The Donald Trump Petition, the “Hate Speech” Argument and the Meaning of Censorship

Last Wednesday, the 9th of December, I published a piece outlining my thoughts on the UK government and parliament petition that was set up in the hope of encouraging the UK’s home office to impose a future ban upon Donald Trump from entering the UK; I felt the petition to be both illiberal and hypocritical in nature.

In spite of this apparent nature, the petition has now received over half a million signatures in support, with the total still continuing to rise. This is also despite the fact the motion has already been considered and dismissed by the UK government (an ultimate decision on granting Trump entry to the UK would lie with the UK’s home secretary), although a formal debate will still be scheduled for a future date to be confirmed, in accordance with the express wishes of the petitioners.

What the debate’s point will be if it is to have no bearing on any possible decision by the home secretary in the future is unclear. Perhaps it will primarily serve to indicate the ultimate pointlessness of the petition mechanism.

Nevertheless, since first publishing my piece, it was brought to my attention that the petition’s seeming hypocrisy may not have been unwitting after all. Rather, that might have been the whole idea behind it. The point was put to me that the exclusionary nature of the motion was, most likely, deliberately parodic of Donald Trump’s suggestion to ban Muslims from the US.

I am told it was meant ironically or was a case of the petitioner playing a sort of devil’s advocate, or perhaps it represented even a form of subversive détournement or a situationist-style prank; a way of serving Trump with a taste of his own medicine and of turning Trump’s stated principles, as well as those of the British establishment, against themselves to expose their faults.

Ultimately then, it was a way of illustrating the stupidity of Trump’s suggestion by likening it to something that he and all his supporters would agree is stupid. Or it was a means simply to expose the UK home office’s seemingly inconsistent approach to such matters. But there was no ultimate intent to actually see Trump banned, nor was the petition truly indicative of widespread and popular support for genuine censorship on the basis of words past expressed. According to the theory anyway.

The possibility that this was the actual motive behind the petition admittedly did not occupy my consideration as I wrote my piece on Wednesday – I overlooked it, perhaps either carelessly or naïvely – but it seemed a plausible interpretation when it was later presented to me.

If such was the motive and those behind the petition did not truly believe in barring people (or barring Trump in this case) from entry to the UK for words they might have spoken, but rather ultimately did cherish freedom of expression, albeit behind a temporary façade for the purpose of simply making an effective point about double standards or hypocrisy rather than a substantive one about actually imposing exclusionary censorship, it might have provided a saving grace for the petition.

However, Suzanne Kelly, the freelance journalist who set up the motion, wrote an article in Time magazine since her petition went viral. She confirms that she actually lodged the petition with the UK government website before Trump made his remarks about banning Muslims from entering the US on the 7th of December.

I had initially assumed, incorrectly obviously, that Trump’s remarks had been the proximate stimulus for the petition as it only appeared publicly on the government website on the 8th of December.

Interestingly (and damningly, in my opinion), it also transpires that Kelly was deadly serious in that she genuinely would like to see a ban being imposed upon Trump by the UK home office. She is unequivocal with regard to her absolute support for the idea of banning Trump from entering the UK on “hate speech” grounds:

There are few things a person in my position can do against a person like that but make use of this country’s wonderful laws and procedures. This petition also gives all those people who agree with me a platform to say we also disagree with hate speech.

That is to suggest that she absolutely supports such exclusionary policies for potential visitors who have thought and said certain things deemed unacceptable or offensive. She clearly was not using the petition as a tool or means to expose any perceived double standards or faults within Trump’s policy-plan or the UK’s existing policies; the petition was simply an end in itself to encourage censorship.

The Scottish National Party‘s Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh appeared as a guest on the BBC’s This Week programme last Thursday evening, the 10th of December, and, although she made a compelling case as to why Trump was such an obnoxious, odious and insidious individual, she, like Kelly, made an impassioned plea for an entry-ban to be applied to him. Elsewhere, the Labour Party‘s Jack Dromey and Caroline Flint also voiced approval of the hypothetical ban.

There clearly are people then in positions of influence who interpreted and supported the petition on an entirely literal, unambiguous basis – in full support of censorship in this instance because they believed censorship in itself was conducive to the public good, whether or not they perceived the state to be applying an inconsistent standard  – rather than as a figurative sort of point-making exercise by using the nominal or apparent threat of censorship to expose the faults of censorship itself and/or the form of its application.

Besides being completely hypocritical, to support censorship on “hate speech” grounds is to support the imposition of an arbitrary and artificial rigidity upon language and thought; it amounts to a reactively-intolerant, indoctrinational, infantilist and conformist limitation, akin to the stifling effect of George Orwell‘s invented “Newspeak” upon the dystopian society in Nineteen Eighty-Four, ceremoniously dressed up as tolerance and civility.

Of course, as Padraig Reidy points out:

Governments have a right to say who can and cannot enter the country, but it’s undesirable that people are barred for their political views: it happens too often already.

To exclude Donald Trump would not only be to deny him of a voice in the UK simply on account of his expressed beliefs; it would be to deprive people in the UK of an opportunity to hear his opinion, consider it for themselves as mature, sentient beings and challenge it if they so wish.

Of course, it is possible that most of those who signed the petition assumed it was an attempt at subversion and that they were playing devil’s advocate simply to make a point whilst still ultimately cherishing freedom of expression, but is it likely the petition would have received over half a million signatures to date in support had it actually championed freedom of expression rather than singling out Trump for exclusion?

It is worth repeating the words of Noam Chomsky as to what honestly supporting free speech actually entails:

Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.

Rick Falkvinge outlines further compelling reasons as to why even “hate speech” should be protected under the principles of free speech. When even the “most despicable” of expressions or the “most vile” utterances are protected, he suggests it is for good reason; every now and then, disruption of the conventional wisdom proves that “the despised people were the ones in the moral right”.

History has shown this to be true; the proliferation of LGBT rights in the Western world is an example of a social evolution from a point where opinions that were deemed sympathetic to homosexuality were once considered an abomination. Indeed, expressions perceived to be “promoting” homosexuality in “denial of traditional family values” are presently outlawed in Russia, for example.

Bertrand Russell also wrote with regard to tolerance:

It is an essential part of democracy that substantial groups, even majorities, should extend toleration to dissentient groups, however small and however much their sentiments may be outraged. In a democracy it is necessary that people should learn to endure having their sentiments outraged.

Generally-speaking if you afford people a certain liberty, some will inevitably use that freedom in ways of which you do not approve and that has to be tolerated. The solution to this is surely not to deprive people of that liberty.

On a pragmatic level, the expressive speech of hatred can also act as a “safety valve” before “hate violence” (which societies generally wish to prevent for good reason) occurs and, in revealing the mind of the speaker, it can illuminate tensions (or potentially even injustices) within society that can be scrutinised so as to find a harmonious resolution. Banning “hate speech”, a symptom, or forcing the repression of hateful thoughts does not rid society of the problems that underlie such belligerent expressions.

Of course, we do not occupy a binary world of black-and-white simplicity; human society is complex and nuanced. Certain rights often come into conflict with other rights and there will be a requirement enforced by simple reality to perform a balancing act. If there are to be regulations or restrictions imposed upon rights such as free expression under certain special circumstances, they ought to be very carefully and rigorously considered, with the law-maker or enforcer proposing the restriction subjected to a high-threshold burden of proof.

Laws which focus simply on the spoken words are problematic and dangerous. Many people would take issue with bullying speech, for example, especially that of a recurring nature, that could potentially cause psychological harm or drive other individuals – the bullied – to personal physical harm, but if that is to be banned, is there a case to be made for banning hurtful gossip too? That would seem rather draconian.

Perhaps there is an answer. If expression must ever be “punishable”, taking it to task on the grounds of imminent, immediate, direct, provable and/or quantifiable “bad consequences”, rather than on the grounds of “bad words” having been spoken, would be a much more justifiable and foolproof approach, for this is where it can be demonstrably shown to have interfered with other freedoms of other people.

Slander, for example, may have a provable, material or objective damaging effect. Direct threats of physical harm and persistent harassment of individuals or discrete groups may well have similar consequences too, or where there is an encroachment upon the privacy or private space of other persons.

Thus, any such regulation would relate to objective effects rather than to the specific spoken words or their nature. After all, if anyone could profess to be offended by anything and everything, and restrictive laws were based on such subjective claims, it would be to potentially stifle free expression completely and at the whim of anyone.

Vidyut points out another imperfection worth considering; a potential discrepancy between theory and practice:

However, for [the ideal of absolute free speech] to work, what is needed is people to be equally eloquent. You see this problem frequently in India, where there is tremendous amount of disinformation spread by certain political entities that is designed to spread hatred for some communities.

Ideally, exposing the disinformation should empower people to reason things through.

In practice, apathy and incompetence of those with mass reach have brought about a situation that there is a large amount of fiction circulating among the masses as “everybody knows” kind of indisputable “facts”. And some of those “facts” are designed to create very serious risk to some people and spread paranoia creating tinderboxes that catch a spark and end with mobs out to kill each other.

[…]I think if there is a conflict of interest and one side is considerably more able to present a view and out-talk the other, there will come a point where some new idea needs to be found. Don’t know if such ideas should be censorship or they should be some form of moderation by independent body or something else.

What that should be is something I don’t know, but I do see that some people have turned the right to free speech into a tools that turns others into weapons for their interest with no risk to themselves.

Indeed, it is easy to advocate absolute freedom of expression when, on account of one’s position of privilege, one does not suffer materially from being at the butt of it, but the concerns of the suffering are not easily dismissed; is the answer to an imperfect world the adoption and application of inconsistent principles? It is fundamentally difficult to justify favouritism and bias, even when it is of a seemingly benevolent nature or when it might appear warranted to, say, correct perceived wrongs and re-balance structural or societal imbalances. Arguably, it is to justify tyranny by another.

On the other hand, perhaps existing imbalances do justify applying, for remedial purposes, inconsistent measures in certain circumstances. Affirmative action or employment quotas to protect under-represented minorities within particular states might be examples of that, although such policies are contentious and do have their vehement detractors. It is a complex question and I will not pretend I am qualified to sufficiently answer it one way or another. I can merely consider it and suggest that a very compelling reason be required if ever to attempt to justify treating a specific person or group unfavourably compared to another.


It was also suggested to me that the proposal to ban a foreign national from entering the UK was not a censorship matter. However, when the UK’s home office singles out and excludes any person from entry to the UK solely for having engaged in what they deem to be “unacceptable behaviour”, which can include simply words that subject has spoken or written, it amounts to a direct and very intentional means of restraining or placing an obstacle upon the spread of any message it is believed the subject may have been wishing to disseminate whilst in the UK had they otherwise been permitted access just like millions of other visitors to the UK every year. Essentially, the home office would have been taking steps in this instance to prevent ideas it deemed threatening, undesirable or non-conducive to the public good from entering the public’s consciousness.

Utilising the term “censorship” to describe such exclusion is entirely appropriate in this context. Nowadays, the word is commonly understood to refer to the suppression or deletion of material from, say, publications, books or films, but the word’s origin is found in the Latin word “censor”, fairly obviously. In the days of ancient Rome, censoring was the job of two Romans whose duty was to supervise public behaviour, manners and morals (as well as maintain the census). Indeed, the Roman censors possessed the power to exclude persons from the lists of citizens in order to maintain and safeguard the traditional Roman character, ethics and habits.

If the home office was to ban Trump for his spoken words or for “unacceptable behaviour”, that would most certainly be tantamount to an attempt to supervise the content to which the UK public might have access on the supposed basis that what Trump might have to express would not be appropriate for the public’s consumption, beneficial to the public’s well-being or conducive to the public good.

Update as of 9:00AM on the 11th of January, 2016: The parliamentary debate to discuss the idea of banning Donald Trump from the UK has been scheduled to take place on Monday the 18th of January.

Update as of 11:00PM on the 18th of January, 2016: The debate went ahead in Westminster Hall. I have written further on it here.

 

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3 comments

  1. […] as of the 12th of December, 2015: I have written a follow-up piece here discussing some points that were raised to me as to the perceived nature of the petition and […]

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  2. […] object to the presence of others, who are deemed to have encouraged and advocated violence,  on “hate speech” or “unacceptable behaviour” grounds struck […]

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  3. […] a previous article I’d written – inspired by the debate surrounding the petition to ban Donald Trump from […]

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