Katie Hopkins furore and why we must protect free speech
The real cure for views you dislike is to disabuse the holders of them with rational argument and free debate. Open, adversarial discourse in which all sides are argued to the best of the abilities of the advocates in question is the British way, and it applies to Katie Hopkins too
In that peculiar little period after Christmas and before New Year when nobody does much work, just when you thought that 2014 had no more surprises to deliver, Police Scotland apparently realised that they were doing so little that they’d better make up some total non-work just to look busy.
This is the least damning explanation I can produce for the news that Katie Hopkins is apparently under investigation north of the border, for supposedly anti-Jock comments (because everything can now be a hate crime).
These remarks were made in the course of tweets from her about Pauline Cafferkey and Ebola, and Police Scotland po-facedly confirm that “inquiries are ongoing into the nature of these tweets”. You’ve almost certainly heard by now of these undeservedly famous tweets, but just in case you haven’t, here's one of them:
And so, Police Scotland provide us with a valuable service, by demonstrating the eternal truth of the notion that freedom is a fragile thing, never more than one generation from extinction.
Why do I say this? Well, let’s play a game. Just for the purposes of the remainder of this brief article, please imagine for the sake of argument that you find Katie Hopkins utterly tiresome. Imagine that you think that she’s a boring, shrill, attention seeking, professional provocateur. Moreover, imagine that you find her tweets deeply crass in light of the fact that a woman is fighting for her life in hospital.
Even so, notwithstanding your theoretical views of her, I say her comments should not be prosecuted, and should not be investigated. Because freedom of speech does not truly exist if it applies solely to popular speech. It is only meaningful if it protects unpopular views. The minority view. The rude. The crass. The “offensive”.
Imagine if it didn’t. The state would be responsible for determining what is acceptable speech, which is so close to being responsible for determining what is acceptable thought as to make no difference. Indeed, perhaps it’s worse. If terms and ideas you think are unacceptable are banned, do you think that they will disappear, or rather do you think that they will continue, “underground”, festering and being spread with increased appeal to those attracted by the naughty, the illicit, the banned?
Actually, you don’t have to imagine very hard, because the scenario I describe is very close to the case we see in the UK in the present day, isn’t it? For the avoidance of doubt, notwithstanding my deliberately provocative opening, I’m afraid that the police and prosecutors here aren’t off on some nutty Irn-Bru fuelled frolic of their own.
They are instead simply following the letter of the law, and it applies mutatis mutandis here in England too. Take, by way of example, the case of the postman convicted – in amongst a bunch of actual offences – on the basis of having racially aggravated his graffiti by calling Andy Murray a “useless Jock”.
To test the pointlessness of that, consider the question of what would happen if an Englishman were to be called a useless Sassenach or a useless Pom. My guess? Rightly, nobody would care. Plus, sometimes in tournament play he IS a useless Jock. Now, as my middle name (Cameron, as you ask) suggests, I'm half Jock myself: should I be half-prosecuted for that last sentence? Of course not.
Instead, my punishment, if you think less of me for it, is that you get to think less of me. Manners and mores are to be enforced by taste and one’s own judgement of others, rather than by the state.
You can think that the Hopkins / naughty postman position is in poor taste, is rude, or something you wouldn't have said; it doesn’t mean that it should be banned.
This extends to more than just speech – it also extends to other forms of expression, such as dress, which is why when the police get involved with those idiots who wear their trousers so low you can see their pants, we should say (he said, doing a Mandelson, which means “to gratuitously quote something one has said oneself in the past”) that the proper punishment for the comically low-riding trousers favoured by some people is that we all think they look ridiculous.
The real cure for views you dislike is to disabuse the holders of them with rational argument and free debate. Open, adversarial discourse in which all sides are argued to the best of the abilities of the advocates in question is the British way – rather than ceding to the state the power of determining what can be said in the first place. We should stick to that proud tradition.
And as a part of this, we should oppose this unpleasant culture of auto outrage, too. There has always been a nannyish “I’m offended” set. The problem now is that it’s so industrialised and so influential. It should therefore be fought harder.
When it acts, especially when it has the ability to deploy the police as its paramilitary wing, it exercises a chilling effect on free speech, whereby for each person who is actually prosecuted for something, there are many more who feel constrained in what it is possible to say because they fear the state. This trend is also, by the way, driving characters out of politics.
This is why I defended Emily Thornberry, who is bright, acerbic, funny, and said something stupid. Granted, as a Tory my help to her was about as helpful as the deployment of logic in a Scottish prosecutor’s office, but I still thought that it was the right thing to do. Because I thought that, as Tories, we mocked the outrage bus, not got on it.
Granted, when a New Labour type falls foul of political correctness it’s a neat case of live by the sword, die by the sword, but still we shouldn’t approve on principle. Because there is, thank God, no right not to be offended. It’s part of the warp and weft of human existence to find other people irritating, irksome, boring, tiresome.
You’re not on this earth to like everyone, or be liked by everyone. Develop a bit of tolerance (in the real sense of the term). Learn to put up with others you don’t like, rather than thinking it’s the lot of the police to arrest them out of your world. Don’t like them? Stop listening! The Katie Hopkins of this world would get it soon enough, believe me.
And to reiterate – there’s a more profound point behind all this, too. Because if you are not free, I am not free. Dear Katie’s freedom of speech today is yours tomorrow. This is true for three reasons. The first is that we all say dumb things. The police prosecuting her stupidity today may knock on your stupid door next week or next month. Secondly, once the state has this power to police speech, where do you think it goes? To police speech the state doesn’t like, pretty bloody quickly.
Hence, for example, the arrest, prosecution and (God forgive us) conviction of a woman for quietly reciting the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq outside the gates of Downing Street. And thirdly, because sometimes true things are deeply unpopular, but still need to be said -- to change debates, challenge ideas, to bravely contest the consensus and give birth to new thought.
Now, if you think, that with all your human frailty, you’re smart enough to apply the bright line to what’s where in free speech -- what’s just vacuous, what’s a cack handed or poorly expressed idea with a germ of use that should be allowed to grow, what’s genius we can’t recognise because our eyes aren’t yet equipped for the light in which it shines -- why, then you’d have to be smarter than any man alive, smarter than God, smarter perhaps -- and this is going some, I grant you -- smarter than Police Scotland.
So, whilst it may annoy you that the censorious people who reported her have forced you to stick up for Katie Hopkins, nevertheless you should. Even Noam Chomsky got it. He said, “if we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.”
Alex Deane is a political consultant and former aide to David Cameron @ajcdeane
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