A few weeks ago the BBC broadcast a comedy skit satirising the western women who abscond to Syria and Iraq to live under the caliphate. Filmed in the style of one of those insufferable reality TV shows about entitled, narcissistic, Sex-and-the-City types who have kids called ‘Porsche’ and tedious shoe obsessions; the Real Housewives of ISIS poked fun at the clash between western culture and the 7th century theocracy of the Islamic State.
The 2 minute clip spoofed cloaked women fretting over what to wear to a public beheading, suicide vest fashion parades, jihadist Instagram hashtags, ISIS emoticons, etcetera etcetera.
Naturally, this relatively mild parody of a genocidal terrorist organisation was met with cries of Islamophobia and racism. Paradoxically, the “ISIS have nothing to do with Islam” crowd treated mockery of ISIS as an attack on Islam. The portrayal of female ISIS members as Muslim women in headscarves was bemoaned as a bigoted stereotype by critics who presumably think that jihadi brides normally dress like Bavarian beer wenches.
A number of petitions were swiftly created, demanding that the BBC refrain from airing this “offensive and inflammatory” sketch, one of which has received the support of over 35,000 signatories.
So far, so predictable. Hysterical attacks upon free expression by religious goons and their apologists are roughly as surprising as a cry of “Allahu Akbar” in close proximity to a loud bang, although thankfully the people involved in the production of this skit have so far been spared an early morning doorstep greeting by a gun-toting jihadi-gram.
What has genuinely surprised me, however, are the reactions to a couple of other incidents that have occurred in the past week. Upon the reporting of a story detailing an effort by republican lawmakers to ban social justice/ethnic studies events at Arizona universities, I noticed a prevalent atmosphere of approval on Twitter from people who simultaneously objected to the de-platforming of professional contrarian Milo Yiannopoulos from American campuses.
Then there was the assault on alt-right founder Richard Spencer. Upon the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, Spencer was giving a street interview in Franklin Square, Washington DC to an Australian news network regarding the anti-fascist protestors who had taken it upon themselves to run around bricking fascist shop windows and kicking over racist bins. As he was explaining the meaning behind a badge he was wearing depicting a cartoon frog, a masked rioter in a black hoodie appeared from nowhere and sucker-punched Spencer in the ear.
I’ll lose no sleep over the injuries sustained to Spencer as a result of this attack. Nor will I be in any way concerned that the forceful but poorly executed right hook looked to have connected Spencer’s bonce with the assailants third and fourth knuckles and likely resulted in him breaking or fracturing his own hand.
What does bother me however, is the reaction to these episodes by people who ostensibly support free speech but who also apparently support banning or physically assaulting people they don’t like for exercising it.
I know very little about Richard Spencer and to be honest I’m not overly inclined to rectify this situation. His alt-right movement seems to mean something different every time I encounter someone defending it, and from what I’ve seen of Spencer, he seems an unpleasant individual who apparently has some pretty noxious views on race. He signed off a speech last year at the annual conference of the National Policy institute by bellowing “Hail Trump” and “Hail our people”. The uncomfortable overtones of this address did not go unnoticed by a handful of his supporters who signalled their approval by throwing up Nazi salutes. Pretty grim, but of course, completely irrelevant. It is Spencer’s right to express his views, however revolting, however unpopular, however fascistic they may be. Because the alternative is fascistic in and of itself.
It seems to me that free speech is essentially an ‘all or nothing’ enterprise. You either support free speech or you don’t. Speech is either free or it isn’t. And it always amazes me when otherwise intelligent people fail to understand what the liberty of free speech entails and what a violation of that liberty would look like.
This brings me to some bafflingly malicious behaviour from atheist author and award-winning journalist Dan Arel. I’ve previously enjoyed some of Arel’s work, particularly a piece in which he reluctantly admonishes his former mentor – the ludicrous plagiarist CJ Werleman – for dishonest and irresponsible behaviour towards ‘new atheists’. Unfortunately however, it seems Arel is not immune from engaging in this arse-witted behaviour himself.
In the wake of the Spencer attack, Arel enthusiastically took the opportunity to openly support violence against people for their views, to defend rioting and criminal damage in response to an unfavourable election result, and to defame people who disagree with these positions.
When talk show host Dave Rubin offered a defence of Spencer’s right to free expression whilst denouncing his ideas, Arel described the situation as one in which Rubin was “normalizing white nationalism” and shedding “fucking tears over a Nazi getting clocked.”
Blogger, podcast host, and thorn in the side of many a hypocrite – Stephen Knight pointed out that Arel had previously contradicted his own argument by repeatedly denouncing the use of violence as cowardly, ignorant and indicative of worthless ideas. Apparently, the award-winning journalist didn’t feel overly inclined to take this irrefutable inconsistency on the chin (pun intended), and responded by calling Knight a “fucking racist apologist”, a defender of Nazis, and bizarrely accusing him of supporting the deportation of all Muslims.
Anyone familiar with Knight’s output knows that these charges are utterly absurd. Never has he come even close to supporting the deportation of Muslims, nor does he support or defend racists and Nazis. His objection is to the use of violence to silence the expression of ideas. It’s as simple as that. It is a defence of free speech, not a defence of the speech itself. That Dan Arel seems happy to have his hair parted by such an elementary and obvious point, and that his floundering response is to issue spiteful, juvenile smears makes me wonder how much of his old mentor’s strategies have rubbed off on him.
I’m not sure how many times this must be said; but free speech, by its very nature, must apply to everyone. It’s depressing to continually need to point this out and it’s even more depressing to have to defend freedom of speech from people who regularly benefit from it.
Freedom of speech is the bedrock of civilised society. It is the freedom that underpins all other freedoms. It is the bulwark against tyranny even when utilised by the tyrannical. It not only affords the speaker the right to speak, but the listener the right to listen.
As Christopher Hitchens put it:
“…every time you silence somebody, you make yourself a prisoner of your own action, because you deny yourself the right to hear something. In other words, your own right to hear and be exposed is as much involved in all these cases as is the right of the other to voice his or her view.”
Using an anecdote relating to the collapse of the British National Party following a predictably shambolic performance by the party leader Nick Griffin on Question Time, Milo Yiannopoulos gave the following pertinent explanation to a room of heckling, jeering students:
“It’s not just important to give platforms to ordinary speech, it’s important to give platforms to all speech, because sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the best way to deal with people that you don’t agree with – whether they are conservatives or progressives – is the full glare of the spotlight. Because you should have the confidence in your own opinions, and you should have the fortitude and courage to believe that you can beat them in a fair open marketplace of ideas. If you believe those things, then you have nothing to fear from any speaker.”
Nobody has the right to arbitrate for others as to which views they are allowed to expose themselves to, and yet that’s what the man who throws the punch is attempting. Violence in response to speech is not only a physical attack, it’s also a threat. It’s a threat to free expression and to the person wishing to exercise it. The message being delivered with the swing of the fist, is that the ideas being expressed will result in further violence against the speaker if he chooses to repeat them. And that this treatment may also be visited upon anyone else who chooses to follow suit.
Whether it’s actresses taking the piss out of Muslim fascists. Whether it’s Milo Yiannopoulos gleefully triggering millennial snowflakes with his Jim Moriarty act. Whether it’s hysterical Social Justice Warriors screeching their regressive catchphrases. Or whether its neo-Nazi’s talking about cartoon frogs. If you condone prohibitions or violence in response to ‘offensive’ speech then you don’t agree with freedom of speech, period. And if that’s the case then just say so. You’re allowed to. There’s a concept that people have died to obtain and secure which affords you that liberty. Can you guess what it’s called?