Warning: A very boring political post but something I had to get out of my system. It is rambling and incoherent but once it's said it's said and I can move on with other things.
"The issue of incitement to religious hate is a tiny part of a much broader pattern that we are attempting, collectively, to put together, to create a society where cohesion, tolerance and understanding are natural, where people can settle their differences in ways that don't develop hate and where people feel free to be able to express sensible views and have sensible arguments." - David Blunkett as Home Secretary.
I realise Blunkett hasn’t been Home Secretary for a while, but this isn’t about him. As some of my more moustachioed readers may be aware, I don’t buy into slippery slope arguments. That’s not to say I don’t know a dangerous idea when I see one. The Race and Religious Hatred Bill is dangerous, not because of where it might lead us, but because it is founded on the above, very dangerous, ideas. We’re back on John Stuart Mill again folks;
1. There has never been a really good idea which seemed ‘sensible’ when it was first uttered. This is a hackneyed truism that all nutty fringe groups wheel out when accused of being… nutty fringe groups. However, it is true. It isn’t the case that because the slave-abolitionists were treated as nutcases, today’s nutcases will be tomorrow’s heroes, but some of them may well be. Some of them have got to be, after all, unless this is the absolute peak of civilisation (please God no). There will be new ideas and it seems unlikely that we’re all going to see the sense in them the minute they come out. Even if this wasn’t the case, who is to say what is a sensible view and what is extreme?
2. Often people who expressing extreme views touch upon an element of truth or an important point even though in its entirity their argument doesn't stand up.
3. Even when people are totally wrong, by challenging our arguments they keep them fresh and vital.
These three points can be illustrated rather well with the case of the Animal Rights Movement. There was a time when received opinion did not consider animals to have any moral significance. One interpretation of the Bible puts us in the privileged position of stewardship. Descartes compared animals to automaton without any true experience (they didn’t think therefore they weren’t – oh really Descartes was a tit). It seems very strange that we could ever imagine that animals didn’t have feelings, including those of fear, pain and distress. Isn’t it glaringly obvious?
Now it could be that in the future, we come to realise that it is wrong to treat animals as property and to kill them for food at all, just as we now understand that it is wrong to treat human beings as property to be used, abused and discarded at will. For most people this does not seem like a sensible idea at the moment, but given the cultural turnaround we have made over not entirely dissimilar matters, it is surely not beyond the realms of imagination?
Even if it is perfectly okay to kill animals for food, that is not to say that much of what the Animal Rights Movement says is not entirely valid. One of the reasons I abandoned vegetarianism is that after three months of academic study on the issue and perhaps one too many essays by Peter Singer, it occurred to me that I wasn’t morally disgusted at the idea of killing a wide-eyed fluffy bunny and eating it for my tea. In fact it may be fair to say that Peter Singer instilled me with a zoocidal blood lust but that’s beside the point. However, I also realised more than ever that the way we ‘process’ our meat products is morally reprehensible. My fluffy bunny suffered perhaps a moment’s anticipation and a single instance of pain after a happy life hopping about in the fields *. My Kentucky Fried Chicken had a far worse fate.
And sometimes they get it completely and utterly wrong. One conclusion that Peter Singer’s particular warped brand of utilitarianism leads him to is that some animals have a greater moral status than tiny human babies and some severely impaired adults. This is not even partially correct, but by making such an assertion he challenges us to consider what it is that makes a person worthy of moral consideration and whether indeed there is a hierarchy. By saying “The grass is pink” we are forced to consider how it is we understand the grass to be green.
No this of course has nothing much to do with religion as such, but religion is a just another point of view. Of course religion may be interconnected with ethnicity and culture and when people use the word ‘choice’ they over-simplify the situation. I could not choose to be a Catholic because I could not persuade myself to believe what Catholics believe. My friend Mary could not chose to be an agnostic because she could not persuade herself to believe what I don’t believe. However, there are many other points of view we would find similar difficulty in adopting, none of which are related to my ethnicity or upbringing.
When Mary decided to become a nun I was horrified. But the thing I kept finding myself comparing it to was a friend getting married to someone that I vehemently disapproved of. I might even use the word hate. I hate what I perceive to be the misogyny of the Catholic church, I hate the way that I watch the doctrine sustaining the poverty, over-population and disease pandemics in the Third World upon which it depends to keep the masses faithful. I hate a Church that forbade the Catholic women in Bosnia to use oral contraceptives during a period they were subject to mass-rape, a Church that protected child abusers within their own ranks etc, etc. I don’t hate Catholics; a large proportion of my family are Catholic and many of my friends. They are good people. But that machine, that Church, is fairly abhorrent to me.
[Naturally I didn’t put it like this to Mary. All I could do was to express my disapproval and then go on to offer my full support. She is my friend and her happiness is paramount to me.]
Now, the Pope is a regular reader of this blog and doesn't like it when I say such things. However, simply by out-lawing my feelings - or the expression of them - would not change anything. The only way I could be dissuaded is if somebody sat me down and put me right about any misconceptions I have, argued with me. Of course it might be I like to hate Catholicism and I’m not going to listen, but then, what does this matter? If I were to attack priests or desecrate Catholic graves, I would be breaking existing laws. If I were to rally an angry mob outside the homes of Catholics I would be breaking existing laws. Freedom of speech has always been conditional; you can’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre and direct incitement to violence has always been a crime.
But at the end of the day, conflict is natural. Cohesion is not. The law is not about surpressing nature, but about creating a society where everyone is free to express themselves as much as possible without impinging on the freedom of others to express themselves. When Isaiah Berlin talked about liberty he kept reiterating this fact with the concept of The Final Solution; the utopian idea used by very many political and religious movements that through a restriction of certain freedoms, we would all come to see things the same and live in harmony. It is a useful term to bear in mind.
And what are we left with after we have out-lawed ideas that make us feel uncomfortable? Does it stop the bad guys? The previous Incitement to Racial Hatred laws (race at least being something you can’t help) leave us with this:
“The British National Party exists to secure a future for the indigenous peoples of these islands in the North Atlantic which have been our homeland for millennia. We use the term indigenous to describe the people whose ancestors were the earliest settlers here after the last great Ice Age and which have been complemented by the historic migrations from mainland Europe. The migrations of the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Norse and closely related kindred peoples have been, over the past few thousands years, instrumental in defining the character of our family of nations.” - First paragraph of the Mission Statement, British National Party web-site.
Apart from the fact that the Norman Conquest brought vast numbers of French people onto our soil, the following decades established the first Jewish communities in the UK. There had been Jews here before, but not communities. Thus the cut-off for immigration ends a thousand years ago. Translation:
"We exist to secure a future for the white non-Jewish people of this country."
Fortunately, you’d have to be really thick not to notice the absence of the Romans. But then, what have the Romans ever done for us? Well, there was the aquaduct…
* I didn’t actually catch and kill a fluffy bunny with my bare hands. I just realised I could if I was hungry enough. And could run fast. And didn’t actually look the thing in the eye as I broke its neck. And hadn’t just read Watership Down.