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Offending for ourselves

Writers and actors campaigning against the UK government's attempts to outlaw 'religious hatred' deserve a large audience, and a round of applause.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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Performers and writers, reports The Times (London), ‘have helped to force a government climbdown’ over new legislation banning something called ‘incitement to religious hatred’ (1). Well, that’s what they have been trying to do, at least.

The legislation in question, part of the UK government’s Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, represents yet another attempt by the illiberal New Labour administration to chip away at the right to free speech. Since the immediate aftermath of 9/11, no opportunity has been spared to attempt to whip up concern about the terrible consequences of ‘Islamophobia’ (consequences that have yet to materialise), and to use this as a pretext for outlawing speech deemed offensive to religious minorities (2). So the government should climb down, and this legislation should be scrapped.

In fact, there has been no climbdown, only something rather less dramatic. Following intense lobbying by some of Britain’s respected actors and writers, including Rowan (Mr Bean) Atkinson and Salman (The Satanic Verses) Rushdie, the government is reportedly changing the working of its legislation slightly. The offence will become ‘hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds’ to make it clear that religious jokes, beliefs or ideas are not threatened by the new law. ‘It is hatred against people rather than hatred of ideas that we are trying to prohibit’, explained Home Office minister Fiona Mactaggart (3).

Leaving aside for the moment how a government can hope to use law to make ‘hatred against people’ illegal, it is clear that, as opponents of this ‘religious hate’ law have pointed out, such wordplay makes the legislation no less restrictive of free speech. The idea that it can be a crime to use words or behaviour ‘with the intention or likelihood’ that they will stir up hatred against people based on their religious beliefs amounts to creating a new kind of thought crime. The effect could be to outlaw any criticism or joke about religion that can be deemed to be somehow offensive.

It is not difficult to imagine the chilling effect this would have upon art, let alone upon journalism and politics. As we have long argued on spiked, without the right to be offensive there is no right to free speech.

How heartening it is, then, to see writers and artists banding together to oppose this legislation, under the banner ‘Offence’. Organised by English PEN, the writers’ organisation for free expression, the Offence campaign on 10 January sent an open letter to home secretary Charles Clarke, signed by nearly 300 of the UK’s eminent writers, outlining its concerns. ‘The new legislation encourages rather than combats intolerance’, states the letter. ‘We do not need it. What we need is a signal from government that it wishes to defend true democracy and its many virtues, including those of dissent and the freedom of expression.’ (4)

To indicate the UK government’s contradictory approach to religious tolerance, the Offence campaign highlights its refusal to repeal the blasphemy law, ‘a relic of pre-multicultural times’. And to show the crucial role that offending contemporary sensibilities has played in history, the campaign has compiled a list of great writers whose work was deemed highly offensive at the time.

Whatever happens to the government’s new religious hate law, such a campaign is valuable, and well overdue. Our anodyne, risk-averse culture has elevated hurt feelings and sensibilities to such a level that anything that can be deemed remotely offensive to the current ‘acceptable’ etiquette is seen as just cause for censure and censorship. Whether it’s football managers making racist gaffes or politicians arguing for unpalatable programmes, the cries of ‘Shame!’ and the demands for apologies, resignations and bans are loudly heard. By contrast, the notion that it is a good thing for people to challenge the orthodoxy, even if the arguments they use to do so are repugnant, often seems like a quaint custom of history that has no relevance in our modern, right-thinking world.

The Offence campaign seems to be trying to put the case for dissent back on the political agenda, and this is something we badly need. It may not stop the passage of more laws restricting free speech: New Labour’s illiberal streak is too strong, and the political opposition too weak, for that. But such campaigns help to expose the problems of these laws and the cultural climate they create, as well as the utter disregard our politicians hold for free speech, even while they pay lip service to the importance of liberty and democracy.

‘It is right and the state has a right to put some boundaries on free speech’, blithely stated Fiona Mactaggart on 7 February. At least now some are beginning to argue that no, it’s not right for the state to do this; no, the state does not have an automatic ‘right’ to do it; and free speech surrounded by ‘some boundaries’ is not free speech at all.

Read on:

No laughing matter, by Jennie Bristow

‘Religious hate’ should not be a crime, Jennie Bristow

spiked-issue: Free speech

(1) Artists win change to Bill outlawing religious hatred, The Times (London) 7 February 2005

(2) See Incitement to Religious Hatred: Frequently Asked Questions, Home Office, 8 February 2005; Q&A: Religious hatred law, BBC, 7 July 2004; The Crime and Disorder Act: racially aggravated offences, Home Office; Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, HMSO

(3) Artists win change to Bill outlawing religious hatred, The Times (London) 7 February 2005

(4) Open Letter to Charles Clarke Regarding Incitement to Religious Hatred, English PEN

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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