Culturally egregious expression

Charles C.W. Cooke writes on free speech in the UK:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Or so we were told as children. Of late, alas, this maxim has come under sustained fire, as the conflation of physical violence and verbal criticism has become de rigueur. Hate-speech laws, which are now ten a penny outside of the United States, rely heavily on the preposterous presumption that opprobrium and disdain are equal in severity to battery and bloodshed, and that the state is capable of sensitively superintending their use. Once, it was accepted as a staple of the Enlightenment that any government that attempted to closely supervise speech was destined for disaster, if not for tyranny. Now, even the home of John Stuart Mill has slid backwards into the mire. In Britain each year, as across Europe, tens of thousands of people are investigated by the police for nothing more than being awful in public. And the voters applaud like seals…

Presgrave is without doubt a fool, and her views are morally repugnant. But that is the business neither of Her Majesty’s government nor of those under who operate beneath its carapace. There were no threats made here; there was no imminent danger or incitement to law-breaking; no conspiracies were uncovered. Instead, a person of below-average intellect and questionable ethical calibration issued an abstract opinion that both the majority and the chattering classes found abhorrent. In a country whose people are at liberty, this cannot be a crime. To the contrary: Toleration of precisely this sort of culturally egregious expression is what distinguishes free nations from tyrannies. By prosecuting Presgrave for what amounts to nothing more than thoughtcrime, Britain has erred badly…

When lambasting the state’s inexorable temptation toward suppression, it is typical to cast the censors as the villains and the people at large as their innocent victims. In a dictatorship or a monarchy or when the government is at a remove, this habit makes perfect sense. But in Britain, a representative democracy, it does not. As the Daily Mirror confirms, Presgrave’s arrest came after a number of her fellow citizens lodged formal complaints with the police. It is a regrettable fact that to read of a free-speech outrage in England in 2015 is invariably to read of a group of vexed civilians willfully “shopping” to the authorities somebody they dislike. Nobody, it seems, is safe from the informants: not celebrities, not journalists, not university administrators, not drunken social-media users, not faithful Muslims, not unfaithful atheists — nobody. If you step out of line, somebody, somewhere will call the cops. Is there nobody left in Britain who will hang up with a chuckle?


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