A new muzzle from Nicola

It is as bad as they say. Nicola Sturgeon’s SNooPy has long gagged the press by denying access to those deemed unfriendly, and is now about to enact a muzzle on speech for everyone, in the ‘Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill’.

Many a column has discussed and condemned the changes, and I cannot dissent from this: it is a truly sinister Bill. The main charge is that it will gag free speech – and it will do so in ways more effective that the cold wording of the Bill suggests. There is more to it than the gag too.

The defence of the new proposal has been a familiar one, that the law will only prohibit ‘hate speech’ and with the implied threat that to oppose it is to support hatred, but anyone who has not been asleep for the last twenty-odd years will know the reality of such accusations.

Before the gagging provision comes a gentle introduction: Clause 1 of the Bill takes the familiar provision that a crime motivated by racial prejudice should attract a higher sentence and takes it to a new level: it now covers a long list of prejudices and alleged prejudices, and applies if the offender evinces “malice and ill-will based on the victim’s membership or presumed membership” of a group in the long list; even if there is no specific victim. But then it says that “Evidence from a single source is sufficient to prove that an offence is aggravated by prejudice” – not sufficient evidence to suggest but to prove, so if a victim claims mendaciously that the thug who attacked him called out “oi, you [whatever epithet fits]”, that is that. Then Clause 2 gets serious: it is not enough for the sheriff to take this into account while thinking privately “well, he just said a bad word in the heat of the moment”: the court must state the matter in sentencing and say how much lighter the sentence would have been had the bad word not been uttered. Judges, it seems, are not to be trusted. Virtue signalling is something that must not only be done but must be seen to be done.

The main issue though is Part 2: ‘stirring up hatred’, and empowering the police to raid homes and seize unPC material. No one is sage (well all right; no one without the right political connections is safe, and even that can be withdrawn, as Alex Salmond found).

The whole of Part 2 needs a more fulsome description. In essence it will make a criminal offence any insult addressed by reference to any of a long list of characteristics. (That would make every conversation I have ever heard in Glasgow a crime.) It covers actions, publications, mere speech. It specifically targets plays, making the producer guilty, and the actor too. It covers websites anywhere in the United Kingdom.

There are two savings for “Protection of freedom of expression”: religion and sexual orientation, but they are so limited as to be meaningless: the exemption for religion is simply freedom for proselytising (including promoting atheism) and discussing or criticising religion. It does not however permit actual religious teaching, so quoting the Gospel (or the Koran, which I understand can be rather unPC) will still be a crime if the passage in question is insulting to a privileged group. Neither does the Bill contain any licence for scientific examination or for papers which are deemed insulting by self-appointed representatives of the listed groups

It is the actions of these self-appointed representatives which are the danger: they are the insulters and the haters, but they are to be protected while they accuse others, using a damning Act which will effectively allow no defence and will demand heavy retribution.

The breadth of the Bill belies its subtlety in squeezing out all defence. That needs a longer look next week.

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Oh the things we said in dark corners….

I blush to think of those long yarns in college rooms or the corner of a pub, of all we said and did not think, of the ribald, the shocking, the plain disgusting, geeing each other up to exceed the heights of sick-mindedness.

All with smiles on our faces, and meaning not a word of it. I don’t recall any either, and was not meant to. How many wars we declared on innocent countries for minor slights or just to smash-and-grab I cannot remember, and how many tyrannical laws that would make Genghis Khan quiver. Maybe someone lauded eugenic slaughter at one point (I’d rather not think about it) just out of audacity to turn our stomachs, or spoke of race theories that not even the worst nutcase believes, against his own race (though maybe that’s not far off modern identity politics).

You will have to believe me when I say that not one of those foul-mouthed souls has in his matured life celebrated South American culture by decorating his house as he said with shrunken heads still warm, nor declared war on Greenland for having a dishonest name, nor urged the reintroduction of suttee to reduce the social security budget, nor the introduction of slavery based on IQ tests.  Not one of them has married three wives at a time, each for a service in a different room of the house, nor introduced a punitive sliding scale of income tax for taxpayers with dissenting political leanings, nor built gulags in the ice of South Georgia. Neither have I thought again about any of the things I might have advocated in jest, thank goodness.

Are the French lucky that we conspirators have not, as we plotted, invaded their land and seized back Calais and Normandy, and Brittany while we are about it?  Somehow, no.  What is spoken in a confidential circle of friends playing the young idiot for all it is worth shows no more intent to follow the words spoken and no more belief in it than Jonathan Swift really thought of having Irishmen eat their children.

So why do young men speak that way in dark corners? For one word they do believe: Freedom.

We are bound by decency and politeness and the opinion of others. It is stifling. Soon we will be grown and given new responsibilities, and seeing that coming there is a burst to claim one last freedom, to speak nonsense unrestrained. It is a joy to be free at last for an evening to act and speak with no responsibility nor need to carry through. It means nothing beyond that circle. Who can begrudge that of young men when they can?

It may build strength and resilience, and joy in the moment and fills that sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, and that is exactly what a man needs to shoulder the burdens of manhood in later life, when the shutters have come down. I slept and dreamt that life was beauty; I woke and found that life was duty. So it is to be a man maturing to bear his load.

We had the sense of course and decency not to record any yarning we made, and what is spoken in dark corners strays not a yard from those corners. It is not a thing for social media nor a blog – which is why all the examples I have written are entirely fictional and very mild compared with what was actually said, even if I had remembered it.

You can see where this is leading: offence-mining, a curse of the age. Too many careers have been felled by it, for words which harmed no one and had no intent to do so. The real harm is done by those who seek to destroy those who have spoken too freely. I can tell you that the pen may be mightier than the sword, but even the sharpest tongue is no more than flaccid flesh. It is not though about offence, is it? It is about power, about keeping away from all influence those who disagree, and any excuse will do. The Long March is not to be turned back. They know, these social-justice warriors, that a provocative tweet is no more that a word hurled in the darkness, but that is not the point.

Then there is the Pelagian Puritanism about which Dr Giles Fraser wrote recently.

Really though, are the open discussions of Momentum types any different? There are discussions involving mass theft from unfavoured classes, destruction of nations, gulags and ‘re-education’, criminalisation of dissidents, praise of mass-murderers, dismantling the whole nation. I have even read serious suggestions of inducing deadly epidemics to reduce the population. The difference is that the speakers of these free ideas are in deadly earnest. That is what should frighten us. Thankfully there are some of us still left to stand against it from our own histories of speaking shocking twaddle.

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Proud man, Drest in a little brief authority

There is nothing I can ever say on any subject of import concerning mankind which Shakespeare has not said better. All the clashing claims of authority, from state or PC establishment are shamed before his observations, so I can hardly do better than to read to them a passage which has illustrated its own wisdom this last week.

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous To use it like a giant.

. . .

Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

Measure for Measure, Act II Scene II

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Mill addresses no-platforming

A couple of days ago I wrote that John Stuart Mill had written about political correctness, but that was not the subject of my post so I passed on. That was to leave a question hanging, so I will make amends here. Mill was a liberal in the classical sense. His book, ‘On Liberty’, was to advocate liberty as a principle, and he held that liberty of speech was the foundation of other liberties. Those who call themselves ‘liberal’ in our day may not feel the same, but justify restrictions on free expression on utilitarian grounds, as a modern approach. It is far from modern though, and Mill looked at the same arguments back into ancient history, and into his own time, the Victorian Age.

I will spare you his excessive prose, but a most pointed passage addresses the screaming censor of our time very well indeed:

Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme;’ not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case. Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility, when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.

In the present age—which has been described as ‘destitute of faith, but terrified at scepticism’—in which people feel sure, not so much that their opinions are true, as that they should not know what to do without them—the claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society. There are, it is alleged, certain beliefs, so useful, not to say indispensable to well-being, that it is as much the duty of governments to uphold those beliefs, as to protect any other of the interests of society.

In a case of such necessity, and so directly in the line of their duty, something less than infallibility may, it is maintained, warrant, and even bind, governments, to act on their own opinion, confirmed by the general opinion of mankind. It is also often argued, and still oftener thought, that none but bad men would desire to weaken these salutary beliefs; and there can be nothing wrong, it is thought, in restraining bad men, and prohibiting what only such men would wish to practise. This mode of thinking makes the justification of restraints on discussion not a question of the truth of doctrines, but of their usefulness; and flatters itself by that means to escape the responsibility of claiming to be an infallible judge of opinions.

But those who thus satisfy themselves, do not perceive that the assumption of infallibility is merely shifted from one point to another. The usefulness of an opinion is itself matter of opinion: as disputable, as open to discussion, and requiring discussion as much, as the opinion itself. There is the same need of an infallible judge of opinions to decide an opinion to be noxious, as to decide it to be false, unless the opinion condemned has full opportunity of defending itself. And it will not do to say that the heretic may be allowed to maintain the utility or harmlessness of his opinion, though forbidden to maintain its truth. The truth of an opinion is part of its utility. If we would know whether or not it is desirable that a proposition should be believed, is it possible to exclude the consideration of whether or not it is true?

In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful: and can you prevent such men from urging that plea, when they are charged with culpability for denying some doctrine which they are told is useful, but which they believe to be false?

Those who are on the side of received opinions, never fail to take all possible advantage of this plea; you do not find them handling the question of utility as if it could be completely abstracted from that of truth: on the contrary, it is, above all, because their doctrine is ‘the truth,’ that the knowledge or the belief of it is held to be so indispensable.

There can be no fair discussion of the question of usefulness, when an argument so vital may be employed on one side, but not on the other. And in point of fact, when law or public feeling do not permit the truth of an opinion to be disputed, they are just as little tolerant of a denial of its usefulness. The utmost they allow is an extenuation of its absolute necessity, or of the positive guilt of rejecting it.

John Stuart Mill: On Liberty

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Mill on truth in its fragility

I occasionally read John Stuart Mill, often by accident. He lived in an age with a proliferation of philosophers, which is to say a dangerous age, and these penny-philosophers had ideas for the reform of mankind that left very little room for mankind itself.  Mill had his own ideas, not as well explained as they might have been, to battle back in the name of freedom, and it is when he writes of freedom of speech, as the most fundamental freedom to allow the freedom of society as a whole, that he writes his best.

He might be writing for our own time, as he describes with minute perfection the reasonings and actions of the movement for political correctness or ‘wokeness’ in justifying the suppression of speech.  That is something to revisit at another time.

Truth is in play in our time, its very concept.  One poignant observation Mill makes on this is to knock down the comforting believe that the truth will always prevail:

But, indeed, the dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution, is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes. History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed for ever, it may be thrown back for centuries.

To speak only of religious opinions: the Reformation broke out at least twenty times before Luther, and was put down. Arnold of Brescia was put down. Fra Dolcino was put down. Savonarola was put down. The Albigeois were put down. The Vaudois were put down. The Lollards were put down. The Hussites were put down. Even after the era of Luther, wherever persecution was persisted in, it was successful. In Spain, Italy, Flanders, the Austrian empire, Protestantism was rooted out; and, most likely, would have been so in England, had Queen Mary lived, or Queen Elizabeth died. Persecution has always succeeded, save where the heretics were too strong a party to be effectually persecuted. No reasonable person can doubt that Christianity might have been extirpated in the Roman Empire. It spread, and became predominant, because the persecutions were only occasional, lasting but a short time, and separated by long intervals of almost undisturbed propagandism.

It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error, of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake. Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even of social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either.

The real advantage which truth has, consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favourable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it.

John Stuart Mill: On Liberty