The Fury and Trump debacles underline the need for robust free speech laws

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A campaign currently surrounds Tyson Fury, boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world, to have him removed from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY). His crime appears to have been making some unfortunate comments about homosexuals, women and the nature of God’s judgement in 21st Century Britain. Since then, a member of the public has complained to Greater Manchester police about the comments made by Fury (though it appears he will face no charges). For a helpful summary of the issues (and a credible response), you can do much worse than Martin Salter’s blog.

As the furore over Fury began to die down, step forward Donald Trump. The man who is currently seeking the Republican Party nomination for the presidential election managed to cause some considerable controversy this side of the Atlantic. In the wake of the San Barnardino shootings, Trump argued for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” until we can work out “what the Hell is going on”. It was these comments that led to the creation of this petition to ban Trump from entering the UK. Trump has since had his role as a Scottish “business ambassador” stripped and a debate in parliament has been schedule to discuss a possible ban on his entering the UK (see here). For a helpful summary (and a credible response), Suzanne Moore has commented here.

It seems there are very few (if any) people in the UK who support the comments made by either Fury or Trump. The overwhelming noise is that the comments were stupid, ill-considered and not credible. I am yet to find anybody who wants to offer wholehearted support to either man in defence of the comments themselves. And I am not about to change that. I have no desire to defend the comments of either Tyson Fury or Donald Trump. I, along with most people, look on and wince. Nonetheless, debate has not centred around whether we agree with their comments. The concern has been whether their comments warrant being stripped from the SPOTY shortlist and being banned from entering the UK respectively. It is all part of a concerning trend that has been ongoing over the last two decades of banning and prohibiting words and views that we simply don’t like.

In Fury’s case, the argument being advanced is that  he is role model. As a role model, he is held to a particular standard in his views. His comments regarding homosexuals and women are, some aver, so contrary to public decency that to win SPOTY would be a triumph for bigotry and would send the wrong message to his adoring fans.

There are two fundamental problems with this view. The first is related to the concept of the role model. I struggle to see how a man who punches people in the face for money is deemed a credible role model to begin with. That some of things he says may be deemed offensive or might hurt someone’s feelings, and that being the reason he is deemed beyond the pale, seems a very odd set of ethics indeed. It seems to be an example of straining a gnat and swallowing a camel. It puts one in mind of the recent upset over Peter Sutcliffe demanding goose for Christmas dinner in Broadmoor (because that is surely his worst crime!)

At what point did a man who decided to enter the world of boxing even consider the nature of being a role model? Whether children look up to him or not, why should he be held accountable for those who admire him? Surely it is down to parents to point out good role models, not for everyone in the public eye to maintain an image that is conducive to parents going “hey, look at that guy. Copy him”.

The second, and bigger issue, relates to freedom of speech. It is patently problematic to begin clamping down on words and views that we don’t like. It all sounds well and good to ban Tyson Fury making sexist remarks when we ourselves abhor sexism. Of course, as soon as we begin carving away at the boundaries of “acceptable speech” we have lost any right to demur when the views we put forward inevitably end up coming in for scrutiny. And on what basis are we attacking the right to express whatever views we will? Is it majority rule? Government diktat? Whatever happens to agree with me? We may not like what Tyson Fury has to say but we should all be advocates of letting him say it. The answer to the problem is not to stop him speaking but to let him say it and address it accordingly.

The case of Donald Trump is all the more ridiculous. Trump stated a desire to ban all Muslims entering the USA and so Brits, with no sense of irony whatsoever, felt it appropriate to launch a petition to ban him from entering the UK. I even had a conversation on twitter which ended with a woman claiming, in all sincerity, “because I believe in Free Speech, I want to ban Donald Trump”. She was arguing, in all seriousness, that because she defends free speech she wants to ban a man from entering the UK because of what he has said. She simply saw no contradiction in that statement.

I do not share Donald Trump’s views. I do not like what Donald Trump has to say. I will vociferously disagree with his comments. What I will not do is stop him from being permitted to say them. It is that very principle which must be defended. As soon as we are happy to impede the rights of others to state freely what we do not believe ourselves, we lose any right to state anything that might not accord with mainstream, popular opinion. If we continue down this line, there will be no such thing as dissent, only state prescribed utterances of orthodox agreement.

Allowing Trump and Fury the freedom to say whatever they want to say is not the same as condoning their comments. The way to disapprove of what they say is not to ban it and let those views continue unchecked under the radar of credible scrutiny. No. The answer is to let them speak freely, to let them give voice to their free thoughts (rather than those prescribed by the state) and then call out those views for what they are. Banning words and thoughts does nothing to rid us of those views, it merely pushes them underground where they quietly spread unchecked. Permitting all views in the public square means debate may continue unabated and nonsense can be seen for what it really is.

Do those who want to ban homophobic speech not remember what is was like until the 90s when stating such things positively meant the threat of legal proceedings? Do those who want to ban certain views from the public square not recognise this is one of a number of reasons we are currently receiving so many asylum seekers from Middle East nations who do the same (albeit on different issues)? Do those who wish to inhibit free speech not recognise that it only sounds great until such time as we want to say something that hasn’t made the cut of acceptable words and phrases? Banning and prohibiting words may make it feel like we sweetly all agree but it does nothing to address underlying views. Permitting such words and thoughts not only allows us to call out nonsense where it exists, it defends our own right to say the things we feel need to be said.