and others to torture captured Muslims in the “War on Terror”, in particular Binyam Mohamed who was held in Guantanamo Bay for many years.

This has nothing to do with freedom of speech, and the revolting Milliband did not ‘reject’ the judgement, he appealed against it, which he is perfectly entitled to do. You are here conflating the issue of freedom of information, important in itself, with freedom of speech. We will mark this as another invalid point in an article about freedom of speech.

Next the drama over a scientific study on toxic dumping in West Africa by the company Trafigura, whose lawyers obtained an injunction to keep the information secret, including debates on the scandal in Parliament. The gaggers were duly defeated but commercial confidentiality remains an effective weapon used by big business to keep us in the dark.

Yes, and that was wrong. The libel laws need to be reformed, and the judge responsible for granting the injuction should be taken into the street and beaten. Quite so. Was that right ?

You’ve (again) wrongly conflated two issues though. Commercial confidentiality is what the current government uses to keep us in the dark about how crap they are at administering large projects because they wrote an exemption into the Freedom Of Information Act, so that’s an FOI issue, not a speech issue. Trafigura via Carter Ruck used our overly repressive libel laws to try and silence parliament. Both of these are disgraceful, but they are not related.

And of course, no columnists woolly rant about freedom of speech would be complete without it. It’s the question on everyone’s lips. What to do about the bloggers ?

Lastly, the scientist Simon Singh (a good friend) is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association which objects to his attacks on the profession. He, who is supported by Fry and others, got leave to appeal against an earlier ruling that went against him. Many of us are silenced by the might of libel law. Money, as Orwell wrote, “controls opinion”. Singh wants more “freedom to criticise fairly and strongly” on the blogs and scientific writing. I agree but too many bloggers are mad or malicious.
So what to do about them? Not easy.

Actually, it is very, very easy indeed. Nothing. The mere fact that you raise the question puts you firmly in dribbling totalitarian oppressor mode. Again. Seriously, we’ve already agreed that the libel laws are harsh enough to be open to misuse, and we have seen high court injunctions issued via twitter. What do you want that’s extra ? Regulation ? Because some people say things that you think are mad or malicious ? Do you think those people believe themselves to be mad or malicious ? Perhaps they just have very different points of view to you ?

That’s your seven, and in every case where they actually to freedom of speech, my answer is : Let their be freedom, which is not to be limited only to things that do not displease you. I’m sure that this wasn’t the stance that you wished to take, but it is where you have ended up, as we will see shortly.

Let us move swiftly to conclude, because the rest of the piece is seriously confused.

Libertarian ideologues such as journalist Brendan O’Neill have no such moral conundrums:

Because there are none. Free speech is for all, or it is for none.

“Offensiveness is part of life; the politics of inoffensiveness is a threat to free speech and open debate.” Yes, until people’s deep feelings are roused as were Fry’s by Moir.

No. No. A thousand times no.

The Roman inquisition burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600 for the heresy of heliocentrism. Certainly their deep feelings were roused.

Should Giordano have shut the fuck up just because the Inquisition were a little bit touchy about their doctrine ? Perhaps from self interest, yes, but he was convinced he was correct, and so it turned out to be.

Words do violence to humans, more sometimes than sticks and stones

Really ?

Only Sometimes

More and more freedom is what we must strive for, but a complete lack of restraint leads to anarchy and dehumanisation.

What kind of restraints ? A whole article and you haven’t managed to define any.

Because logically, it is not possible to do so and still believe in the right to freedom of speech. Whatever the consequences.

There was a time not so long ago when the military powers of western Europe were prepared to risk turning most of the Northern Hemisphere into little more than a faintly glowing glass wasteland in preference to their citizens losing the freedom to think and opine as they pleased. By contrast, having some tosser from the BNP on a programme with an audience smaller than the Antiques Roadshow doesn’t seem like such a big fucking deal to me.

Just sayin.

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  1. […] Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on Freedom Of Speech: A Reluctant Fisking […]

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