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October 07, 2009

The Illusion of Freedom

Writing about web page

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.

January 22, 2009

Boar Comment on Prince Harry

This is a slightly different version of my comment published in The Boar of T2 wk3 08/09

George Orwell said the following about fascism:

The word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else... almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’”.

The same is happening today with racism. The definition of the term is becoming increasingly wide.

In a private video three years ago Prince Harry referred to one of his Sandhurst colleagues as “our little paki friend...Ahmed”. He did not seem offended nor did he file a complaint. The video has now been made public and the use by Prince Harry of the “P-word” has caused a lot of negative reactions. Everyone from politicians to Muslim leaders condemned Prince Harry for what he said. It was racist and offensive they said.

Prince Harry used the term in an affectionate way. Paki is simply an abbreviation for Pakistani. It's true it has been used as a racist term. But this should not mean that every use of the term is racist. Racist individuals should not have the monopoly of using this word. Indeed, according to an article by the BBC, some young Pakistanis use it themselves. What is important is the context and the intention of the person using the word. “Filthy paki” is completely different from “my little paki friend”.

Those who label Prince Harry's action as “racist” contribute to the weakening of this word. This may eventually lead to taking all the power away from this word and making it a synonym of bully.

The use of a word may be offensive to some but this does not mean someone should be socially banned from using it. As Orwell said:

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Her Majesty and by extension the Royal family are a unifying figure in Britain (or at least they are supposed to be). They should not do anything which could be (mis)interpreted as being divisive. This is the reason why Prince Harry should have apologised and it is right that he did so. We should however bear in mind that this was a private video.

Mohammed Shafiq, a young Muslim who is the chief executive of the Ramadhan foundation, was one of the people who reacted to Prince Harry's comment. According to the BBC he said the following:

“Anybody who uses derogatory terms such as the 'P' word and other words are obviously from a different age. He is trying to portray this image of being caring like his mother, who was a great woman, or his father who's a person who's widely respected across the world. He's a thug.”

He later apologised for calling Prince Harry a thug. His emotions had got the better of him, according to the Times.

What is interesting to note is that his comments have drawn very little criticism. Is what Prince Harry has done so much worse than calling someone a thug? Or is it just political correctness?

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