Saturday, March 10, 2007

Give the BNP the rope to hang itself

Defending the right of freedom of expression in the UK always ends up with a discussion of the BNP. Tom Miller passed on a link to a rather old post called Nick Griffin and freedom of speech by Tom Hamilton. He does raise some interesting points about why allowing people like Nick Griffin into the debating chamber might net the BNP a few new members but his argument ultimately falls flat - its core is that ignorance is bliss and people are better off not knowing how nasty the BNP are than finding out for themselves how nasty the BNP are.

His argument is twofold. Firstly, and it is the part I will spend more time on, he argues in a debating chamber people can make up "facts" which are difficult to refute properly ("There are 10 thousand leaves on the trees outside." "No there aren't! There's only one thousand!" "He's lying!" "She's lying!"). It is a fair point but his examples are weak and the solution is of course to know your enemy, anticipate what they are likely to say and prepare rebuttals beforehand.

In a debate about multiculturalism with Nick Griffin it is hard to imagine that the topic of immigration and asylum seekers would not arise. Hamilton says Nick Griffin could fabricate an immigration statistic to support his claim we're awash with asylum seekers. He could! But a properly prepared opponent would bring along the Home Office report and say exactly what the real figures were. Hamilton says that Griffin could make up quotes from the Qur'an. Bring a copy of the Qur'an, challenge him to find the passage and read it to the audience! The arguments Hamilton makes are not arguments against Griffin being given a platform, they are arguments against going into the debate without being prepared.

Another mistake Hamilton makes is his example of Griffin making selective quotations from the Qur'an which advocate discrimination against women, and for some reason charging the opposition with defending Islam against charges of misogyny. If part of his reason for banning Griffin from speaking is that he is going to quote the Qur'an then that is no reason at all. It is almost as if Hamilton doesn't want people to read the Qur'an! If the Qur'an is actually misogynistic then people should be aware of that and also be aware of why it is misogynistic, and how imams justify it (or instead argue from a relativist standpoint that it is based in the contemporary culture of Muhammad and thus is more descriptive than prescriptive - a similar method is used to dismiss criticism of all ancient texts accepting slavery).

My preferred way to handle misquotations is not to pretend that it has not been said. It is to make people aware of the context - "yes, it does say that, but it also says this, and it says this because...." A frequent criticism of the theory of evolution is even Charles Darwin said that it seems absurd to believe our complex eyes could arise through natural selection. Darwin did write that it seems absurd, but the very next sentence points out that if it can be shown that there are gradations where each grade is useful to the organism then in fact is not absurd to see how our eyes could have evolved - and it turns out there are gradations and each is useful to the organism which possesses it. Using selective quotations is an attractive idea but misquotes are almost always dismissed just by reading in context.

The second part of Hamilton's argument is about the no platform policy really not being against freedom of expression. He makes a confusing analogy about it not being censorship when a newspaper editor chooses to print a letter about fox hunting rather than Diego Garcia. I think the anonymous poster makes the point I wish to make well:

Denying Griffin et al the right to speak is not a belief that their views aren't important - its a belief that their views are wrong. Now you may be right to think that. I may also be right to think that. But everyone must be allowed to make that decision themselves. That holds even for things which are demonstrably false. (Besides, if falsehoods are so demonstrable, then it should not be a risk that they convince anyone) If you don't want to host it, or participate in it, then fine. But don't stop others who may wish to do so.
Ignorance is not intellectually fulfilling. It is far better to know more than to know less. Having a successful and rigorous liberal democracy requires that its citizens do not just accept what they are told from on high, but that they challenge everything and always require justification. It needs an active and engaged populace. People must be aware that the BNP want to "repatriate" those from ethnic minorities. The BNP would hang itself if we just gave it enough rope. Allowing people to see for themselves just how weak their arguments is the perfect way to make sure the BNP remain on the extreme fringe of British politics.

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