Comic Rowan Atkinson has reignited debate over free speech this week through his campaign to repeal part of Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act, which outlaws "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress". Specifically, Atkinson believes, and I share his concern, that the term "insulting", in addition to the phrasing "likely to cause", are far too subjective and, as such, threaten free speech.
That the law has already been used in Kafkaesque fashion, is well illustrated by the case of the Oxford University student arrested for asking a policeman: "Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?" and pertinently, by a 16-year-old boy held for holding a placard reading 'Scientology is a dangerous cult'. (For the record, yes I would still be defending his right had the placard read 'Islam is a dangerous cult'). Civil liberties campaigners, Liberty have stated Section 5 "can have serious implications on peaceful protestors and others exercising their freedom of expression, as someone who uses insulting language that might distress another were they to hear it could be guilty of an offence."
The concern lies in a scenario where meaningful criticism can be curbed under this banner, where accounting leaders through peaceful protests, or any other language or behaviour that might be deemed 'insulting', could be curtailed. While we should be able to say something which might be perceived as insulting about someone's religion, more importantly surely is the fact we should be able to say something insulting, or even act 'insultingly' towards those who enact regressive policies, who threaten the NHS, who cut support for the disabled and vulnerable, those who make higher education unobtainable for the majority. As things currently stands, the poor phrasing of Section 5 joins a host of other worryingly vague limits placed on free speech which, rather than protecting minorities, carry the seeds of state censorship.
However, in the words of Spiderman (and possibly someone else!), with great power, also comes great responsibility. The right to insult means we should have the right to express our views without fear of prosecution, even if they happen to insult someone. What it surely doesn't mean is the obligation to intentionally trample upon people's sensitivities. One might express a view which might be deemed insulting by someone, but surely the objective of seeking to insult them, for insult's sake, is simply egregious. It shouldn't be illegal, but it should be deplored. In real life, people who walk around insulting people for the sake of it are called idiots. They're not lauded as the human embodiments of free speech.
Should we have the right to say things to one another which might be deemed insulting? Absolutely. Should we define the European 'creed' as the obligation to insult one another - definitely not. None of us want to see free speech used as an excuse to go back on hard fought for tolerance, for bigots to have free rein to spout racist/homophobic/sexist/islamophobic/etc tirades unchallenged, just as much as one might not wish to see such statements prosecuted or censored. It is possible to believe in the need for clearer, less restrictive legislation whilst also calling for more empathy and understanding of the experiences of those minorities who will inevitably be on the receiving end of some of the less palatable free-speech.
The concern is that the free speech debate actually masks an underlying concern that religion in general but Islam in particular, represent an inherent threat to the secular liberal worldview. From this perspective, insulting Islam and Muslims represent not merely a right to free speech, but an obligation to confront values assumed to be incompatible. According to a YouGov poll, more Britons (43%) than Americans (39%) believe in a fundamental clash of cultures between Islam and the West, and this has bred the sadly widespread view that not only are religious people not worthy of protection but that their 'pre-enlightenment superstitions' must be derided at all costs, including the cost of our social cohesion. There surely is some irony in discussing the 'issue' of the integration of Muslims, if they're deemed inherently incompatible by virtue of that religiosity. As with all minorities, the two-way process of civic integration requires broader society to acknowledge the particular sensitivities of those we regard as our democratic equals. It doesn't mean minorities will never be insulted, it just means there won't be a concerted campaign to insult them. When comedians or satirists choose to mock the most marginalised and disenfranchised, rather than the powerful and the corrupt, it poses much more significant questions than 'can we insult Islam'. It raises rightful concerns over the use of such arguments as a smokescreen to obscure some of the crudest forms of racist vilification. In some cases, rather than representing the best of the European tradition of satire, such material can be located within a tradition of racist representation.
When the way we discuss minorities impacts their life, through discrimination and sometimes even violence, there is a responsibility upon us all to ensure the vilification is not afforded a credence which bolsters the hate-mongers. Studies of hate crimes suggest a link between negative representations of minorities and their targeting by violent individuals or groups. Protecting the psychological and physical wellbeing of fellow citizens is as about as axiomatic as any value gets. To do so should not require further ambiguous legislation but rather a shift in our perception of Muslims - as an integral part of our society, their grievances are, like the grievances of any minority, our grievances. Freedom of speech may well be a central British value, but so is live and let live. It's a mistake to assume they're mutually exclusive, but it's also complacent to assume that either is immune from erosion.