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Rowan Atkinson Is Right - We Need More Free Speech - But We Also Need More Responsible Speech

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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.‎