Fabrice Muamba: Racist Twitter user jailed for 56 days
A student who admitted posting racially offensive comments on Twitter about footballer Fabrice Muamba has been jailed for 56 days. Swansea University student Liam Stacey, 21, from Pontypridd, admitted inciting racial hatred over remarks about the Bolton Wanderers player, who collapsed during a FA Cup tie at Tottenham. A district judge in Swansea called the comments "vile and abhorrent". (1)
I find this very unsettling. What has happened is that society has set laws against the expression of particular opinions, and obnoxious though they may be in their presentation, their falsehood is a matter for argument, not for law. In his essay on freedom, John Stuart Mill says that "The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it." This individual offended a good many people, but his words attempt to deprive anyone of their freedom. I think not. His words were not an incitement to crime, or a defamatory injury to reputation.
The danger with such a law is that it is a two edged sword: it can be used to silence what is deemed racial hatred, and yet it is a slippery law, that can be used to silence any discussion of the racial superiority of one race over another. I do not believe that any race has any superiority to any other, but this is a position which must be argued; it should not be stated as a matter of law. Once we get into the habit of letting laws decide what is right to say, we move towards laws deciding what is right for people to think. First, "you mustn't say such things", and from there, with the re-education room, it is not a very distant step to "You mustn't think such things."
Mill states four reasons why we should not silence speech, even when we disagree with it, and it may be presented in what appears to be intemperate language:
First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.
Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any object is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.
Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.
And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.
There can be little doubt that the racist twitter contained much in the way of truth, but there is, perhaps quite possibly "a portion of truth", and it is this: that left to its own devices, as history has shown, human beings show a remarkable ability to find scapegoats of those who are different, and race is, of course, one area where people are different.
Mill also notes that the language of opposing sides can be equally bad, but the law shows bad faith because it is used in a one sided way, and so is not really impartial and just. When someone holds honest scientific beliefs about racial superiority - as an academic did recently - rather than being argued against, they were hounded mercilessly, and by people using language deliberately to drum up hatred of that individual, but the law remained silent of that kind of action, deeming it free speech. I don't think the scientist was right, but the case should be argued, not denounced.
With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely, invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation.
However, Mill's third and fourth points are important when the law starts to take away from the citizen what they can say as their opinion. To put it into the context of racism, Mill is saying that if racist speech is considered hate speech under the law, we will gradually lose the reason why we forbade hate speech; the anti-racists stance will become a prejudice, "with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds".
But the move to that in itself will also weaken the law, because there is no grasp of the dangers of racism in heartfelt conviction, but only because the law demands it, the grounds for the law will atrophy, and the law itself may be overturned. One prejudice can just as easily be replaced with another, when it seems arbitrary, because the grounds for the law will become remote. "The law is the law", says Javert in his pursuit of his one guiding principle, but it is a principle that he discovers to be hollow at its heart.
Mill's other argument is that however much we may be totally convinced that racism is wrong, we cannot assume infallibility of our own opinions; we have to bear in mind that they might be mistaken. If we silence those who say something which we disagree with, we set ourselves up as judges of certainty:
Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.
However positive any one's persuasion may be, not only of the falsity, but of the pernicious consequences - not only of the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the immorality and impiety of an opinion; yet if, in pursuance of that private judgment, though backed by the public judgment of his country or his cotemporaries, he prevents the opinion from being heard in its defence, he assumes infallibility. And so far from the assumption being less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal.
Mill sees that opinions shift; if we silence opinions that we disagree with now, we may find that our own opinions may be silenced in the future. Once the law is allowed free reign to judge speech, it becomes a tyrant.
And in his most celebrated passage he sets forth the strongest reason for allowing freedom of speech:
It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in opposition to it. If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
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