The free speech – hate speech dilemma

Populism is fuelled in part by political correctness that tells people their views cannot be aired. That was one conclusion of a panel of experts last week at a launch of a report by the think tank Demos. Those discussing the report, “Mediating populism”, thought that if views are silenced, they do not disappear, they only go underground to reappear more vigorously in the future, trampling on bounds of “acceptable” discourse. For example in Germany, where the Third Reich is taught as the most sombre warning, the suggestion that ordinary soldiers could be remembered well has morphed into a recommendation from a far-right leader that alarmed many Germans. The co-founder of the increasingly popular Alternative für Deutschland said Germans should be proud of soldiers’ actions in the two world wars just as Brits are proud of Nelson or Churchill.

Here’s the dilemma – does airing a view reduce or amplify its power? This tension was evident at a discussion at Chatham House the week before. Reflecting on the rise of the Far Right across Europe, panellist Ian Klinke, Associate Professor in Human Geography at Oxford, said that if he denied the Holocaust there and then, he hoped someone would escort him from the stage. A man in the audience called out that he strongly disagreed.

The other panellist at the event was Austrian journalist Julia Ebner, author of a book called The Rage, in which she linked far-right extremism to Islamist extremism. Extremism can take root in a populist narrative, and both are often combated with silencing. Ebner pointed out similarities between the two groups of extremists she researched – socio-economic grievances, “a masculinity crisis”, growing up in previously industrial areas, a fear of being oppressed – thereby reiterating that extremism is not exclusive to Muslim communities. (Dame Louise Casey today appeared to accept some parallels when she told BBC Radio 4 that she welcomed the inclusion, in a green paper that followed her 2016 review of integration, of a crackdown on “unregistered environments” such as home schools, where extreme views could be passed on to children by far right extremists, not just Islamists.)

Let us turn to Pegasus Primary School in Oxford, which the Duchess of Cambridge visited last week to see the work of Family Links, a charity which supports children and parents with their emotional wellbeing. A diverse group of 10- and 11-year-olds told her Family Links had taught them not to repress their feelings. Jodie Brackett, 11, told The Times that the discussions they had in school, called circle time, “helps us get all our emotions out so we don’t feel all bottled up … when you’ve told someone it makes you feel a lot better. It helps us focus on our work, and not think about it for the rest of the day. I am so used to sharing my emotions now, because I trust everyone.” Circle time provides the proverbial “safe space” where children can air and defuse strong emotions knowing that they will not be punished or mocked, which enables them to apply themselves and trust others.

Our national space has become less “safe”: thanks to the internet, discussions that might have taken place within a community or region or nation are fired as simplistic barbs straight from social media accounts on to the world wide web. And with the pace of social change, there is a lot to discuss.

A point made at the Demos launch by panellist Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics from the University of Kent, was that the homogeneity of voices in the traditional media had blinded people to the way the Brexit referendum would unfold. (Not every “Leave” voter bought into a populist narrative, but it has been said they were rejecting a status quo that they felt refused to listen to them on issues such as immigration.) Goodwin’s view was that newspapers were hard to break into unless “you’re chums with person x, y or z”. Conversely, Laura Hughes, political correspondent of the FT, said that when she had worked at The Telegraph she might write up to 10 to 12 stories a day – many journalists are thinly stretched and lack the time to meet as many different people as they want to.

The traditional media is just one space in which a society has grown-up “circle time”, yet parts of its audience have been diverted by new populist news websites, and a plethora of free online news has slashed newspaper incomes. Yet as community allegiances such as political and religious affiliations have weakened, we rely on whichever media we follow for our worldview. It takes revenue, as well as imagination and time, to welcome a more diverse range of voices in news journalism, and the withering of local newspapers has not helped. Reporting that reconnects the concerns of those who feel marginalised to those in power is labour-intensive but vital. And the media is perhaps the most visible, it is certainly not the only part of national life that needs to nourish a greater range of voices.

Successive governments have invited a multi-cultural society of many minorities, who have lengthened the list of voices wanting and needing to be heard. Integration surely deserves to go hand in hand with being given a place in the national conversation, wherever that conversation happens. Otherwise we’re saying to the children in Oxford – enjoy your circle time while it lasts.


Photos: Arthur Edwards

Author: Abigail Frymann Rouch

Abigail Frymann Rouch is a religious and social affairs journalist. She has written for the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, and Deutsche Welle. As a commentator she has appeared on Sky News, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service, BBC World News, and regional radio. For nine years she was foreign editor, then online editor, of The Tablet.

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