VOLTAIRE NEVER actually jotted down or uttered the famous, “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend, to the death, your right to say it”. However, the quote is said to sum up the attitude of the Frenchman.
Most in the Western world that champion democracy and its subtext of free speech will claim that the statement sums up their attitude too.
Yet, many of these people believe also that the British National Party (BNP) should not be allowed to preach its own views at the University of Manchester. Despite freedom of expression being the cornerstone of many liberals’ ideology, it turns out that if exercising it changes the status quo–or God forbid, offends somebody–then they recoil in horror and explain that the romantic ideal is not always to be adhered to.
The BNP falls into this category as many regard its views as racist. Only allowing white members and not a being huge fan of Islam, the BNP wants to preach its hatred for all things not British at the University’s Students’ Union.
The Party has, however, come under criticism from certain members of a Union that – after choosing to remodel its toilet signs to be gender neutral so as to cater to trans students – cannot claim to be anything but liberal.
So where’s the catch? What makes a liberal Union, which has the plank of free speech propping up its entire way of thinking, stop as soon as “hate speech” comes along?
Harm. British philosopher John Stuart Mill suggested that the buck stops when someone might come to “harm” as a result of the ideal of free speech. What’s harm?
Inciting racism is surely harmful to society? Or is it? Is the act of incitement itself worthy of being described as harmful? Surely, if you disagree with BNP leader Nick Griffin, the best punishment you can dish out to him and his band of merry white men is to argue your point, pushing the bounds of logic and reason and thus humiliating the Cambridge graduate into coming across as the vile racist that he is.
Richard Dawkins is an advocate of pushing those boundaries to their limits. In his ‘God Delusion’ he sought to do just that knowing full well that he would fall within the same category as Nick Griffin and come under attack for blasphemy (still a crime!) as well as causing offence, which could be taken to mean causing harm.
Dawkins believes that the world would be a better place if logic were followed to its natural conclusion rather than being curtailed by religion and lack of reason. And I believe that, given a few decades, the majority of the world will agree with him.
Whether I agree with Dawkins or not, he has a point to make. His ideas have the potential to change the world – for better or worse. It is people like him that have changed the course of history.
In the same way, the BNP’s views have the potential to change the country – again, for better or worse. Who are we to curtail their right to spout logic and reason, especially if they make it so easy for us to see the holes in their argument?
Rather than silencing them and pushing their views towards an underground and ill-educated class, let them speak to us all and let us protest in the best way possible: by listening and arguing our case. Only then will they and their potential audience realise what a mess the Party really is.
As a footnote, bearing in mind the era in which he lived, Voltaire was not as enlightened as some choose to think. He believed that Africans were a separate and inferior species. It appears that he may have been a member of the BNP of his day and imagine if the world had not let him speak his mind.