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.
I agree completely.
I am Jewish. I have known holocaust survivors, as well as families who narrowly escaped the Nazi advance across Europe. I am old enough to remember the images that came out of Belsen, and was old enough and aware enough at the time to realise that but for minor accidents of time and place, that could have been me. To this day, I cannot write of these things without emotion. I have also, to compare small things with large, experienced antisemitism both personal and isntitutionalised. I therefore feel I have the credentials to discuss this matter, from the point of view of one whom the law seeks to protect from being offended.
I have written to my MP asking him to do all in his power to bring about repeal of Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003
Hear hear. Thanks for the refining clarity about the three types of offensive speech, and the simple delineations. I’m always alarmed in my activism to see my leftist friends embrace any convenient means to achieve what they see as sacred ends, which are merely strongly felt preferences.
Part of the solution here is to recognize how we who feel the strongest about our ends easily end up the unwitting compatriots of some of our vilest enemies, by destroying the breadth of our discussion by angling to silence them.
These days, offence is taken more often than it’s given. So I’m all for some kind of penalty for those who take offence. Bring back the pillory. Place it in a public square and chain the offended to it. Provide the offenders with baskets of rotten vegetables, and let them fire away at will. That will give the offended something real to bitch and moan about.
These days are ripe for parody and satire. The trouble is, many of our artists are offence-takers too. They prostitute their gift to the silencers, and weaken our civilization as a consequence.
Well said. We also risk bringing about a society of hypocrites and equivocators. Then how will we know whom to trust?
I’ve only seen about a half a dozen of his videos, but Count Dankula is obviously not a racist/Nazi type person and this criminal verdict is terrible. Someone writing in the New Statesman magazine thought otherwise, and welcomed his conviction. I’m not sure if it ties in to that Jewish demonstration outside Parliament yesterday, but there seem to be power plays being made by different political interests. The main group there yesterday, seem to want to close down speech to a certain degree, with accusations of anti-semitism being thrown around a bit too cheaply. Though it’s not a clear cut thing, but messy.
A message to Kennan.
I heard some of this three hour discussion on knife crime and gang problems, on BBC radio Five yesterday.
From a community centre in London with many audience members giving their opinion on how to deal with the problem. Some of the ideas were really poor, or missing the point I thought. Every group just seems to want more funding for their particular projects.
At the end, a young ‘street poet’ read out one of his poems, and it was truly awful.
The people who were there can’t seem to see that the way that this young man speaks English and the things he says, are a big part of the problem in the first place. He’s wallowing in what John McWhorter calls “Therapeutic Alienation”.
The poet goes by the name of “Abstract Benna” and he starts at 2:49:50 into the programme.
I saw him on YouTube too.
As a writer about race and multiculturalism Kenan, I don’t think I remember you talking about this aspect of it.
It’s the kind of street culture that makes some parents not want to send their kids to schools where this is the culture of the playground. Diane Abbott was one I think.
I have blogged about this, citing Kenan, and summarising wht I sent to my MP: The “Nazi pug” was offensive; the law far more so. I have written to my MP https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2018/03/26/the-nazi-pug-was-offensive-the-law-far-more-so-i-have-written-to-my-mp/
Thank you Kenan for your insight, and also to others for your comments. Good point about satirists – we’re lost if our humorists become silent.
From a Canadian perspective, I worry that we’re doing a poor job of teaching students how to engage in constructive discourse around difficult issues. It takes a certain amount of mental and emotional toughness to listen to and respond to views we perceive as offensive or frightening. We’ve become too worried that students’ feelings will be hurt by uncomfortable ideas. Too often we try to shelter them from ideas that might upset them. I can’t think of a more effective way to raise a generation of reflexive censors. Instead, we should be going out of our way to “trigger” them, to invite revolting speakers to campuses, and to acquaint them with the perils of censorship as experienced elsewhere in the world and, in many cases, by their own grandparents.
”…reflexive censors.” Exactly!
The reason lines are blurred between offence, hatred and inciting violence speech is that one can easily lead to other and academic distinctions between them do not work in every day life. If we are for freedom of speech, then all three should be protected under freedom of speech and only violent acts, not speech, should be punishable. It is the dialogue between members of plural society that should , like Hope not Hate’s and yourself, that will determine if there is an acceptable norm.