Back in 2008, I gave a talk at an Index on Censorship conference on ‘Extremism and the Law: Free Speech in an Age of Terror’ in which I suggested that:
One of the most significant shifts in recent years has been the mutation of the notion of ‘extremism’ from being a description of a political claim to being a quasi legal term. From the BNP to Hizb ut-Tahrir to Buju Banton’s homophobic lyrics, to label speech as extremist is to label it as a potential candidate for legal sanction. This shift has happened for two reasons. First, extremism has become a moral rather than a political issue. And second there is now a widespread acceptance that it is the job of the state, and of the criminal law, to define moral boundaries.
To label an argument or a thought as ‘extremist’ is today more than simply to locate it on the political map. It is also to make a moral judgement upon it. Something is extremist if it is beyond the boundaries of accepted reasonable debate. And once beyond the boundaries of reasonable debate, few would argue against it becoming a candidate for criminal sanction.
This week the British government published its latest ‘Counter Extremism Strategy’, which might have been written as an illustration of my point above. Among its proposals are new powers to
ban extremist organisations that promote hatred and draw people into extremism; restrict the harmful activities of the most dangerous extremist individuals; and restrict access to premises which are repeatedly used to support extremism.
The strategy document defines extremism as the ‘vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’.
The government, in other words, is proposing to lock people up, not because they have committed a crime, or incited violence, but because they hold values the government abhors. And it insists that in order to defend democracy, free speech and tolerance, the government must restrict democracy, free speech and tolerance.
One might suggest that the strategy document itself is a good example of ‘vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, etc, etc’, So, if the proposals do become law, perhaps the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary could expect a knock on the door?
The image is from Rich White’s ‘Censored books’ series.