My neighbour Lee is one of the nicest guys I know. He has a gentle, engaging face with twinkling eyes and an almost permanent smile. He’s forever telling daft jokes and is always up for a chat. He’d do anything for anyone and is one of the kindest men I’ve ever met. He’s fantastic at DIY and spends hours helping everyone in the neighbourhood. He spent days helping me build an extensive deck and he recently got seriously injured falling off a roof in a thunder-storm trying to repair an elderly neighbours guttering which was flooding her kitchen. He himself is 60+. He builds beautiful wooden toys, which he donates to local children’s charities.
He had a successful if idiosyncratic career in the army and has received medals for bravery from the British, French and Israeli governments. Paradoxically, as a sergeant in the army he was famous in his regiment for taking no nonsense from senior officers and as a result spent time in military prison for various acts of defiance and subversive practical jokes.
He has 2 sons in the army both of who were seriously injured by the same IED in Iraq, one of them lost both legs. Despite this Lee is not bitter maintaining that the risk of injury is part of what a soldier signs up for and maintaining with great dignity that it is not for a soldier to decide on the value of a war entered into by a democratic government.
All in all Lee is a pretty amazing bloke and in most regards it is an honour to know him.
But, and it is a big but, Lee is one of the most racist men I have ever known. Well, that’s not true actually I’ve encountered my fair share of racist taxi drivers and builders and as a Rock Against Racist and Anti Nazi League activist I’ve gone head to head with plenty of racist skinhead thugs. So what I should say is that Lee is the most racist man I’ve known well and more confusingly the only racist I’ve come across who I liked.
And with Lee it really is pretty bad. The only time the smile leaves his eyes is when he talks of Black & Asian people. If he gets onto this subject a deep bitterness and resentment becomes apparent and his speech becomes littered with offensive racist language. He makes liberal use of the words Wog, Nigger and Paki – his wife prefers the word Darkie – and to Lee all our countries ills are due to the influx of Wogs and Paki’s and to the liberal elite, both Tory & Labour, who let them in.
The last time I ever heard someone speak like this was in the late 1970’s and it was my father. Once while I was at University he came to visit me and in front of several of my mates compared Joshua Nkomo, leader of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, to a gorilla – complete with grunting and monkey noises! I was active in the Anti Nazi League and completely humiliated by this display of in-yer-face, un-reconstituted, colonial racism from my own kith and ‘kin. Lee and my old man would have got on well.
But in the ‘80’s as the world changed and my sisters and I challenged my father he at least changed the way he spoke. I’m not sure if he changed his views but he came to understand that to use offensive racist language was no longer socially acceptable – when we were around at least.
What is fascinating to me that Lee clearly didn’t even go on that journey; he has no shame in talking in this way and as far as I can see does not moderate the way he speaks for anyone. And I can also see that perversely there is a sick kind of integrity in this aspect to Lee’s racism – he knows what he thinks and he isn’t going to hide it from anyone.
And before we go any further let me be clear that I have been an anti-racist and anti-fascist activist all my life. Hearing about the holocaust in my teens (on The World At War – the sound of Olivier’s measured tones on the commentary still chill me to the bones), was one of the defining moments of my political life and I am vehemently opposed to racism in any form. I was a victim of bullying when I first went to primary school – because I was the only child in the school to wear spectacles – and have a vivid sense of what it is to be picked out of the crowd for some arbitrary physical trait and then relentlessly hounded, taunted and eventually physically attacked. And so that there can be no confusion about the nature of this article, let me say clearly that I do not approve of lee’s racism and find it deeply offensive.
But in all other regards I like Lee and in some ways I admire him; I admire his physical courage, his active kindness and his integrity in dealing with authority. As an anti-racist liking Lee and enjoying his company creates for me a moral dilemma: Should I just ignore this aspect of his character? Should I cut off my relationship with him? Should I confront him when he makes these comments? If so how should I confront him? – In a conciliatory way or in an aggressive way? If I do confront him it could certainly mean the end of our friendship is that a risk I am willing to take?
The liberal readers amongst you may now be asking what on earth I am talking about – it is clear that Lee is a racist and if I am as committed to racial equality as I claim, wherein lies the problem? – Quite simply Lee needs to be confronted and/or shunned. And until I met Lee I would have undoubtedly agreed.
But for me the moral dilemma arises for 2 reasons; firstly because I like Lee and secondly because I believe in free speech.
Lets deal with the free speech angle first. Most liberal thinkers believe that freedom of expression or freedom of speech, is a fundamental liberal value; that in a liberal society people should be allowed to freely express their political, philosophical, economic and social views in the public discourse without hindrance or censorship by the state, employers or civic institutions.
Simultaneously most liberals believe that particular types of political beliefs (for example racist, revolutionary or eugenic beliefs) are not legitimate political beliefs and that holders of these beliefs should not be allowed to express those beliefs in public discourse.
But for me these two positions are incompatible, Surely these 2 views are logically inconsistent and it is irrational to hold these 2 views simultaneously. If so the widely held contemporary liberal definition of free speech is actually no such thing.
For the freedom of expression to be free it must be free i.e. without formal, legal or regulatory restraint. As soon as we put official limits on the type of views that are allowed to freely express in public discourse then it is by definition no longer free because there have been limits placed on the freedom of expression.
The contemporary liberal concept of freedom of expression (often derided by critics as politically correct), is really no different in principle from that of a totalitarian regime – both seek to limit free speech to those views that the state deems to be acceptable to be expressed publicly; both limit the views that citizens are free to express to a specific type and range of views.
Liberal’s might respond that their position allows a far greater range of views to be expressed than a totalitarian regime and that therein lays the difference. But that reduces the issue to a matter of degree not principle and will be of little comfort to those in liberal societies who are censored from public discourse because of the views they hold. It is little comfort to them that in a totalitarian society there neighbours too would be silenced.
But many will object that racist language is not like other expressions, that it is uniquely offensive.
Since the so-called Danish Cartoons controversy in 2005 there has been a lot of discussion in The West about whether citizens have a right not to be offended by the public discourse. Most commentators, and I would concur, have come to the conclusion that some level of offence, at sometime, to someone, is almost inevitable to a vigorous and robust democratic public discourse and that the causing of offence in and of itself is no reason to censor free citizens.
On the other hand it is perfectly reasonable to ask those taking part in the public discourse to voluntarily refrain from using offensive language in furtherance of a rational, civilised conversation and out of mutual respect for citizens who disagree with each other.
The problem here arises because by it’s nature racist language demonstrates a profound lack of respect for those to whom it is referring. The racist does not think that members of ethnic communities are due any respect and therefore gives them none. Appeals to the racist to refrain from using offensive language based on democratic values of social equality will by definition fall on deaf ears.
Then there is the argument that racism causes a particular kind of offense, that in light of colonialism, slavery, the holocaust and contemporary examples of genocide and ethnic cleansing, racism must be dealt with differently than other prejudices and social ills. Because history teaches us that language is a significant tool of oppression and for that reason in a democratic, free, society of equals racist language must be forcibly suppressed by the law because to allow it to go unchecked would be to perpetuate the historical oppression of racial minorities; and that this historical perspective justifies the limiting of a racists freedom to freely express their views using the words they wish to use.
This argument often leads to policies such as “no platform” that seek to prevent racists and fascists from being allowed a platform in any legitimate public discourse. The deliberate aim of such policies is to delegitimize racist and fascist thought – to put it beyond the pale. The theory is that this will lead to the gradual waning of racist views and their eventual extinction. But in reality the policy of no platform often simply drives racist and fascist groupings underground where they never face any intellectual challenge to their views and where racists and fascists validate each other’s extreme views without having to justify their views to the wider public. No platform also manages the incredible feat of victimising racists allowing them to claim that they are not being accorded the same freedoms as those they oppose and allowing them to portray themselves as defenders of democratic freedoms! As a result no platform can paradoxically result in strengthening and validating racist & fascist groupings and political parties.
Racism and fascism are evil and incoherent political philosophies that can be comprehensively and fatally undermined by rational argument. The concepts of freedom, equality & democracy rest on the underlying principle that people are competent to take part in the public course. We have to have faith that racism can and will be defeated through our democratic public discourse.
So I believe that for our society to be free Lee has to be entitled to express his views – however distasteful I find them. But conversely I do not have to listen silently to Lee’s views without comment; I too am entitled to express my views in response.
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” So says the famous quote sometimes attributed to Edmund Burke. I clearly regard racism as an evil, perhaps the most pernicious and dangerous evil in the human psyche. Therefore if I wish to see myself as a “good man” I cannot stand by and allow Lee to make racist comments and use racist language in my presence.
But in all conscience I cannot forbid him to speak that way in my presence, it is after all supposed to be a free country. I will not even ask him not to use that language in my presence, because to do so would be to push the matter under the carpet, it would be a form of no platform compromise designed to allow me to suppress the reality that Lee is in fact a racist, to pretend, in the interests of a bourgeois concept of good neighbourliness, that all is well.
No, if I am to remain true to my own principles I am going to have to engage with Lee on the issue of his racism. I am going to have to argue with him, to ask him why he makes these sweeping racist statements about other members of the human race, ask him where he got these views from. I’m going to have to try and explain to him where his facts are wrong and where his arguments are inconsistent or incoherent.
He may not want to listen to all this of course and may tell me so in no uncertain terms and that will be the end of that and I will have become an enemy of one of my close neighbours.
But if I believe in the value of free speech in a democracy and that my views on racism are coherent and can stand the test of robust debate then there is a good chance that I will be able to influence Lee and that this is especially true because I like him, because I don’t want to pillory him or make him my enemy, or silence him.
And it seems to me that this is a model of how to engage democratically in our wider society. Those of us who believe in democratic freedoms have to extend those freedoms to all citizens. We have a right and a duty to challenge those views we disagree with but not to suppress them.
After all everyone things they are the good guys, that they are the hero in their own story. The cackling, evil bad guy, stroking a white cat on his lap while plotting world domination is an invention of pulp fiction. In the real world those we perceive as the bad guys think they are the good guys. Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, does not see himself as an evil racist, I’m sure he sees himself as a patriot standing up for the rights of the indigenous population of his country. The policies and underlying philosophy of the BNP are noxious and incoherent and need to be robustly exposed as such. But stopping the BNP publicly expressing their views actually takes away any opportunity to publicly undermine them.
The same is true of my relationship with Lee; I need to find a way to discuss these issues with Lee in a spirit of democratic free speech that respects his right to express views that I find despicable but that also allows me to challenge those views in a passionate but measured and rational way.
I Am Not A Number
Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society