What Are The Limits of Free Speech

This week, Anjem Choudary was convicted in the UK for supporting ISIS. He is facing up to 10 years in prison. I am not familiar with all the details of the case. Maybe he did more than just preach. But apparently a lot of is crime consists of preaching hate. He was vocally supporting ISIS and was preaching death to its enemies.

This is a good opportunity to reflect on how far free speech should go? Should there be any limits? Should we therefore care if someone like Anjem Choudary, undoubtably a not very nice human being, is being sent to prison?

So far, my own attitude towards free speech is probably best describes by the English saying “sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt me”. That is to say, words in and off itself do not cause any damage. Therefore, they can hardly be a crime.

I believe that everyone is responsible for their own actions. Just because someone tells me to hate or commit a violent crime does not mean that I have to do it. It is my own choice and therefore my own responsibility if I act on someone’s proposal. Therefore, the person making the proposal is not responsible for my actions. To argue otherwise is to assume that there is a deterministic relationship between the words and my actions.

However, it seems that this argument leads to some unpleasant results. Say I advertise this job opening. “Looking for someone to kill Donald Duck, living at XY. Offer £50 000 reward”. Is this speech or a crime? It seems that the same principle from our argument above applies here. No one has to take up my offer to kill Donald Duck. There are no costs involved with ignoring it. By costs I mean, no one is worse off after rejecting my offer than he was before. Sure £50 000 seems like a big incentive. But so what? It seems foolish to deny that a good speech can incentivise people. If speech could not motivate people, then ideas would be worthless. And if ideas are worthless then who cares about free speech anyway? If an incentive is the only thing that matters, then it seems we might also have a good argument against hate speech.

The way I see it is that if you offer someone money to murder a person, you are involved in the crime. Certainly, the biggest responsibility lies with the killer. But allowing people to hire killers with impunity for themselves seems like a foolish policy to me. And I am willing to bet that I am not the only one who feels that way.

If that is true than I am not sure if it is correct to say that there is no kind of determinism between someone’s speech and someone’s actions. Let us say a guru of a cult is preaching violence to his followers. His followers see him as an authority and are likely to act on his demand. And the guru himself knows that this is the case. It is difficult to argue that such a guru does not bare at least some responsibility when his followers go out and commit crimes.

This of course was the case in the famous murder cases of Charles Manson. The Manson Family, as his little cult was called, committed some extremely brutal murders that shocked America at the end of the 60s. Charles Manson is currently still serving 9 life sentences for conspiracy of murder. The thing is, he did not actually take part in any of the murders. He just instructed his followers to do so. So does anyone want to argue that Charles Manson has been imprisoned unjustly for the last few decades?

It seems to me that the argument that there cannot be any determinism between someone’s speech and another person’s actions does not hold. Speech is too powerful for that. So is there maybe another argument in favour of free speech?

My argument is that free speech is the best weapon against hate speech. If we are arguing in favour of censorship, we will need to give someone the power to censor. History tells us that giving someone that power is very dangerous. The danger is that it makes debating very difficult. If you threaten people to not make certain arguments, you are poisoning the environment in which debate takes place. You are biasing the debate towards certain ideas. And these ideas are more likely than not going to be false ideas.

In France, it is a crime to deny that what Turkey did to the Armenian’s a century ago was not a genocide. In Turkey it is a crime to say that it was a genocide. Both sides claim to censor in order to prevent false and dangerous ideas from spreading. At least one of them has now certainly achieved the opposite.

People with the truth on their side tend to not fear debate. Because debating is the process of debunking false ideas. And it is the sharpest weapon there is against the latter. Much sharper than any censorship could ever be. So the tested solution to stop dangerous and false ideas is liberty. The track record of censorship is the opposite. It is helping false ideas to spread.

Still, I am inclined to think that it is legitimate to hold someone responsible who motivates people to commit very concrete violent crimes. At the very least, he is responsible after the crimes have been committed. How responsible needs to be determined on a case by case basis. Someone carelessly throwing away a remark about killing someone in a side sentence is certainly not as responsible as the cult guru explicitly instructing his followers.

If we need free speech in order to have an open debate, this limitation does not seem to do any damage. Ordering a crowd to commit a crime is not really an act of debate. But for that to be true, it needs to be very concrete. Because censorship itself is very dangerous, the line needs to be drawn as far in favour of freedom as possible. However, a complete freedom of speech, saying whatever you like, whenever you like, without ever having to fear any responsibility for the actions or your audience seems to lead to unpleasant results at times. The test is probably when someone starts giving people concrete instructions to commit a crime with the clear and justified hope that his audience is going to act on it. Unless someone can show me why I am wrong, a complete freedom of speech seems impracticable to me.

Outlawing “Islamophobia” – the folly of hate crime laws

According to Muslim News Ed Miliband has promised to make “Islamophobia” illegal: 

“We are going to make it an aggravated crime. We are going to make sure it is marked on people’s records with the police to make sure they root out Islamophobia as a hate crime […]We are going to change the law on this so we make it absolutely clear of our abhorrence of hate crime and Islamophobia. It will be the first time that the police will record Islamophobic attacks right across the country,” Ed allegedly said to the editor of The Muslim News Ahmed J. Versi.

Now, I cannot be certain as to the veracity of this statement nor the accuracy of the quotations. I am not certain of the integrity or quality of The Muslim News so I am assessing this with some scepticism while using it as a starting point to discuss a broader theme.

For me, whether Ed Miliband really intends this or not, it is a reminder of the essentially morally corrupt nature of the concept of hate crime. Is it healthy that Muslims should rejoice that they will be recognised by a law identifying them as a separate group, worthy of a special law, to gain parity with Jews and homosexuals? I would contend that it would be better for the social fabric of our society that their sense of separation be eroded rather than made official by law.

Hate crime is identity politics in legislative form, it erodes the principles that uphold the common law; that all are equal before it, it is the law of the land and applies to all, rich, poor, black, white, Muslim, Christian, the government and the governed. Hate crime is divisive because it creates further barriers and aggravates the sense of otherness that minority groups feel.

The law should be blind to race. It is supposed to be a unifying and inclusive force; we are all British and subject to the same laws. Equality before the law is one of principles that made Britain a great and free country, hate crime laws do not conform to it. Hate crime laws say that crimes committed against certain groups are worse than crime committed against people not within those groups, this is unarguably not the case.

I do not deny that it is abhorrent that a Muslim should be attacked because they are Muslim, or that a homosexual is attacked because they are a homosexual; but in the eyes of the law that should simply be a human being and a British citizen being attacked, which results in the appropriate judgement and punishment.

Moreover, the rule of law in a free country judges the individual on what they do, not what they think. You should be condemned for you actions, but not your thoughts. The law cannot pretend to see in into the minds of the defendant. Assault is a violent crime, but when the law enhances the sentence if it is judged that the defendant was motivated by racism/Anti-Semitism/Homophobia/Islamophobia/transphobia/misogony etc. etc. etc. etc. then we have essentially put thought crime on the statute books.

If an individual of one race is mugged in the street by someone of another race who, while taking the victim’s property at knife point, uses a racial slur, does that constitute a “hate crime”? Is there a real moral difference between a man beating another man to a bloody pulp in the street, and a man beating another man to a bloody pulp in the street because he doesn’t like blacks/muslims/jews/gays? Is it really worse if one assaults a person because they are Asian, than if one attacks a person because they are old and vulnerable, and therefore an easy target? Hate crime laws muddy the waters. The criminal justice system should punish the act rather than speculating about the motive.

It may, of course, be necessary in some situations to ascertain a motive in order to build a case to prove guilt. That does not however mean that the punishment should be harsher based on that motive. It is not okay to assault someone. It is not okay to murder someone. It actually does not matter what the perpetrator was thinking at the time nor what emotional state they were in.

I have yet to see any evidence that hate crime laws bring any tangible benefit to the groups that it is designed to help. If someone is intending to viciously attack someone else because they are gay; it is a dubious that they will be deterred by the possibility of a longer sentence based on their motive.

Such crimes should have sufficiently harsh sentences regardless of motive, the criminal who isn’t deterred enough by the sentence in the first place won’t think twice because he is committing a hate crime as well as an aggravated assault. Unfortunately, the existence of hate crime laws have not been shown to prevent or deter actions that are deemed to be hate crimes, making them unfit for purpose and a failure on their own terms.

Pandering to identity politics may win votes, but “divide and rule” should not be the mantra of a party that believes it has a monopoly on social solidarity.

Again, it is of course wrong and disgusting for someone to be the victim of crime or prejudiced based on their race, sexuality or religion, but that does not mean we need separate laws when the end result of a racially motivated assault is the same as an assault not motived by race. In the interest of fairness and true equality hate crime laws should be repealed.

New legislation specifically addressing the concerns of Muslims is misguided and wrong. Exacerbating the sense of “otherness” that some Muslims feel will not help us assimilate them into our society, only inclusivity will do that and there is nothing more inclusive than equality before the law.

 

“Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True” – cultural relativism is the real problem

I thought “Things We Can’t Say About Race That Are True” was a fairly good programme and I commend Trevor Philips for making it. He is due respect for being thoughtful and self-aware enough to be criticise the erroneous attitudes he had earlier expressed. These are essential issues which must be discussed openly.

Britain is a multi-racial society that is going through an unprecedented demographic and cultural change in a very short space of time. Few countries in the world could have managed such a vast and rapid influx of newcomers from diverse cultures so tolerantly and so peacefully. We are however now feeling societal tensions and anxieties as a result both of this change, but also as a direct result of the complacent attitudes of those who have been arrogant and dismissive in their treatment of people with concerns. They attempted to ignore people who felt anxious and displaced. They worked to shut down debate. This is the damaging approach that Trevor Philips identified, lamented and repudiated last night.

The main argument of the programme was that the restrictions on free speech and our fear of discussing “race” have contributed to the resentment and tension in our society. It has also directly created a climate of fear and silence that “creates victims too”. The fear of being accused of being a racist felt by politicians and the authorities has led them to badly let down people they have a duty to protect. Fear of stereotyping certain social or racial groups has led them to failing those very same groups.

It was a compelling argument fairly well communicated. Still, I feel the point I made in my previous article; that ethnicity is actually not a factor, and that culture is what is important, is actually glaringly obvious and by missing this point Trevor Philips is still offering weak solutions. His pointing out the irony in white Britons criticising the privileging of specific social groups just as they are about to benefit from it was fatuous. The social problems of poor white Britons have a longer history than the last decade or so. It is the targeting and different treatment of people according to race that is wrong.

He discussed the behavioural patterns of ethnic groups, patterns that can be proven statistically. This is all very interesting, but although it is blindingly obvious that such behaviours have nothing to do with skin colour; that does not mean it goes without saying. All this discussion of race, and the behaviours or racial groups, and the very name of the programme “Things We Won’t Say About Race”, diverts away from the far more pertinent factor of culture.

Here’s another shocking behavioural pattern that is proven by statistics. 48% of British Pakistanis who are married, are married to their first cousin. As a direct result of this they are 13 times more likely to produce children with genetic disorders than the rest of the general population. British Pakistanis only account for 3% of births in the United Kingdom, but they are responsible for 33% of babies born with genetic defects each year. This is shocking. More importantly, what does that say about Asian people? What does it say about people with brown skin?

Nothing, of course. Absolutely nothing at all. It is because they belong to an extremely parochial and poorly educated, un-integrated community with a regressively conservative Pakistani village culture. Failing to address or criticise this will cause the British Pakistanis concerned great suffering. Inbreeding, tribalism and social parochialism are not a recipe for success in our society. I am being quite blunt about this because I am criticising a culture, not a race. Again, this may all seem perfectly obvious, but if it is, why was it not discussed in the programme?

This fear of racism, and inability to criticise culture leads to the disgraceful farce around the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie that was referred to in the programme. The poor child had 128 separate injuries. A vast array of explanations were offered except the only relevant one, which is that her Ivory Coast guardians were products of a backwards culture of superstition and cruelty.

It wasn’t because they were black, it was because they believed in witchcraft, i.e. it was entirely cultural. Cultural relativism is amoral. If we can’t say believing in witchcraft is dangerous and moronic and that inbreeding should be criticised and frowned upon, then we have truly lost our way. We are not criticising based on race, but culture. It is this line that must be identified, and that we must be allowed to cross in order to move forward

I would contend that this is the crux of the matter. The encouragement from “progressive” ideologues and the state for certain communities to preserve the culture of the old country is in-fact highly regressive and has proven to be a total failure. The corrupt ideology of cultural relativism or “multiculturalism” has exacerbated many social problems and caused harm to the minorities it was supposed to protect

It was a massive act of folly to reject the tried and tested, successful and natural means of coping with immigration; through assimilation. Through this process new cultures integrate into the host culture. The dominant culture absorbs desirable elements of the new cultures and erodes undesirable or incompatible elements. The host culture is thereby enriched, refreshed and diversified. This is clearly evidenced by the successful ethnic communities who live in our society harmoniously.

These are the real issues; things we can’t say about culture that are true. If we do not stand by the values of our own culture, and criticise others as we freely criticise our own (for fear of that false accusation of racism) it is to the detriment of all.

 

 

 

 

 

Things you can’t say about culture that are true

I have been called a “bigot”, a “reactionary”, a “racist” and a “right wing nutter” on social media for my objection to multiculturalism. For those that were hurling these insults I was simply prejudiced and objecting to the very concept of our diverse, multi-racial society. For them “multiculturalism” is an attempt to create tolerance and harmony amongst multi-ethnic groups and do away with the supposedly chauvinistic concept of a dominant culture that assimilates sub cultures and unites them into a national culture.

For me, and many others, multiculturalism is a divisive ideology that encourages cultures to be conservative to the extent of being inward looking and resistant to integration. It leads to some of the diverse groups that make up our society living separate lives. It is cultural relativism with a different name; the self-evidently false notion that all cultures are of equal merit, are worthy of equal respect and that one culture should not seek to dominate another.

The worst thing about it is that it falsely ties up culture with race, making it impossible to criticise elements of certain cultures without being accused of being racist. This restriction on freedom of speech has already caused enormous damage; isolated communities, segregated cities, the blind eye turned to grooming gangs, and a simmering resentment in our society that puts a strain on social cohesion.

Multiculturalism became the ideology of the state with perverse results. In its attempts to neutralise racism, Britain has become a racialist country because the state tracks the ethnicity of citizens at every available opportunity. To promote inclusivity and combat discrimination, we are racially profiled.

Each ethnic and religious group began to be treated only as a group, and their culture, religion and identity promoted by the state, which in-turn turned blind eye to the elements of that culture that were incompatible with the dominant culture and sometimes even the law of the land.

The government attempted to create better lines of communications with the “Muslim community” (itself an oft used false phrase suggesting homogeneity) by giving false authority to self-professed “community leaders”. This was little different to the methods of social control in the colonies. It promotes the conservation of tribal culture within British society, causes divisions and mutes the voices of individuals within the community who do not feel represented by the “community leaders” who act as emissaries.

I am not a racist, ethnicity is skin deep. It is culture that is important, and we should be free to criticise culture, because they are not all the same and they are not all of equal merit. In the programme “Things We Won’t Say about Race that are True” we are confronted with statistics about different races:

“A third of London pickpockets are Romanian; black people are six times as likely to be jailed for robbery; the Chinese are tops at people-trafficking; when it comes to drug dealing, Afro-Caribbeans are pathetic amateurs compared to the Colombians; meanwhile, white idiots are the national champs of alcohol-fuelled crime.”

The real reason we should be able to discuss these things is because it is absolutely nothing to do with race at all, thus to point these things out is not racist. The fact that Romanians are statistically more likely to be pick pockets or white Britons more likely to be drunken louts is nothing to do with ethnicity; it is entirely to do with culture.

The “Muslim” rape gangs are not representative of the Asian community, and their actions say nothing of their ethnicity; they are displaying the traits of a misogynistic and racist tribal/religious culture. Romanian pickpockets come from a poor and historically corrupt country, that is the cultural baggage of the pickpockets, their skin colour is not a factor.

The drunken lout white Britons are a rotten part of our own culture. We have lost the culture of self-restraint and personal responsibility that became a national characteristic in the religious revival of the nineteenth century. We return to being known across Europe as debauched, emotionally incontinent, louts much like our reputation in the eighteenth century. It is all about culture. We should be free to criticise others as we criticise our own, that is far more likely to lead to unity than our current blinkered ideological approach.

The restrictions on freedom of speech caused by the ideology of multiculturalism/cultural relativism has created a tense atmosphere in which it is perceived to be bigoted to criticise a culture, or to point out a damaging or undesirable element of a culture, or to assert the superiority of one culture over another. This also means that you cannot combat the actual racist assumption that such negative traits are in-fact something to do with race, which justifies the bigot’s discrimination against ethnic groups as a whole. It also means you cannot weed out the negative elements of a new culture as it assimilates into a host culture.

If we can start to say these things, we can start to unpick them and put ethnicity to one side. We can then forge a unifying culture together, a concept so wrongly criticised and over simplified. A national culture or “monoculture” is not about uniformity can be incredibly diverse and have many shades, it is unifying and need not have anything to do with race. This is already evident in our ethnically mixed communities that are well integrated.

I have witnessed the segregation and resentment in Bradford, but I have also seen how integration works in the multi-ethnic communities of Wakefield. There you’ll find White, Asian, Indian and Afro-Caribbeans living together as proper Yorkshire folk and Britons.This cannot be achieved across the country through cultural relativism or state interference, nor if we are not free to speak the truth. Ethnicity need not divide us, but culture can, and ideology will.

Stop giving in to terrorism, stand up to it!

It is little wonder that over a decade after the “war on terror” was declared terrorism is still going strong. Indeed, it is having rather a successful recruitment drive. It is not just that it provides a fulfilling ideology for young men and women to cling to, it is just so damnably effective! I do not refer to the people they have murdered, or the acts of terror they have committed, because actually these are few and far between and most attempts are thwarted. Yes, I know it is easy to forget that isn’t it? Statistically you have more chance of dying of food poisoning, or in a train crash or being drowned in the bath than of being killed in an act of terrorism. It is extremely unlikely to happen, you may as well worry about debris from space landing on your head. Yet something as statistically insignificant as death by terrorism can spread fear and hysteria through a populace, and allow a government to get away with investing vast amounts of money, enacting laws, removing liberties and declaring wars just to supposedly protect us from it.

The “war on terror” was declared in response to the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11th 2001, could the terrorists have hoped for a better response from the leading nations of the west? Trillions were spent, and thousands of lives lost, in fighting (and losing) disastrous wars. To defend “our values” against terrorists our governments have systematically betrayed them with paranoid authoritarianism. We fight the “war on terror” with vast increases in state power that destroys the liberty of our law abiding citizens. We are losing the war because our response to terrorism is to be afraid, to turn on each other and to betray the virtues that set us apart.

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Will our apparent defiance last?

Terrorism only works when we allow it to. The Islamists who murdered the Charlie Hebdo staff claim another victory every time the media censor themselves by refusing to show the images that inspired the attack. How can the media properly report on this topic without printing the cartoons? They are conspicuous by their absence and self-censorship makes a bold political statement that read: you win terrorists and what is more, you were right. These double standards concede to the Islamist murderer’s demand that their deity be given special treatment, this must end now.

Charlie Hebdo was an easy target, why? Because they were isolated and stuck out like a sore thumb. They were making a stand and barely any other members of the so-called “free press” stood with them. If they had done so, and collectively, they could have spread the risk and faced the enemy down. Unfortunately, cowardice is part of a long term pattern and every time a great shock to the system occurs there is talk of it being a line in the sand that will change things fundamentally. I would dearly like to believe that liberal western countries, and their media and artistic industries, are going to wake up and stand up for their supposed values that they allegedly hold dear but their track record is poor.

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Rushdie has responded to the campaign against him with bravery and quiet dignity

If the hysterical response of Islamists to the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, and the subsequent terror campaign against him and anyone affiliated with the book, didn’t inspire liberal countries to stand up for what they believe in, what will? So much for “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”, the author was instead criticised by many cultural and political figures at the time for his ‘insensitivity’. Rusdie has lived in some degree of fear for his life ever since but (thankfully) has been successfully protected, others have not been so lucky. The Italian translator of The Satanic Verses, Ettore Capriolo, was stabbed and seriously wounded, the Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was murdered. The books Norwegian publisher Willian Bygaar survived an attempted murder in Oslo. In 1993 a Turkish cultural festival was set upon by a mob of Salafists aiming to murder Azin Nesin who had tried to get the novel published in Turkey. 37 people died, mostly intellectuals, artists and musicians but also several of the hotel staff.

That was a real test for of our resolve, a test that so many people sadly failed. Instead of defending freedom of expression and seeing through the Islamic world’s reaction as the ludicrous hysteria it was, some chose to criticise the quality of the book (as if that was even the point), some criticised the author for being offensive, some criticised the fact that the taxpayer would be funding the author’s security. Book burnings on the streets of Bradford, death threats for the writing of a novel, an author having to go into hiding, and people were still saying that perhaps he had it coming for being provocative and perhaps he should have known better. How sad. You can trace our cultural malaise back to 1989, that was when the era of the intolerant offence culture began, it has yet to come to an end.

18 years later, when Rushdie was up for a knighthood in 2007, there was predictable outrage in the Islamic world and amongst a minority of British Islamist lunatics who took to the streets to burn books, effigies of the author and the union flag. Even more predictable, and regrettable, was the cowardice and hand wringing evident in the prominent protests of some British politicians and intellectuals. Of course Rushdie had many staunch defenders,but the very fact that the question of “is this an insult to Muslims? was raised in response to the knighthood was a sign of severe timidity, and a complete misunderstanding of what was at stake. It was a potent reminder of the sad fact that a novel like The Satanic Verses simply would not get published now.

For decades now our artistic and journalistic culture has been constrained. How many other novels have been rejected because the publisher didn’t want to provoke the rage of terrorists? How many novelists have censored themselves? How many film makers have opted to play it safe? I don’t ask that we collectively and deliberately do what we can to provoke the Islamic world, I simply ask that we stop being afraid. That we stop making that possible offence our primary concern, that we stop censoring ourselves and that when another test of our resolve comes, we refuse to be intimidated. When Charlie Hebdo’s offices were bombed in 2011, they reprinted the cartoons to show that they would not back down in the face of terrorism; that takes courage. Because so few other people showed that courage the magazine and its staff was left to make a lonely stand.

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All that madness, for these silly cartoons…

After the uproar over the crude, but pretty innocuous, 2005 Danish cartoons no other major newspaper or magazine in Europe reprinted them. After the bombing of the Charlie Hebdo offices in 2011 the same whimpering cowardice prevailed. After the Paris shootings last week many failed the test once again. There were a few notable examples but at this stage it is difficult to believe that the tragedy will trigger the cultural shift that is so necessary.

This is not a “clash of civilisations”, that phrase is overblown, a tired neo-con relic from the build up to our foolish military campaigns. This battle is ideological, this war is cultural. We have to stand up for ourselves and flex our cultural muscles. Our response to terrorism should be proportionate and unyielding. We must refuse to be panicked into a knee jerk overreaction in which we enact further illiberal laws. This generational struggle is temporary, but the virtues of our culture can last forever if we refuse to surrender them. If anything, we should be repealing laws; defending our freedom by increasing it. The media should reach a consensus in which it refuses to be gagged and stops censoring itself, if a picture of Muhammed is central to the news report, print or show the damn thing!

Above all else I pray for an unrestrained artistic renaissance. This is a time when people are being murdered because of cartoons, when a few loons can gag the mass media. When small terrorist groups can send the whole western world into a spasm of war and paranoid delusion. When disillusioned young people are being indoctrinated with a radical ideology and turning to murder and terror, when a stagnant religion shackles the mind of vast swathes of British Muslims and hinders their integration. When the hypocritical governments of the west are ever expanding and using a climate of fear to increase and consolidate their power. Now is the time for untrammelled plain speaking, criticism, analysis and satire. Come authors, poets, film makers, artists and writers, all, please heed the call!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#JeSuisCharlie? Let’s not get distracted from the real fight for freedom

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The attack inspired a mass of sanctimony

The first I heard of the Paris shootings was in a text message from a friend. I promptly went online and came across the horrifying video of the police officer being murdered as he lay wounded in the street. So my first impression was not of any wider implications but simply the empathy I felt for the helpless creature lying on the pavement. Later my mood began to shift towards outrage.

What did I do then? Well, the only thing I could do to offer a token gesture of solidarity; I took to social media. I tweeted cartoons of Muhammed and expressed my defiance. After a while it all got a bit tiring and I realised how futile and vacuous it was. For me to tweet the offending pictures is not brave and it achieves very little. I began to feel a little embarrassed by my own misplaced reactionary enthusiasm. My total obscurity provides an anonymity that means that I am not placing myself in even the tiniest bit of danger by my actions. It is not pleasant feeling useless and insignificant at such a seemingly pivotal time as this.

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After a few days of calm reflection I began to feel trepidatious. The mass outpouring of grief and supposed “solidarity” has led to a collective convulsion in France that has spread across Europe, creating a conformity of thought and lulling us into a false sense of security. There has been too much back slapping as we congratulate ourselves on being beacons of free expression and liberty, it is easy to claim this in comparison with Islamic countries, but in the aftermath we have to calmly check our hypocrisy and our priorities.

Our cherished rights have been steadily eroded for some time now and are under serious and immediate threat. This threat comes from our own governments and as we wonder fearfully where the terrorists will strike next it is they who will come to attack liberty, exploiting our fear and striking when we are at our most vulnerable. Despite the sheer horror of the Paris shootings this must be where our scrutiny and scepticism is mainly focussed, not on Islamists.

Wounded patriotism have inspired a show of unity and much self-congratulatory rhetoric about France being a beacon of liberty. We should not let the rush of emotion accept this without scepticism. Does a free country ban the wearing of certain items of clothing? Does a free country ban you from praying in the street, a serious curb on religious expression? I think it perfectly fair and reasonable that private companies can make their own decisions on such rules, and the face should not be concealed in court, but it a serious violation of individual freedom for the state to dictate that you cannot wear signs of religious affiliation (be it a crucifix necklace or a turban) in schools or face veils in the street. I personally do not like the sight of a niqab but banning something just because we don’t like it is not a liberal thing to do.

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It is heartening to see millions marching in the streets in an act of defiance, but it shouldn’t take a massacre to inspire people to fight for their rights. France, it should not be forgotten, restricts freedom of expression with some of the strictest hate speech, defamation, privacy and libel laws in the western world.

The privacy law in France encourages self-censorship because the publication of private details of an individual’s life without consent is a punishable offence. Unlike in Britain there are few public interest clauses. Combine this with French libel laws, which heavily favour those in positions of power (losing a libel case against a public official brings a punitive fine of €45,000 as opposed to €12,000 when a case is lost against a member of the public), and it is easy to see why an unhealthy respect for the privacy of public figures is instilled in French media culture. This too often leaves the powerful beyond media scrutiny and discourages public interest journalism that investigates corruption and impropriety in the lives of politicians.

France has some of the strictest hate speech laws in the EU which go far beyond preventing incitement to violence. Once you start arresting people for simply saying things, or tweeting things you create a censorial instinct that will inevitably stretch beyond the fringes and into the mainstream, making curbs (or attempts to curb) on free speech habitual and seemingly acceptable. It has been little discussed since the Paris shootings but hate speech laws were used to harass Charlie Hebdo for years. Charges were lodged against the magazine in 2006-07 in response to the reprinting of the notorious Danish cartoons, in that instance the court ruled in the magazines favour but notably Jacques Chirac was a cheerleader for the case: “the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided”, he said. The magazine would again come under government pressure in 2012 when it reprinted Muhammed cartoons in response to the protests against the film The Innocence of Muslims with Prime Minister Jean-Mar Ayarault stating that freedom of speech is “under control of the courts”. The unity marches are uncomfortably close to being a rally behind the French state, rather than millions of people making a stand for liberty and free expression.

Britain will “never give up freedom of speech”, said David Cameron in his defiant response. But in Britain we are breathtakingly complacent about our wpid-dsc_0395.jpgrights and it is a bit rich for our politicians to suddenly talk like staunch defenders of liberty. It is fantastic to see people gather in Trafalgar square to hold a vigil for the murdered staff, and attend rallies in the name of free speech. Still, I can’t help that think, again, that no one should have to be murdered for people to start paying attention and celebrating and fighting for our freedoms. If the people rallied together in great numbers against anti-terror legislation, secret courts and RIPA (to name just a few of many illiberal measures) I might have faith in the sincerity and staying power of the current enthusiasm. Instead I fear it is temporary hysteria and back slapping that will ultimately achieve very little before we return to a “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” consensus.

Let us not forget that this “free” country of ours is the land of secret courts, mass surveillance and detention without charge where we have in recent years flirted with the introduction of ID cards and state regulation of the press. The state routinely bans people with “controversial” things to say from entering the country and arrests people for silly tweets (or “malicious communications“).   It is not just the state that disgraces liberty, our university campuses are now a hotbed for the authoritarian left which seeks to shut down debate and ban anything it deems unacceptable. It is quite clear that Charlie Hebdo could not operate in Britain, in no time at all it would be banned from all student unions and be subject to the NUS “no platform” policy, its offices would host protests by Unite Against Facism and Hope Not Hate when it wasn’t being picketed by Islamists. Before long the magazine’s staff would be visited by the police and roundly criticised by hand wringing politicians. Je Suis Charlie? Get real.

Now is the time for a wake up call. Stop looking for Islamists under the bed and start defending freedom from the those pretending they are defending it. The PM and Home Secretary didn’t miss and opportunity for political point scoring and phoney outrage when Nigel Farage made some rather innocuous comments about the “very, very small” number of Islamists that represent a “fifth column” in British society (isn’t this a good week for the truth and free expression?). This was a distraction from the deeply cynical comments from Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, who leapt on the chance to fear monger and lobby for greater powers for our security services. Cameron accused Farage of using the tragedy for political ends before announcing plans to resurrect the “snoopers charter” while the shock is still raw.

Theresa_May

A far more potent threat to liberty

I’ve no doubt that this will put wind in Theresa May’s sails. Will the Paris shootings soften us up for Extremism Orders? Astonishing measures that would remove the right to freedom of expression (without presenting evidence to justify such an action) when the state has a “reasonable belief” that the accused individual may “disrupt democracy” or incite racial or religious hatred, or cause public disorder? When the Home Secretary proposes a plan to legislate for thought crime, I do not think I am being unreasonable when I say she is a far graver threat to liberty than an Islamist lunatic.

As the collective trauma dies down I hope that, like me, people are jolted out of their initial reaction and re-focus on the real fight for freedom which is not against Islamist terror, but authoritative government and our flourishing intolerant offence culture . The staff of Charlie Hebdo died because they defiantly exercised their right to freedom of expression, but it is not a crazed gunman taking our rights that we should be worried about, it is us a nation giving those right away as we slip back into complacency that should concern us all.