Why Facebook shouldn’t ban Britain First

*sigh*

One sometimes worries one sounds like something of a broken record. Regular followers of this blog will have heard this with some frequency. It almost feels as though I could distil the salient points down to a few bullets:

  • I don’t like Britain First and their obnoxious and overt racism
  • I don’t like censorship and impediments to free expression
  • It would be far easier to garner support for this argument if I had a sympathetic victim. Sadly, as per usual, the story centres on racists and/or idiots that most people (rightly) don’t like
  • Legal organisations – no matter how odious and vile we find their views – should be permitted to freely express those views
  • The definition of ‘hate’ is so broad and ill-defined as to be incapable of consistent application
  • Free speech should remain just that. Unless there is a direct incitement to physical violence of some sort, there should be no impediment to free expression

I think that basically covers the essence of just about every post on this sort of topic to date such as here, here, here, here, here or here among many others. The perpetrators, enforcers and victims may change but the essence of the problem doesn’t. One group says something another doesn’t like and someone, somewhere decides this should be illegal and moves to impede the ability to say it. The rest is all just detail.

This time the perpetrators are Britain First, the victims are anyone who happens to stumble across their Facebook page and the censors are Facebook. It seems Facebook has banned the far-right group from Facebook on grounds that the group have ‘repeatedly posted content designed to incite animosity and hatred against minority groups’. You can read the story as reported in the Guardian here.

The paper notes:

“We are an open platform for all ideas and political speech goes to the heart of free expression,” Facebook said in a statement. “But political views can and should be expressed without hate. People can express robust and controversial opinions without needing to denigrate others on the basis of who they are.

The problem for racists, of course, is it is very hard to express their political opinion without running into someone’s definition of ‘hate’. I’m not in favour of far-right ideology, but even I recognise that the two statements made by Facebook are mutually exclusive.

Either Facebook is a platform for all ideas and political speech – including far-right fascist views – or it is not. Likewise, it is not possible to ‘express robust and controversial opinions without needing to denigrate others’ if your robust and controversial opinion is predicated on the denigration of others, as most far-right and fascist views tend to be. Facebook cannot claim to be ‘an open platform’ while limiting free speech to that which they deem ‘without hate’ or not to ‘denigrate others’. Those two things are mutually exclusive.

Likewise, it bears asking how they define ‘hate’ and ‘denigration’. Isn’t it denigrating to refer to anyone with a four-letter epithet? When, exactly, does robust criticism become hateful? Why, for example, is it not hateful to advertise Labour Party mugs announcing ‘Tories are vermin’ and yet replace ‘Tory’ with other labels and it becomes degrading and hateful? I make no judgement on the value of the sentiment on the anti-Tory mug – you are free to buy it – I’m just unclear where the boundary lies in hateful speech and denigrating language. Apparently, Tories may be denigrated with hate but not Muslims. What about Tory Muslims like Sajid Javid or Baroness Warsi?

To be clear, there is no doubt that the leaders of Britain First are racist and Islamophobic. Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen were rightly jailed recently for religiously aggravated harassment. But that was a result of some odious stuff they did, not anything specific they said. In the two cases outlined, there was a clear threat of intimidation and violence attending their words, such as banging on windows and engaging in a campaign of harassment. Such behaviour was always traditionally prosecuted under common assault.

I am much more concerned about the application of incitement to hate. I understand, and accept, the legitimacy of clamping down on incitement to violence. There we are dealing with an intentional desire to coax others into physically harming others. But what is the incitement to hatred? More to the point, even if we happily acknowledge hatred isn’t very nice, if someone is incited to hate me, until such time as they begin planning to physically hurt me, why on earth does it matter? Apart from my (potentially) hurt feelings as it dawns on me – hard as I know this is for any of you to believe – it becomes apparent that not everybody likes me, what actually is the problem? I work for a local church and live with that brutal realisation every day!

Conversely, there is a big problem with clamping down and censoring ‘hate speech’. What one defines as hateful another considers legitimate; what one judges robust another considers harsh; what one considers clever another judges it degrading. The essential problem is that ‘hate’ is in the ear of the listener. What is more, the same words spoken to certain groups are viewed as legitimate, even if a bit rude, while those same words directed at another are deemed beyond the pale.

The issue is no more or less than one of free speech. Facebook is offering a political fudge; pretending they are an open platform while openly censoring a group for speech they have deemed unacceptable. But I am fairly sure that much of the language Britain First directed at Muslims would not be viewed nearly so sternly if it were directed at Christians, in exactly the same way that much racist comment directed toward black people is taken to be less offensive when directed toward people of East Asian origin. This tells us that hate is not really the issue, it is the special protection of certain groups. It is the creating of some rights that are granted to some and withheld from others.

We could resolve this conundrum by consistently applying these ‘hate speech’ criteria to any and all groups. But, of course, that would merely stifle free speech to the point where criticism of anything at all cannot happen without someone crying foul play. Instead, the answer is to remove such subjective measures and permit speech to be truly free. That necessarily means accepting groups like Britain First will be allowed to say the odious things they want. But, in return, that very commitment guarantees our right to tell them what they may do with their views.

Otherwise, what guarantee do any of us have that today’s legitimate criticism won’t be tomorrow’s hate speech? What hope do we have that the government won’t turn round and judge some of our views, disliked by others, to be hateful? If we don’t support the right of others to say things we don’t like – even if we absolutely abhor what they are saying – we can’t be sure that the same fate won’t befall us.

Maybe this is an ironic Martin Niemöller moment. They came for the fascists but I wasn’t a fascist so I said nothing while some other fascists sorted them out. The reason we must defend Britain First’s right to spout their fascist rantings is for precisely the same reason that we shouldn’t want them in power. It seems that in our bid to avoid a far-right fascist clampdown we have employed a fascist clampdown. The chosen targets may be different but it is hard to see how this isn’t engaging in precisely the same thing that we claim we desperately want to avoid.

If Facebook is genuinely committed to being an open and free platform, it really should reconsider its ban. Not because Britain First are nice people, or we like what they say, but because nobody can trust Facebook’s commitment to free speech if they don’t.