Sadiq Khan is right – that’s why he’s so, so wrong!

Jonathan Arnott tackles Sadiq Khan's hypocritical stance on free speech

Jonathan Arnott is an independent MEP for the North East of England.

 

“Can you imagine”, rants London’s Mayor on this morning’s Today Programme, “if we limited freedom of speech because someone’s feelings might be hurt?”

This, sadly, is the level of debate surrounding free speech in the United Kingdom today. The phrase is, in effect, weaponised: it is designed to polarise opinion – and we see politicians and people of all persuasions peddling this principle.

It’s rank hypocrisy though. On its most banal level, Sadiq Khan does have a point. Why should the State intervene when someone makes a political point? Why should the State prevent left-wingers from flying a Trump-baby blimp (however offensive) over London during the visit of the American President?

That principle is fine as far as it goes – but Sadiq Khan shows his political bias by the way he attacks opponents. He’s taken the tactic straight out of the alt-right playbook, an irony which I’m sure isn’t lost on him. But when you support freedom of speech in order to use it as a cover for implicit support of the underlying principles expressed, that’s something else. It’s hiding behind the phrase ‘freedom of speech’, using it as a shield to deflect criticism, and as a sword to imply that ‘hurt feelings’ or toddler-tantrum style behaviour, are the preserve of political opponents.

 

A true believer in freedom of speech wouldn’t argue in that way. They would firstly define the principle of freedom of speech. There is a line (whether the ‘fire in a crowded theatre’ trope, or incitement to violence) which society cannot allow to be crossed. If someone is the correct side of the line then, however distasteful, it is the responsibility of individuals to counter that message – not the responsibility of the State to be the arbiter of it.

 

By demeaning opponents of the Trump-baby blimp, Sadiq Khan takes a partisan approach. If there is one thing that freedom of speech must never be, it’s partisan. That principle must be independent of political philosophy. Yet politicians on all sides rarely draw the distinction between what should be permitted and what should be defended.

 

The Trump-baby blimp is appalling. I get a lot of criticism from right-wingers because there’s a lot of what Trump does that I dislike. The fact of the matter is, though, that he won an election and became President of the United States of America. Agree or disagree with the President, I respect the office which he holds. Consequently, those who seek to insult and mock the holder of that office during his visit to the United Kingdom act against our national interest.

 

There is, however, an overriding principle of freedom of speech. I do not defend the blimp in any way, but that is different from suggesting that it should be banned. It is offensive, and it is clearly not just risking ‘hurt feelings’ but designed provocatively to cause them.

 

If Sadiq Khan had established that principle, distinguishing his personal opinion from his duty as Mayor to uphold free speech, I’d have respected that. He’d have done the right thing for the right reasons. But sadly, his belief in freedom of speech is selective. He believes in freedom of speech only when those exercising that freedom agree with him – and that, sadly, has more in common with Stalinist ideology than it does with the freedoms which anyone libertarian-leaning would espouse.

 

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What happens, then, when Sadiq Khan is faced with a freedom-of-speech issue where he’s on the opposite side of the aisle to the protest? We don’t actually have to guess – we can just look at his record and find out. “London’s Mayor backs ban on pro-life vigils outside abortion clinics”, screams the headline. Sadiq Khan is a supporter of abortion; it’s his right to do so. He disagrees with the protests – after all, to use his own perjorative (and we really shouldn’t demean genuine disagreement like that) ‘someone’s feelings might be hurt’. Yet instead of supporting the principle of freedom of speech, he becomes an authoritarian and seeks the creation of a ban.

 

Whilst we’re at it, London’s Mayor also moved to ban ‘body-shaming’ ads from public transport (I agree they’re distasteful, but does that mean they should be banned?) and likewise wants to ban the advertising of ‘junk food’. Serious consideration was apparently given towards the banning of a pro-Trump rally, though that eventually turned out to be one hypocrisy too far.

 

I believe that we must draw the distinction. Should Count Dankula have been convicted of an offence in a properly-functioning society? No. Do I find the way he went about it re-pug-nant (sorry!)? Yes, I absolutely do. Would I welcome him into any political party I were a member of? No – absolutely not.

 

This concept has been around in theology for centuries – or longer, even. Depending upon your outlook on God, you may consider this either to be an important spiritual principle or a clever deflection. The same distinction is drawn:

 

“Why is there so much suffering in the world, is that God’s will?”
“God permits people to make their own choices; suffering ultimately stems from that. There is a difference between God’s permissive will (people can freely choose their actions without hindrance) and God’s divine will (what God wants us to do)”

 

Moving back from the spiritual to the temporal, we do need a similar distinction.

 

“Does the Mayor of London believe that there should be a Trump-baby blimp?”

 

The answer appears to be yes on both counts: he is happy to make fun of those who don’t want it, as well as supporting the freedom of expression. The answer should be yes to one (to permit it) but no to the other (condemn it as being awful, whilst stopping short of banning it).

 

Freedom of speech shouldn’t be used as a weapon to beat opponents with. It’s far too important for that. Sadiq Khan doesn’t understand it, but sadly, many so-called right-wingers suffer from the same logical fallacy – albeit with different ingredients.

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