A gran has been fined £300 for a Facebook rant this week. Granted, the subject was gypsies, and granted, she said some pretty unpleasant things. Here is a selection of things she wrote on a Facebook page:
This [sic] scum needs to be moved out now or there will be big problems. […] Pikey filth. They cause trouble wherever they go. They are filthy, conniving thieves who think nothing of conning or robbing old folk.
Pretty abusive stuff, really. But is state-sanctioned prosecution really necessary?
The reply usually is that it is offensive: she has gone out of her way deliberately to upset people, and she should be punished for doing so. But what sort of society is it that punishes people for giving offence? A free society is one which lets its citizens speak uncomfortable truths. Change can only come when we listen to such truths. If offence is caused, so be it. Imagine for a moment that – this is highly implausible, I know – I were to unleash a savage diatribe against the rich. Imagine I were to write something like this:
These scum need to be moved out or there will be big problems. White, middle-class filth. They cause trouble wherever they go. They are filthy, conniving thieves who think nothing of conning or robbing poor folk.
Imagine if a rightwing government were to fine me £300 for being abusively offensive. A good thing, no? After all, a fine should deter me from my prejudice and from my upsetting people.
What is the different between these two rants? I can hear the Left mounting their defence now. It is ethnicity, of course. The point is not about offence but ethnic relations. To be prejudiced against an ethnic group is vile; to hurl abuse at the wealthy is mere immaturity. I can accept that. What I don’t accept is the conclusion that we should fine people for offending people, even if they do belong to an ethnic community.
I return to the question. Why fine her? “She is inciting racial hatred.” Claptrap. Are we to believe people will read her rant, then grab the nearest pitchfork and head down for a ceremonial traveller-burning? Phooey. It is more likely that my banker-bashing – call it “inciting rich-based hatred” – will impel a riot that causes the death of one banker. In any far-fetched case, who would be responsible? The rioter, surely, not the writer. If words lead to actions, prosecute the actions, not the words. A pre-emptive measure would punish a crime that hasn’t happened. Which is precisely what “racial hatred” laws do.
Moreover, if she can be charged for inciting racial hatred, then so can I. So can The Argus. I have re-printed word-for-word what she wrote – and what’s more, have backed her. If the crime is in the words, then I am a guilty man.
Ultimately, this is a question of freedom of speech. Fining someone for expressing a view – albeit an ugly view – does nothing but stifle debate and silence dialogue. So evidently foul and disturbing I found this, I was shocked when the people of Brighton told me the fine was “absolutely right”. Having sought their views on the street, I was told, “This abhorrent woman should be fined.” I was told she should’ve been fined more! I was told that she should’ve been locked up!
This from a city that is more wet-liberal than a mackerel in the bath. I would call them bien pensants if they didn’t think so poorly. These are, after all, folks who moan ceaselessly about kettling, about the erosion of liberty, about anti-terror legislation, about 42 days, control orders, eviction notices, about the power to say what you like as coarsely and as freely as possible. Yet all that goes out the window on the mention of gypsy prejudice!
What modern society expects is that no-one is to hold these opinions. So no-one is to allowed to think them, or at least – they can think them, but they cannot express them. Does this conquer prejudice, or does it force it underground? Do state penalties cause one to become enlightened – will £300 imbue one with greater moral reasoning capacities? – or is it possible that the prejudiced will remain just as prejudiced, but slightly more bitter?