Silencing "Hate Speech" Doesn't Stop Hate

01/04/2015 00:05 | Updated 31 May 2015

Anti-fascism is in my blood. As a teenager in the late-1970s, I became involved in Anti Nazi League protests and attended free Rock Against Racism festivals. I was concerned with racism in part because I attended a school where 90% of pupils were non-white, and I could directly see the corrosive effects of racism. But I was also aware of fascism because of my grandparents' experience in the Jewish East End of London during the 1930s, where locals and anti-fascist supporters faced the real threat of fascism on a daily basis, and eventually had to physically confront the fascists in the streets.

My generation too saw clashes with far-right groups. The first protest I remember attending was to stop the British Movement (BM) from marching through Paddington in West London, at that time an area with a large black population. A couple of thousand fascists faced tens of thousands of counter-protesters. But although it was important to defend immigrants against fascist thuggery, the real battles against racism were won through discourse, not hostility. The Notting Hill Carnival was created to bring together black and white working class communities that had found themselves living side by side. The reggae and ska music scenes of the 70s and 80s brought white and black people together in the same venues.

By the 90s, the London estates that had been hotbeds of National Front support were the places where you were most likely to encounter mixed-race children. During the confrontational 80s, overt racism had ceased to be acceptable, and British society had been transformed forever. Racism had not (of course) been eradicated, but it had gone into a downward spiral. The nastiest days of the 1970s would never return. London had become one of the most racially mixed cultures on the planet. My own family is a product of that mixture: I'm a Londoner of Jewish descent, with a British-Nigerian partner and two mixed-race children.

But away from the immigration frontlines, a different anti-racism battle was being fought. In the 1970s, student activists in (overwhelmingly white) universities had declared a policy of "No Platform for Fascism", refusing to allow far-right speakers a space in universities to present and debate their views. In hindsight, this policy achieved nothing of value. University students may have felt smug in silencing nasty views on university campuses, but in doing so, they prevented exactly the kind of safe discourse that was needed to undermine bigoted viewpoints. No Platform for Fascism simply protected middle-class students from having to hear nasty words; it was the political equivalent of putting one's fingers in one's ears and singing "LA LA LA" when faced with something one didn't want to hear.

But rather than learn from the success of the broader anti-racism movement, student unions have become increasingly eager to censor any viewpoint that their leading clique finds distasteful. No Platform for Fascism has become simply No Platform. Universities, which should be the foremost venues for the discussion of ideas - especially controversial ideas - are instead becoming sanitised places where the issues of the real world are brushed away out of sight. In addition to fascist views, all forms of (alleged) racism, anti-semitism, islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny and transphobia are banned from discussion. Furthermore, speakers who are alleged to hold bigoted views can be No Platformed, even if they are speaking on unrelated subjects.

No Platform is a deeply patronising exercise. A proponent recently argued on a Facebook thread that the presence of a Britain First speaker in a debate might upset Muslim students, and so should not be allowed. But this assumes that Muslim students are all deeply sensitive, and are incapable of dealing with far-right speakers in face-to-face discussion. It takes away the one safe place where Muslims might confront anti-Muslim views safely. And it ignores the fact that Muslim students still have to face prejudice in the real world outside universities. All No Platform does in this case is remove a valuable opportunity to challenge and expose the weakness of bigoted viewpoints.

All censorship, including No Platform, is an elitist activity. Censors are generally self-appointed individuals who believe they have the right to decide which viewpoints should not be spoken or heard by anyone. Most censorship works without any form of due process; if someone is alleged to have broken the law, they have the right to a fair trial. But if someone is alleged to be racist or transphobic, fairly or unfairly, there is no right to a trial; the elitists who run student unions are judge, jury and executioner.

Sadly, the idea that "bad" views should be silenced is gaining traction beyond universities. British hate speech laws are overly broad and allow the police to intervene in public discourse. As a Jew, I have no problem with Spurs fans calling themselves "Yiddos", and I'm perfectly capable of hearing and responding to anti-Jew viewpoints. But the political and media elite have chosen to take that power away from me; along with Asians, blacks, gays and other supposedly "oppressed" groups, I'm deemed too sensitive and too incoherent to defend myself.

However, silencing hateful views doesn't prevent hate; in fact, it does the opposite. it allows tensions to build, and helps promote the view that selected minorities receive special treatment. I have no doubt that the rise of Ukip is driven, in part, by censorship of "unacceptable" viewpoints. The more hamstrung Labour and Tory politicians become by over-sensitive language policing, the easier it becomes for Nigel Farage to present himself as a straight-talking man of the people.

Worst of all, censorship of "hate speech" is an admission of defeat. It is a statement that bigoted views are so powerful that they cannot be countered with words, so must be silenced by force. But bigoted views are not powerful at all; they're based largely on ignorance and fear, and are easy to ridicule and undermine, given the chance for debate. But instead of debate, the taboo of "hate speech" gives us a braying mob that silences unpleasant or provocative viewpoints with howls of "racist!", "homophobe!", "misogynist!"...

We live in a far more tolerant and accepting society than our grandparents did; we have achieved this in spite of, not because of, the PC language police. Minorities are never served by censorship; ultimately, it can and will be used to silence anyone. Free speech must reign in a free society, and this must necessarily include bad speech. As Voltaire (allegedly) said: "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."

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