The right to be offensive

Creeping censorship must be opposed - even if feelings get hurt, argues James Turley

It seems that freedom of speech is once again being quietly undermined. The recent libel case of Simon Singh, the scientist sued by the snake-oil salesmen of the British Chiropractic Association, had the positive effect of outlining the absurdly punitive restrictions on free expression embodied in libel law - but it remains in place, and talk from government ministers and others has yet to be translated into action over the issue.

Yet, apart from the sledgehammer-subtlety of the libel laws in this country, there is a quieter story - that of the creeping censorship of ‘offensive’ cultural material and views. A little out of view, the constriction of public expression is reaching Kafkaesque proportions.

On March 30, Dudley council vetoed the performance of a play in a local school, Phillip Ridley’s Moonfleece. Ridley is not known for his subtlety, having written some by all accounts pretty traumatising scripts over the years, though this one is targeted at younger audiences. Nor is he reticent about confronting critics: those who objected to the content of a previous Ridley show were dismissed as “blinder than a bagful of moles in a cellar”; and Moonfleece, centred on an unpleasant far-right milieu, is deliberately touring towns where the British National Party is threatening to make a breakthrough.

In Dudley, the performance was to have taken place three days before a march by the English Defence League. The council had no problem waving through the proto-fascist EDL; no such luck for Ridley and Black Country theatregoers, though - Moonfleece was deemed likely to “inflame racial tensions”. Those of us opposed to ‘hate speech’ legislation have long teased our adversaries with the notion that, surely, banning ‘hate speech’ is itself being hateful to hatemongers. Now, a local council may have genuinely spiked a play for fear of insulting the BNP.

Across the Atlantic last week, a different sort of controversy erupted over the caustic and enjoyably puerile cartoon series, South Park, when a highly self-referential 200th-episode two-parter set up the appearance of the prophet Muhammad alongside other religious leaders. An earlier episode featuring Muhammad was censored following the Danish Jyllands-Posten affair; in the event, this one was broadcast, but with Muhammad blacked out, and references to him on the soundtrack bleeped over. The show’s distributor, Comedy Central, was apparently, and ludicrously, spooked by an empty threat left on an Islamist website to the effect that Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the show’s creators, could “end up like Theo Van Gogh”, the murdered Dutch filmmaker.

Asked to comment on the affair on the vapid radio debate show, Any questions, Labour minister Jack Straw - a veteran illiberal, of course - argued that going out of your way to offend people was unacceptable, that it was absolutely necessary to show proper respect to different faiths’ “cultural imperatives”, and that portraying Muhammad in a mocking or disparaging way was simply out of order. Straw, clearly on a theme, also used the show to tout his continued support for racial and religious hatred laws, and boasted of his government’s record in ‘controlling’ immigration.

Neither Straw nor any of the Any questions panel, bar one, had actually seen the episode in question - which is just as well, because it would give any censorious MP a coronary (only Lib Dem stalwart Menzies Campbell could bring himself to defend it, sight-unseen). Like them or loathe them, the notion that you should not go out of your way to offend people is the exact opposite of Parker’s and Stone’s modus operandi. This time round, to celebrate the big 200, they mercilessly spoof almost everyone they ever have before - featuring, among other things, a Buddha addicted to cocaine, and a giant robot dinosaur version of Barbra Streisand. The only notable to come out of the affray well is, needless to say, Muhammad, who says and does basically nothing at all, apart from acting as a McGuffin.

Straw’s comments were interesting - though repulsive - inasmuch as they let slip the insidious heart of official anti-racism. The long-term background to this innovation is the policy of encouraging large-scale immigration from the Commonwealth countries, starting in the 1950s; the demographic make-up of Britain, particularly in urban areas, began to change dramatically.

In the context of widespread and officially promoted British chauvinism, which is as old as Britain, racial and other ethnic tensions were easily whipped up; Enoch Powell saw “the river Tiber foaming with much blood”, and a rejuvenated British fascism took up the Tory racist’s cause as its main propaganda focus - an astute change from vulgar Jew-hatred and the like, which saw the National Front’s ranks swell. In the 1980s, widespread police brutality with a blatant racial bias incited riots in cities around the country.

The state’s solution to all this was ingenious - ‘support’ for ethnic minorities on a community by community basis. Pioneered by Roy Jenkins under Harold Wilson in the late 1960s, it only really crystallised under Thatcher - who, it is important to remember, wiped out the National Front’s support by coopting its rhetoric about immigration (as the Tories had done, intermittently, in the past). The Thatcher government’s response to the race riots was effectively to hand out cash via local authorities to cultural projects with a recognisably ethnic-minority origin. Overwhelmingly, this amounted to support for religious groups and other petty-patriarchal power structures specific to the locality. The often highly politicised street gangs and Asian Youth Movements were, in the long term, replaced by the expanding power of the church or mosque.

It is was a profoundly anti-democratic rearguard action to head off a nascent political movement (these were the days, after all, of the Provos and the Black Panthers) - indirectly subordinating minorities to the state by claiming to improve their conditions.

The official ideology of all this is multiculturalism. It is a logical outcome, since ‘the good guys’ with whom Thatcher’s government wanted to work tended to be religious; state money went on cultural endeavours. It is in the nature of cultures, however, to clash; the official ideology needed to be one of tolerance and respect for differences. It is only a small step in logic to enshrine this in law - and enshrine it they have, with gusto.

So Straw, in his distasteful way, has told us what is really at stake in this question. Censorship is necessary to ensure the proper respect for reactionary faith organisations, whose cooperation is to be ensured by bribery. Meanwhile, the underlying problem - the existence of enormous barriers to the free movement of people, which is a cast-iron guarantee of ethnic inequality - is not only taken as a given, but exacerbated by the cynically whipped-up hysteria over immigration. The intervention of the repressive state apparatus is an inevitable outcome, as is the rather paranoid climate in public discourse. Comedy Central, remember, took seriously a death threat by an organisation that the American authorities describe as “all talk”.

Every major religion is a standing rebuke to all the others, who are by the same token guiding people down the wrong road to heaven; and community endeavours inevitably end up in competition in crowded inner cities. As conflicts find ways to resurface, censorship - official and internal - spreads out to smother them ... until you arrive at a council’s decision to ban a play on the basis that it depicts far-rightists.

It is unclear exactly what it was about Moonfleece that caused such a panic - either the fact that the far-right characters, as is their way, expressed some pretty distasteful and potentially offensive views on stage; or that the far right itself may have been offended by the content. David Edgar, writing in The Guardian (April 9), pointed out that each possible interpretation was as ominous as the other. Either literally any play with a political charge is out, attacking as it necessarily will some potentially offended interest group (and how much of Shakespeare would survive the chop?); or “any play in which anyone says anything nasty about anyone” is off limits.

The truth is that you cannot, by definition, have limits on free speech. It is not something that can be balanced against, in this case, the public’s liability to be severely offended. Free speech means offence, and it means a level of civic-mindedness on everyone’s part about the inevitability of obnoxious opinions and bad taste in a society where objective forces encourage them. It is better to have bigoted opinions out in the open, where they can be shown to be ridiculous, than have them simmering away unspoken and so unchallenged.

This elementary defence of free expression should be the common sense of the left, since we are nothing if not offensive to the sensibilities of some very powerful and ruthless people. The Unison Four, suspended from the union on trumped-up and ludicrous charges of racist abuse, appealed to the courts on the basis that they had been discriminated against for being members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. The judge was unmoved - after all, socialists oppose democracy, so why should they have democratic protection? This highlights two important phenomena - the way official anti-racist dogma hands power to bureaucrats, including in the labour movement; and the way it hands power to unelected, unaccountable judges to decide what is and is not acceptable.

Yet some on the left remain intricately tied up with official anti-racism. The Socialist Workers Party actually supported the passing of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, which outlawed the ‘stirring up of hatred’ on religious as well as racial grounds; and the SWP staffs Unite Against Fascism, whose hysterical facade masks all the clichés of official multiculturalism - including its censoriousness. The dangers, and the absurdities, of this approach are all too clear; unfortunately, they are rehearsed in almost every issue of Socialist Worker.