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The truth about hate speech

Credit: Christopher Furlong / Getty

August 30, 2019   5 mins

As Western societies become more diverse, there is a challenge which they must all face. What are the limits of what people are allowed to say? Are there any limits? Or does an ever-more diverse society have to put up with an ever-wider range of discussion?

A new report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change returns us to this fraught subject. “Narratives of Hate: The Spectrum of Far-right Worldviews in the UK” takes a look at a number of groups which it identifies as “far-Right”. These are: Generation Identity England, Britain First, For Britain and the British National Party. The report states that if these groups are “left unaddressed”, then they will “continue to sow division in Britain”.

In its assessment, the report takes the beliefs of these groups and compares them with those of the Norwegian terrorist, Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people in Norway in July 2011. His views, according to the TBI, provide “a clear baseline to examine other extremist messages in the far Right”.

All these groups, according to the report, hold views which include “Believing that Islamist scriptures promote violent jihad and terrorism”; “Claiming that Muslim immigration to Western countries is paving the way for implementing Sharia and Islamic laws, and ‘Islamifying’ Europe”; and “Suggesting that Muslims are more prone to committing acts of sexual violence and rape”. Another accusation made by all these groups is that the authorities and the media have been “covering up crimes committed by Muslims and immigrants”.

I am uncomfortable with the idea of using a terrorist or mass murderer as a ‘baseline’ measure. After all, if some madman tomorrow committed an atrocity in the name of the environment, free healthcare or any other idea, would the TBI use this as a reason to tar as a violent extremist anyone who held the same beliefs?  Political violence, by its very nature, steps beyond the ordinary run of political discussion.

But there are pools and swamps of opinion in which people do swim before they commit atrocities. And it probably is worth trying to work out what it is there that leads someone towards violence. To do so, however, is a complex process, and we are all, to some extent, learning as we go along on. The list of arguments provided by the TBI shows how difficult this is.

For instance, there are indeed people who accuse all Muslims of terrible things, as laid out in the list. By doing so, they are clearly uttering an untruth, as well as showing an ugly, bigoted tendency to smear an entire group based on the practises of a small few. What, though, if someone were to point to the fact – which numerous reports including this one from the Muslim-run Quilliam Foundation have shown – that men of Muslim background are ‘over-represented’ (that is, compared to their proportion in the general population) in gang ‘grooming’ cases. And what if someone were to say that the authorities and the media have been involved in ‘covering up’ such crimes?

To suggest that there had been a concerted, orchestrated cover-up which involved every portion of the state and media might sound like a wild exaggeration. It might sound deeply conspiratorial. But the problem is that it is not wholly untrue. It is only an exaggeration – in fact, we only know of the grooming gangs in Rotherham, Telford, Rochdale, Oxfordshire and other places because some brave individuals from the political and media establishments broke ranks and reported these horrific stories.

Andrew Norfolk of The Times, for example, spent years chasing the Rotherham story, including speaking to many of the victims. He reported on this and subsequent cases in spite of people still (even then) attempting to charge him with ‘racism’ and ‘Islamophobia’ for reporting the story.

It’s problematic for the Blair assessment, too, that we know that there were cover-ups, and that these were duly exposed. In 2013, Alexis Jay was tasked by Rotherham’s council with looking into the crimes that had occurred there. Her report found that there had indeed been a systematic failure to address the cases when they had come out. And that the rape of children as young as 11 had been ignored by the local police and by the local council, among other authorities.

The Jay report – like Louise Casey’s which followed – found that a culture in which people feared accusations of racism was one of the reasons that these dreadful cases had been able to go on as long as they had. Likewise, there are reliable and verified reports going back a decade and half showing that the media and authorities have often cooperated to ‘pull’ reporting of such horrific stories, to allay other concerns.

So here lies the problem with the Blair Institute’s claims. They seek to draw a line designating as ‘extreme’ some views which are also true. Given that the cover-ups have been proved – and officially registered – why should saying as much be cause to label someone as ‘far-right’ or linked to a mass murderer?

The answer appears to lie in the move from ‘some’ to ‘all’ and from ‘cases’ to ‘endemic’. It is true that some groups – including those which the TBI identifies – may be guilty of wild exaggeration. But all politics – and you may say all political debate – relies on a degree of exaggeration to make a point. The Institute might consult with its founder if it seeks any pertinent examples. And though most of us tire or are turned off by such exaggerations (generally realising in the process that the person in question cannot be trusted), it is some leap to say that an exaggeration should demand the intervention of the law.

Yet the TBI seems to think it should. It argues that depending on where various opinions sit on its scale of extremism, the groups it looks into ought to be ‘designated’ as ‘hate groups’. It calls for political leaders to, among other things, “Stop problematic groups and stem their narratives”. Suggestions for how to do this would include ensuring that ‘designated hate groups’ would be ‘impeded from appearing on media outlets or engaging with public institutions’. But all would not necessarily be lost for the groups in question. “Hate designation would be time-limited and automatically reviewed, conditioned on visible reform of the group.”

Beneath the bland and unassuming presentation, this, and much else in the report, is in some ways extraordinary.  What is one to say of a situation in which government officials could designate and ban from all media – including state-run and privately-owned media – groups whose views and expressions they disapprove of, pending official investigation and evidence of that group’s realignment with views which are more acceptable? Such a plan would be authoritarian even if the groups in question were guilty of spreading constant and provable lies.

Yet the problem the TBI inadvertently highlights is that while everything these groups say may be unpleasant and ugly, not everything they say is false. Some of the things the Institute would have them banned for saying are true, or true in part.

Here is the test for a society, and indeed a test for independently-financed organisation like the one which produced this report. Where somebody is wrong, they should be shown to be wrong. Where they are wrong in part, they should be shown to be wrong in part. But, as with Islamist groups, asking the state to decide on such matters demands that the state be infallible in making such decisions. Drawing lines in these areas is hard. A fact that the Tony Blair Institute has perhaps unwittingly demonstrated.

Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.


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