Last Tuesday I was lounging around with a few other heads who attend the University of York. We were sipping delectably cheap red vino when the topic of the BNP arose. The trite remarks exploded in a torrent: “nutters”, “fruitcakes” and infinite other informative words toeing the same line. I resent this attitude. Let me make clear, I am as opposed to the BNP as they were. But I am also opposed to a good few other things that I shall elucidate on.
Freedom of speech is a brilliant locus to commence with when dealing with extremist parties. My friend facetiously said “shoot the whole lot, that’ll shut them up”. Joke or not, it points to a serious issue: the veil so often placed over extremist views. Consider the furore when Nick Griffin appeared on Question Time in 2009. I was at the protest outside the BBC on the night Griffin appeared and, to my distaste I found that, of the few people I talked to, the majority opposed Griffin’s right to be on Question Time rather than being simply anti-BNP as I was.
Put simply, they were protesting, at least in part, against the BBC’s decision. This attitude was exemplified by Tony Booth, the writer, actor, political activist and Tony Blair’s father-in-law, whose Guardian comment culminated in “what is the BBC doing by appearing to reinforce the idea that far right policies and personnel are in any way acceptable in this country?”. It is this slightly absurd, dictatorial stance which I find truly deplorable.
“But they’re racist! We must silence them. They’ll corrupt people’s brains. Everybody will turn into BNP robots and have racist slogans indelibly scrawled on their foreheads. I could have replied “But you’re stupid! I must silence you. You’re corrupting my brain”. But I didn’t. This is how freedom of speech operates. By definition, we must allow those views we disagree most with. Even when my friend spews spurious platitudes. Even when the BNP want a voice. As Mill said, there is a “peculiar evil [in] silencing the expression of an opinion”.
Freedom of speech aside, the idea that if extremist parties have a voice people will simply believe their utterances is farcical and insulting. This idea necessitates a stupid public. The image of our society as an army of credulous zombies absorbing any statement as truth and begging for enlightenment is distinctly unpleasant. I would argue the inverse. By not allowing extremists a platform, more people will succumb to their beliefs, because there is no combating light of reason to the devious whispers in the dark. And therein lies the problem. I would actively encourage society to allow extremist voices to be heard.
Alongside this encouragement comes an accusation. Our censorship, whether it be entirely literal or simply shouting down with vitriolic insults, is to blame, at least in part, for these extremist parties. Despite Thatcher’s claims, we have a society and it is society’s role to create engagement instead of apathy or disillusionment. The mainstream should be the ones mobilising disengaged people, not a party such as the BNP or the EDL.
For any dissenting from this opinion I implore you to consider one question: why? Why do so many get sucked up by the extremist machine? Let’s kick a few neurons around and see if any perspicacity can be gained. You need to only watch a couple of YouTube videos to know two things: firstly, that a lot of BNP supporters keep talking about the same issues. Namely immigration, immigration, immigration.
As worrying as it is, the BNP proselytise some form of logic, even if it is barbaric. Somehow, the BNP are offering ideas more cohesive, more logical, more inspiring than everyone else. And let us not belittle that scary fact. Secondly, some issues raised actually exist. For example, BNP supporters may be people faced by unemployment or awfully paid jobs whilst reading and hearing about absurd bankers’ bonuses.
I am not saying that we must stop attacking racist institutions. I am all for that. Instead, the ubiquitous demonisation of individual members of extreme political parties, whether it is our very own BNP, the Tea Party, Le Front National or any of the numerous others, has to stop. If these parties are so ridiculous we should engage in debate, wherein dogmas will be finally exposed and torn asunder.
Mostly, we need to recognise our joint humanity and treat others humanely, recognising others’ problems and embracing them, flaws and all. Mill speaks eloquently on the subject of freedom of speech, so I should leave you with a fantastic quote. “Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’”.