February 05, 2014
Tolerating Intolerance

When I read someone’s characterization of Simon Jenkins as the Guardian’s resident conservative I was taken aback. I had by that time read enough of his columns to feel that I had something of a take on his views, and here in the US you won’t find many conservatives talking like this.

Deriding the British government for legally excluding the controversial French comic Dieudonné to protect the British public from his odious views when he wasn’t even planning to perform, Jenkins compares the exclusion to another offense against taste, the Dutch publication of cartoons depicting Mohammed. He quotes terrorism expert Anatol Lieven in arguing, apparently seriously, for blasphemy laws across Europe to cover all the major religions. To Lieven, “if [the Dutch cartoons] were to prove the last straw that leads only a few more European Muslims to join terrorist groups and carry out successful terrorist attacks, then not just the terrorists, but the fools who started this scandal will have blood on their hands.”

But, he replies,

That could be said of all who tolerate intolerance. Freedom often has blood on its hands. I can excoriate, deplore and refuse all dealings with odious speech or publication. Most decent-minded people do likewise. That is a world away from declaring such opinions criminal. “Causing offence” is so easily elided into inciting hatred, then inciting violence, then to being the cause of actual violence. The quick remedy, as the 2006 act showed, is to ban the offence. This is not advanced political ethics. Liberty often demands we risk causing offence and even seeing heads bloodied in its cause. The idea of generalisations that “giving offence” to specific groups, ethnic, religious or, nowadays, “self-defining”, may be deeply uncomfortable, but it is the gateway drug of censorship.

Voltaire’s demand, that we endure those with disagreeable views, is becoming ever harder for a modern state to endure. Governments are under perpetual pressure to curb such licence. They purport to protect “the right not to be offended”, but usually they are just avoiding the bother of umpiring factionalism and dissent. In banning Dieudonné, the home secretary may have kept a nasty piece of work offshore. What she has really shown is that Britain is too feeble a country to tolerate his presence.


Posted by Chuck Dupree at February 05, 2014 01:35 AM
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