Counter-extremism and freedom of speech

Image: UK Home Office

The counter-extremism strategy recently published by the government is, mostly, well intentioned, harmless, and sometimes meaningless. Mostly. Unfortunately, there’s a section titled – rather sinisterly – “Disrupting Extremists”. In it, the PM insists that he needs to “put out of action the key extremist influencers who are careful to operate just inside the law but who clearly detest British society and everything we stand for.” New legislation strengthening Ofcom’s powers of censorship and allowing the government to ban organisations and restrict individuals is promised.

Rightly so, you could say. Good on you Theresa, well done Dave. Dear readers, I trust that this misguided and dangerous strategy would elicit no such reply. I choose my words carefully: the strategy is certainly misguided. It is well known that when a government seeks to defeat a doctrine through suppression, the government creates precisely the dark, anaerobic conditions in which the doctrine thrives. Lacking direct opposition and attractively forbidden, the doctrine spreads through YouTube monologues, through cheap pamphlets, through furtive meetings in squalid halls. If you give them the poisonous oxygen of publicity, or the dazzling sunlight of scrutiny – which, foolishly, they desire keenly – you can actually see these people for what they are. If an Islamic extremist were invited onto BBC Newsnight, say, alongside the most respected and articulate Islamic scholars, any lies or distortions their beliefs rely on would quickly be revealed and discredited. It is important not to forget why our parliamentary system is based on examination and debate.

I hope the reasons that the strategy is dangerous are even more obvious. Chief among them, it seems, is that the strategy defines extremism as: “the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” This is almost laughably vague. A definition that reclassifies many ukippers, cybernats, and corbynites as extremists cannot be plausible – tempting though this may sound…Perhaps more absurdly, also caught in this new definition is the very government that passes these bills – bills that show a certain lack of tolerance of those with different beliefs.

When the government seeks to ban an organisation or restrict individuals, not for what they do, but for what they say, a dangerous path is embarked on. Certain things become unsayable and, therefore, unthinkable. That is a power no government should have.

 

I’ll end with two quotations:

 

The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defence would be necessary of the ‘liberty of the press’ as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government. No argument, we may suppose, can now be needed, against permitting a legislature or an executive, not identified in interest with the people, to prescribe opinions to them, and determine what doctrines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear. (J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 1859)

 

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties. (John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644)

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