Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Orwell test, the Grumpy test and the Derby Three

Do you think that men who have sex with each other should be punished by execution? No, I don't either.

Do you think that someone who not only held that opinion but cared enough about it enough to produce leaflets expounding it, complete with a picture of a gallows, and post them through people's letterboxes would be more than a little repellent? Same here.

Do you think that if you were a homosexually inclined man and you received one of these leaflets you would feel upset about it? We're still in agreement.

So should the distribution of such leaflets be a criminal offence? Since in fact it now is, this may be the point at which our views diverge.

Ever since it started the Harry's Place blog has had a banner which reads "freedom, if it means anything, is the right to tell people what they don't want to hear". Fine words by a fine writer - George Orwell (and it's a pity he doesn't get a name check from HP any more).

So the Orwell test tells me that if I can't say in public that men who have sex with men should be executed, I'm not free.

And let's be clear about the vital corollary to the Orwell test. Since Orwell's day we've become positively addicted to proclaiming our rights, less keen to talk about the obligations without which rights are meaningless. Let's have some big bold red letters:-

"Freedom, if it means anything, is the duty to allow people to tell us what we don't want to hear."
I'll modestly christen that one the Grumpy test.

I don't want to say what the Derby Three said in their leaflets. They do and we must allow them to say it. If we want our society to be a free one, that is, and evidently many of us don't.

Take what is for most of us an equally repellent opinion: that adults should be allowed to have sex with children. Can that be said in public? Anyone saying it is at best on shaky ground. Way back in the Eighties the leading lights of something called the Paedophile Information Exchange were convicted of, if I remember rightly, "conspiracy to corrupt public morals" - a category of offence as vague and potentially all-encompassing as "hate crime" - and as far as I could make out from the trial report in the Times the convictions were based largely on the fact that the group had campaigned for the abolition of the age of consent. It bothered me that it could be illegal to campaign for a change in the law, and if I'd been braver I'd have written a letter to the Times to that effect. I don't recall anybody else being brave enough either - or if they were the paper wasn't brave enough to print it.

But if we want our society to be a free one we are obliged to allow those who so wish to voice this abhorrent opinion. Even if the thought of them getting their way makes us feel sick. Once again, the facts suggest we'd rather not have too much freedom.

I'd like to be able to read the Derby Three's leaflets, and of course the problem is that it would be illegal to reporduce them. No doubt I could find the texts if I did a bit of digging about on non-UK-based Islamist sites, but I'd rather not. I'd just like to satisfy myself on one point which would make everything I've written so far not wrong but inapplicable. That would be the case if they had suggested that Islamic law trumps the law of the land and that Muslims would be justified in taking the law into their own hands. Then we would have a case of incitement to murder on our hands, and anyone guilty of that deserves to have the book thrown at them. There we hit a valid limitation to freedom of speech.

But it doesn't look that way. Partly because the report doesn't say so. And partly because they were apparently charged with "incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation", not the manifestly much more serious offence of incitement to murder.

What the BBC report does do is quote a homosexual recipient of the leaflets:-

He said the first leaflet, Turn Or Burn, made him feel "quite horrified" and it was after he received Death Penalty? that he called the police.

"They made me feel terrorised in my own home," he said.

"Sometimes I wondered whether I would be getting a burning rag through the letterbox or if I would be attacked in the street."
Well, his feelings are entirely understandable. And should be entirely irrelevant. Either the leaflets incited arson and assault or they didn't.

Or shall we make it illegal for Communists to drop their leaflets through the doors of capitalists, on the grounds that they could give the latter nightmares about being murdered in their beds?

George Orwell gave us a terrifying pcture of total thought control. As far as I recall it didn't occur to him that the Party might justify it as being necessary to protect the citizen from unpleasant emotions.

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