Friday, January 30, 2009

"I Believe in Free Speech But..."

No you don't. Not if you add that but. You believe that people should say freely what you have decided it is correct for them to say, and be punished (by others) for daring to say things that have not been approved by you. You can make that argument, certainly, but you cannot claim to be defending free speech.

This chap makes mention of this article in the Guardian, in which someone called Julie Bindel makes an argument that is a fine example of how not to make such an argument.The central point she is trying to make seems to be that a clause to be added to a new law will not do enough for the rights of homosexuals. On that point I have nothing to say, and on the broader point arising from it I would only say that if homosexuals need special protection from violent attack then I see no reason why the matter should not be addressed. But Ms Bindel does not clarify what her broader point is. She suggests at different times that a certain group of people (it doesn't really matter who they are) should have special protection (I say special because it goes beyond that afforded by society/government/the state to other people) from violence, verbal abuse, professional and social discrimination, and even from the opinions of others. These are such vastly different cases that anyone who fails to distinguish them can make no real case at all.

Some obvious points. "I am all for freedom of speech, as long as it does not favour one person or group over the other." Someone who can say this does not believe in or understand free speech. She also shows that she does not understand sin (the word sin carries its own context with it; sin is that which is contrary to the will of God) or Christianity. She describes Christians in so many words as bigoted, and also uses the word fundamentalist in implicit reference. Aside from the fact that this is, broadly speaking, false, (and deeply offensive) the most devout believers in the Church's teaching on homosexuality (which, like on every other point, speaks of loving the sinner) are the least likely to go out gay-bashing.

But people, some people, she tells us, must be protected from discrimination. I fail to see why it is anyone else's business whom I employ and how I choose my employees, though there is certainly room for argument, and public employees are a different matter because of who is hiring them (ie, not the person who is paying them). An employer hiring for his own business spends his money wisely, and if he doesn't it is his problem and no one elses.

Where the argument completely loses its way is where she implies that there could be a list of words, phrases and sentiments that it will be permitted to use. This is so patently illiberal as to be totally execrable, but it is also an impossibility in any society whatsoever, even a tyrannical one. This does not seem to bother Ms Bindel in the slightest. It is unclear whether she feels that by forbidding people to express certain beliefs and ideas she can stop the beliefs from causing offence, or whether she thinks that if people can't say something they will stop believing it, I suspect the latter. Someone should tell her it doesn't work like that.

She argues from ignorance, and her proposals are ludicrously flawed. She uses her platform in a national newspaper to complain that some other unelected people have a powerful voice, which rather undermines her indignation. She does not distinguish between homosexuality, a generally unsought attribute of a person, and its physical expression, a matter of choice. This point would probably not be relevant to her argument or to my analysis of it, except that it is often confused, and religion and other beliefs are presented as a choice, and therefore something that you can help. This is at times held to reduce the need of religious groups for the protections given to racial groups. It is at least arguable that, given the unshakeable tenacity with which many ideas, beliefs and opinions- religious, political, moral, social, personal or of other types- are held, and the general poverty of the motives for such beliefs, religion etc are no more a matter of choice than homosexuality is.

The comments to the article remind me very much of why I have stopped arguing about Bigfoot, but for that very reason they provide a further lesson in knowing more or less what you think but not why, showing again that opinion and belief are not so much a matter of choice as we like to think, and Ms Bindel assumes.

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