This essay was the main part of my Observer column this week. (The column included also a shorter piece on the necessity of abortion rights). It was published in the Observer, 25 March 2018, under the headline ‘The ‘Nazi pug’: giving offence is inevitable and often necessary in a plural society’.
Does making a film of a dog giving a Nazi salute constitute a hate crime? And should high street retailers stock racist and Nazi books? Two questions raised this week by a court case and a campaign, both of which expose the incoherence of much thinking about hate speech.
In Airdrie sheriff court, Mark Meechan was found guilty of sending ‘a message that is grossly offensive’. He had trained a pug to raise its paw as if giving a Nazi salute when cued with phrases such as ‘sieg heil’ and ‘gas the Jews’, and uploaded the film to YouTube. At the start of the video, Meechan explains: ‘My girlfriend is always ranting and raving about how cute and adorable her wee dog is, so I thought I would turn him into the least cute thing that I could think of, which is a Nazi.’
The comedians David Baddiel, a vocal campaigner against antisemitism, and Ricky Gervais defended Meechan and saw the joke. The prosecutor did not. The video was “an odious criminal act … dressed up to look like a joke”. Meanwhile, the anti-racist group Hope Not Hate launched a campaign to force mainstream retailers such as Amazon and Waterstones from stocking racist and Nazi books. These include The Turner Diaries, a novel about a future race war, and books by the Holocaust-denying historian David Irving. People ‘have the right to write and publish books we disagree with’, insisted Hope Not Hate, but ‘mainstream book sellers … should not profit from extreme hate content’.
What the two cases show is how elastic has become the notion of “hatred” and how tenuous our attachment to free speech.
The context of Meechan’s Nazi dog video makes it clear that it’s a joke. But even if one sees only the offence, should it also be a criminal offence? ‘If you don’t believe in a person’s right to say things that you might find “grossly offensive”’, Gervais observed, ‘then you don’t believe in freedom of speech’.
As for Hope Not Hate’s campaign, the major retailers unsurprisingly stock few, if any, of the targeted books. If it is wrong in principle for big booksellers to profit from such books, why is it also not wrong for small booksellers to do so? And if it’s wrong for booksellers to profit, why should publishers be able to do so? And what happens then to Hope Not Hate’s belief in ‘the right to write and publish books we disagree with’?
Part of the problem in such discussions is that distinctions between three kinds of speech have become blurred: the giving of offence, the fomenting of hatred and the incitement to violence.
We need to approach each of these categories differently. Only incitement to violence or harassment should be a criminal offence. Many people argue that because we live in a plural society, so there should be greater restrictions on what people are able to say about each other.
I believe the opposite. In a plural world, the giving of offence is both inevitable and often necessary. It is inevitable because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. It is better to deal with such clashes openly than suppress them in the name of “tolerance”.
It is important because any kind of social progress requires us to offend deeply held sensibilities. “You can’t say that!” is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged.
It is one thing to offend people, quite another to foment hatred. Should that not be banned? The trouble is, you can’t challenge bigotry by banning it. You simply let the sentiments fester out of sight. In censoring ugly ideas, we can pretend they don’t exist, but we abrogate our responsibility for challenging them openly and robustly.
What of a campaign such as Hope Not Hate’s? It is not state-sanctioned censorship but the use of social pressure to bring about change. I certainly want a world in which there are no racists or Holocaust-deniers. But pressuring retailers into not stocking certain books would not get rid of the ideas in those books. It would, however, legitimise the idea that social pressure should be used to remove books. The next such campaign may not be against racist books but anti-racist or radical ones.
Those fighting injustice should be the last to demand censorship, the first to oppose it.
The image is from the ACLU of books that have been banned by libraries or school districts in the USA.