Is Freedom of Speech Giving a Platform to Racists?

A month ago, on April 5th, Swansea played host to a white pride rally. The events of that day inspired me to write a piece entitled White Pride and Race Hate, and though the aftermath of that event has subsided, the implications and lessons are more long lasting.

Voltaire is famously, though incorrectly, attributed as saying “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend your right to say it”, which seems to form the basic principle of freedom of speech. The idea being that even if you disagree with what your opponent is saying, you cannot doubt that your opponent has the right to speak.

Herein lies the problem, and though I am an advocate and defender of freedom for all people, I think there are times when freedoms should be limited, or at least prioritised.

Voltaire’s wrongly attributed statement demonstrates a highly progressive and liberal attitude, but this attitude existed before the world opened its eyes to the horrors of colonialism and slavery, before the creation of the KKK or the Nazi Party, and before the genocides of Native Americans, Kurds, Jews and Rwandans, to name but a few. Our belief in absolute freedom of speech helped to create the environment needed whereby such atrocities could be discussed, planned and conducted.

Freedom of speech should be a foundation for any open and free society, but as I mentioned earlier, there are certain freedoms that should exist even before that. Franklin D Roosevelt spoke of four freedoms that people everywhere in the world ought to enjoy, just one of which was freedom of speech. Along with freedom of speech Roosevelt advocated freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

The inclusion of “freedom from” demonstrates that not all freedoms come from within and are given externally. There are freedoms that everybody is entitled to that come from without and are taken internally. Freedoms such as the freedom from sexual harassment, the freedom from rape, the freedom from slavery and the freedom from discrimination. It is society’s task to make sure these freedoms are upheld just as much as, if not more so than, the other freedoms.

In order to uphold such “freedom from’s”, perhaps some “freedom of’s” will have to be curtailed, and this brings me back to the white pride rally. The freedom of speech for the white nationalist participants was upheld, but the freedom from hate, the freedom from discrimination, and the freedom from racism, for the numerous Swansea residents, was ignored.

Why is it that even now people are able to promote fundamentally racist beliefs? Why is that rallies of far right nationalists are tolerated and even defended, in terms of the policing they receive, in cities? Why is it that a six letter word can get Jeremy Clarkson into such trouble, but an afternoon march of forty or so people, waving white pride banners and advocating the supremacy of the white race gets a police escort?

If something significant is to be done about racism and hate speech, then I believe the work needs to occur on the very foundations with which this society was built. If the foundations were designed in such a way that allows racist and hateful language to occur, then the problem will continue to arise no matter how many times the cracks further up the building are papered over.

Amending the freedom of speech principle so that it did not cover hateful and racist remarks would not be so difficult, nor would it be so controversial. Only those that espouse such vile language would be affected and it would strengthen the various “freedom from’s” I spoke of earlier. Indeed freedoms are constantly being amended and updated so I see no reason as to why freedom of speech should remain so sacred and largely untouched.

Freedom of religion is just one example of a principle upheld by society, but one that has had its wings clipped a little so that it is more in line with a more progressive and humane world. Christians can practice as they wish on the condition that they no longer stone to death those who blaspheme against their god, as Leviticus encourages them to do.

This limitation on “freedom of” is perfectly acceptable and similar limitations could, and perhaps should, be placed upon other freedoms. If this were to happen, white pride rallies would no longer be acceptable , and I am sure the overwhelming majority of people would view society as better off because of it.

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