A list’s emerged of those who, for extremist comments and views, have been banned from the United Kingdom. Those banned include Fred Phelps, the pastor notorious for advocating the picketing of funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq in an attempt to ‘warn’ the world that ‘God has killed them because America supports fags’; the equally appealing ex KKK Grand Wizard Stephen Black, and other delightful folk, such as Yunis Al-Astal, the hard-line Hamas MP who declared he would “conquer Rome, and the Two Americas, and from thereon Eastern Europe” as well as Jewish extremist Mike Guzovsky.
There is a serious question to be asked here – is this fair enough in a bid to protect our vulnerable democracy, or a threatening affront to free speech? There is a genuine slippery slope argument to be made here – it might start with extremists but how long before anybody not of a government positions is barred from entering the UK?
It would certainly be in line with the British Government’s recent behaviour. The recent G20 meeting in London was marred by the death of newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson, who died of an abdominal rupture after being assaulted by police officers on his way home from work. Video emerged of the assault, and it is clear that Mr. Tomlinson is walking away from the scene and not protesting – although protesting is not illegal and certainly doesn’t merit the behaviour shown by some officers on that day. This attack occured in line with the aggresive laws brought in to side with the State over the Citizen – including proposals for ID cards, airport screening and advocating strong police tactics at protests. The government, as a response to the War on Terror and now the Overseas Contingency Operation, have, as Nietzsche would say, stared into the abyss and been consumed by it.
But does that really mean everybody has a right to free speech? At my University’s Student Union, a motion was passed recently which banned the BNP from campus. It was done on the argument that groups like the BNP are a greater threat to democracy than they are contributors to it. But is this not actively utilitarian with views? Whilst it may seem necessary to ban a group like the BNP, the principle Voltaire advocated when he said “I may not like what you say, Sir, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it,” is often appealed to as a reason to stay such bans. Surely it is up to the British people to decide which views are valid and which extreme. If you trust in the sophistication of the British people, then surely you would believe such groups would be discredited anyway.
However, there is a line to be drawn in democracies when it comes to the issue of free speech. The idea of free speech is just that – a vague, undefined idea. Therefore there seems to be an important marker which is used to define what is a valid contrbution of free speech to democracy and what is damaging – as long as it doesn’t affect anybody else’s ability to participate in a democracy, then it’s fine. This should result in two principles – that generally you are advocating or denouncing ideas, rather than people, and secondly, that you can attack people for things they can prevent but not things they can’t. So, for example, attacking a politician for their immigration policy is acceptable. Shouting racist abuse at such immigrants is not.
Ideologically, I’m the sort of person who typcially would leap on the bandwagon of free speech and appeal to the romantic nature of free speech in order to preserve our democracy. Not this time. Such pandering to a vague undefined idea is the worst part of liberalism for the sake of liberalism – being ideological for the sake of it. When the people in question are advocating the death of those in the west, the persecution of homosexuals, or actively encourage lynchings, I frankly don’t give a damn whether or not there is a defecit of democracy or a free speech issue. I simply do not want these people in my country.
I believe in the sophistication of the British people. Politicians usually come awry when thy undermine the intelligence of the British public, and assume that they can use PR to massage the truth and undermine the necessary trust between government and public. But this country is not a utopia. The 7/7 bombers were British Born young males. Similarly, the BNP has an alarmingly large youth membership. But the problem I have is that I do not want people like Fred Phelps coming over here and manipulating one child into spouting the kind of foul-mouthed bigotry he espouses, nor do I believe the majority of British people want the funerals of their brave sons and daughters picketed by slack-jawed yokels. And people like the ex-Grand Wizard of the KKK can just stay away too, thanks. Race relations in areas like Oldham or Burnley are fraught enough in this country. Let’s not pour fuel on the fire by allowing those morons who antagonise the situation.
Britian is a great country. It’s far from perfect, and all three of its governing parties need to be held to account more and be more in tune with the ideas of the people. Extremism can also be countered by not having a foreign policy which allows for illegal wars. Usually lesser government is better than more, but in this case, the liberal idea of applying free speech that to those, that, given half the chance would advocate removing it for their singular and polemical account of events,is nowhere near as important a promoting a tolerant and equal society, which promotes respect and in all possible cases, condemns extremism.