Ethics - The right to free speech #4
What are the main criticisms of our defence of free speech for the BNP?
1. The persecution complex criticism
According to this view (which was expressed by one of the panellists on the show quite early on, as well as the show's presenter in response to our statement), by giving the BNP or any extremist group a platform to speak allows them to present themselves as being given unfair and resentful treatment and thus claim not only extra kudos for their policies, but also the sympathy vote from the electorate.
To counter this: doesn't this criticism assume that the vast majority of the voting masses are complete imbeciles? That they cannot distinguish between a good policy that benefits human beings from a racist policy that incites violence and hatred? The majority of people, it would appear, have the presence of mind to think for themselves and not be influenced by the BNP's policies. Of course, it is worrying that some apparently intelligent people appear to be proclaiming and supporting extreme views, but these views can only be discredited if we allow them to be expressed openly and democratically.
2. The 'what if?' criticism
According to this criticism, it is worrying that nearly a million people voted for the BNP. If we allow this trend to continue, some argue, and history has shown this, what if a mass wave of opinion swings in favour of the BNP's policies? Won't they soon start to gain seats in Parliament?
There are two possible counters to this: first, aren't we getting close to a slippery slope fallacy here - you know, 'give them an inch, they'll take a mile' ? A million people amongst a population of over 60 million isn't much. And second, as some students have neatly pointed out, there's a vast difference between the proportional representation system of democratic election in which someone like Hitler can gain representation in Government and our own system of party political election. This system is not only founded on the principle that the voting masses make informed decisions, but also safeguards against extremist individuals and parties getting elected into power.
Nevertheless, the 'what if?' scenario never really goes away. Perhaps because it plays on our emotions too strongly in the light of historical events...
3. The 'earning of rights' criticism
According to this argument, no extreme political party should be given a platform, if their policies infringe basic human rights. Before they can even come into the democratic process, they must prove that they've earned the right. And if this proof is lacking, they should be banned from that process.
To counter this: here's a real chicken and egg scenario! Surely, we can only judge the nature of the BNP's policies if and when we allow them a platform to air their beliefs. We have to know what their policies are and we have to give them a platform to justify those policies before we judge what to do with those policies and their party.
4. The political naivety criticism
This criticism neatly arrives from the last counter: to think that democracy works in this way is at best idealistic and at worst naive. To give extremists a platform to voice their beliefs in the first place is to acknowledge that they are important and this is a wrong-headed approach.
Counter: Perhaps this just underlines the frailty of the democratic process. Yes, we're never going to lose the 'what if?' feeling and we cannot always account for the unpredictable and often crazy behaviour of human beings, but we have to trust that the process will work for the betterment of humankind. Do we all have that trust in democracy? What evidence exists to support that trust?
5. The appeasement criticism
According to this criticism, we are adopting a policy of appeasement to deal with extremists. Standing back passively while they incite racial hatred and violence is abhorrent and, as history has shown, leads to further devastating conflict. The best policy is to be active and assert oneself on the propitiators of racist and exclusionist beliefs and stamp them out before they can gain support.
There are various counters to this: constantly undermining the personalities of the BNP and their similarities to Nazis implies two things: first, are we not in danger of engaging in the ad hominem fallacy? You can't prove that someone's knowledge claim is false by attacking the personality of the one who makes the claim. And second, in attacking the BNP we are creating a diversion away from looking at some of the worst actions of other politicians both from the past and right here today. For example, our readiness to focus on the BNP's Nazi affiliations makes it easy to forget the atrocities the British have committed in the name of Empire. Can you think of modern day equivalents of such actions? The Falklands War comes to mind...
6. The extension of rights criticism
If you give the right to free speech to the BNP, you have to extend free speech to all extremists of all factions.
Correct. The qualifying adjective 'universal' in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights implies this from the very beginning; it is a first principle, so to speak. We don't have to like it and it might be extremely hard to accept it, but it is a first step to the decent discussion every moral problem requires for there to be a peaceful solution.
7. The self-excluded criticism
What about those nations that haven't signed up to the UN document? Surely they've excluded themselves from any sort of process of ethical dialogue.
To counter: perhaps more of an effort should be made to bring them to an understanding of the need to sign up.
8. The false distinction criticism
Your whole position is based on the false distinction between 'morals' and 'ethics'. You cannot be morally against the BNP and at the same time allow them the right to be heard.
In counter to this: please come up with a better, more rational, distinction...