October 07, 2009

The Illusion of Freedom

Writing about web page http://theboar.org/comment/2009/oct/5/illusion-freedom/

This is my article as published in the Boar of week 1 term 1 2009.

Two weeks ago Rowan Lax­ton, the head of the South Asia desk at the FCO, was found guilty of racial­ly ag­gra­vat­ed ha­rass­ment. He was in a Lon­don gym watch­ing a tele­vi­sion re­port about the death of a farmer killed by Is­raeli bombs dur­ing the Gaza con­flict when he ex­claimed: “Fuck­ing Is­raelis, fuck­ing Jews.” It is also al­leged that he said “If I had my way, the fuck­ing in­ter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty should be sent in and if the Is­raelis got in the way, they’d be blown off the fuck­ing earth.”

What he did was in­ap­pro­pri­ate and this is ag­gra­vat­ed by the fact he is a diplo­mat. One would hope that Her Majesty’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives be able to ex­press them­selves in a more diplo­mat­ic man­ner. He should re­sign.

What Mr Lax­ton said is of ab­so­lute­ly no use to the de­bate about what Is­rael did in Gaza and it was not meant to be. As the judge said “it was an emo­tion­al re­ac­tion”.

He was con­vict­ed under the Crim­i­nal and Dis­or­der Act 1998, one of the many Acts passed by New Labour re­lat­ing to crim­i­nal jus­tice. Here is how the Home Of­fice sum­maris­es the law: “A crime will count as “racial­ly ag­gra­vat­ed” if it can be shown that it was mo­ti­vat­ed ei­ther whol­ly or part­ly by racism. A crime will also count as “racial­ly ag­gra­vat­ed” if it can be shown that – even though the mo­ti­va­tion for the at­tack was not racist – racist hos­til­i­ty was demon­strat­ed dur­ing the course of the of­fence or im­me­di­ate­ly be­fore or after it.” A “racial group” is, for the pur­pos­es of the new of­fences, “a group of per­sons de­fined by ref­er­ence to race, colour, na­tion­al­i­ty (in­clud­ing cit­i­zen­ship) or eth­nic or na­tion­al ori­gins”. The Act does not cover re­li­gion but it “makes it clear that even where there is a re­li­gious el­e­ment to a crime, so long as some part of the mo­ti­va­tion is racial, the of­fence will count as a racial­ly ag­gra­vat­ed of­fence.” So shout­ing “fuck­ing French” at me (I am French) even if your mo­ti­va­tion is not “racist” (say­ing that French is a race would cause an out­cry in France) counts as racial­ly ag­gra­vat­ed.

If your racial­ly ag­gra­vat­ed ac­tion hap­pens to be con­sid­ered ha­rass­ment or “putting peo­ple in fear of vi­o­lence” with­in the mean­ing of the Pro­tec­tion of Ha­rass­ment Act 1997 (a New Labour law which has very often been used against peace­ful protesters) then you would be, like Mr Lax­ton, guilty of “racial­ly ag­gra­vat­ed ha­rass­ment”. In any event should the rea­sons why some­one does some­thing be rel­e­vant in con­vict­ing him?

I men­tioned above that re­li­gious ha­tred was not cov­ered by the Act. This is now the case thanks to Racial and Re­li­gious Ha­tred Act 2006. That act goes even fur­ther than the pre­vi­ous laws by its ref­er­ences to “threat­en­ing” words, be­haviour, writ­ten ma­te­ri­al and pub­lic per­for­mance of a play.

In any event these laws will not de­feat racism: the law can­not con­trol what peo­ple think. They could even be counter pro­duc­tive.

These new laws re­flect a very wor­ry­ing de­vel­op­ment, the cre­ation of a right not to be of­fend­ed. This of course goes against free speech, which after all means not the right to ex­press views you agree with but also views you whole­heart­ed­ly dis­agree with. It is es­sen­tial that in a demo­crat­ic so­ci­ety one should be able to of­fend.

It’s in­ter­est­ing to note the con­trast be­tween what hap­pened with Mr Lax­ton and what hap­pened in Swe­den re­cent­ly. A tabloid news­pa­per pub­lished an ar­ti­cle claim­ing that Is­raeli sol­diers had har­vest­ed the or­gans of some Pales­tini­ans whom they had shot. With­in hours, Is­rael’s deputy for­eign min­is­ter had de­nounced the ar­ti­cle for racism and de­mand­ed that it be con­demned by the Swedish gov­ern­ment. How­ev­er the Swedish for­eign min­ster wrote on his blog that Is­rael want­ed the Swedish gov­ern­ment to dis­tance it­self from the ar­ti­cle or take steps to pre­vent a repli­ca­tion, but that was not how the coun­try worked. “Free­dom of ex­pres­sion and press free­dom are very strong in our con­sti­tu­tion by tra­di­tion. And that strong pro­tec­tion has served our democ­ra­cy and our coun­try well”, he wrote. This ro­bust de­fence of free­dom of ex­pres­sion was en­dorsed by the prime min­is­ter.

It seems Britain is no longer the land of lib­er­ty it used to be.

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