There’s a quote – attributed to Voltaire – that goes:
‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’
You see it often in Jpeg form or quoted on Twitter, in the press and all across social media. Over the last few years and in the days of after-shock following the racist Britain First’s twitter suspension it has been doing good business.
It was only today – and frankly to my surprise – when I bothered to check the source that I discovered that Voltaire never said such a thing. The ‘quote’ was actually penned by an English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall (who ascribed the words to the great thinker.) I confess I’ve never read any Voltaire but obviously he is one of Europe’s ‘Greats’ and so when the words are attributed to him they gain currency – much as any old bull crap can be rendered worthy of an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations when credited to Gandhi, Einstein, Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher.
I’m rather pleased to discover that the quote has nothing to do with Voltaire for two reasons – firstly because it’s a lot of bollocks and secondly, because the fact of its fiction neatly demonstrates the point I want to make.
Let’s study the bollocks first. Taken out of any context and standing alone, this idea that liberal minded free thinkers should be obliged to ‘defend’ the rights of bigots, religious extremists, paedophiles, fascists, Stalinists, racists, perjurers, prevaricators, liars and fools is patent nonsense.
Should we defend the rights of extremist preachers to incite terror attacks? Should we have all defended Adolf Hitler’s liberty to argue that the Aryan race was naturally superior and that the Jews should be stripped of their rights and lives? Should we defend the anti-semites in their attempts to prove that the camps at Belsen and Dachau were a fabrication? If so – how far do we extend that courtesy? Should schools invite holocaust deniers to speak to their children just so the kids can hear the other side of the argument? Should we welcome the case for ‘Creationism’ to be taught alongside evolution in schools thus lending Iron Age camp-fire myths equal weight to accepted science?
Now I am using extremes here but there is a very good reason for that. Free speech has its limits. Freedom of expression lies at the heart of a democracy – but it is not an inalienable right. There comes a time when dangerous and illiberal sentiments need to be curtailed, not least to defend that democracy and the people within it. That can be done either by the law or by the terms and conditions of use set out by social media firms.
If the internet has taught us anything, it is that there are a lot of people who are very gullible indeed – as I have written previously. From their viral origins Britain First demonstrated an aptitude for disseminating misinformation and false equivalence with devastating effect. I have determined not to share any of their images in this post – but to give an example they would frequently post images of homeless soldiers inviting Facebook users to ‘like’ if they thought the government should prioritise their care over that of asylum seekers. Many who liked it probably had no idea ‘who’ they were liking and any suggestion that government could and should help both was parked at the door.
The damage was done.
As this outfit of racists (and yes they were just that) gained media attention – their currency grew. I often read their feed and it was lie after lie after lie. As the ‘Voltaire’ quote neatly demonstrates – a fake can easily get implanted in our culture and fabrications can swiftly become accepted truths. A quick internet search could disprove a high percentage of their stuff, much of which was presented without source or context – but the fact is that most people simply don’t care about that. Muslim haters don’t seek answers or context – they seek confirmation of their hatred. Britain First’s online followers were radicalised by a diet of hate based on selective truth and downright lies and twitter afforded the group’s leaders blue ticks – lending them an added air of authority which led eventually to Fransen being ‘retweeted’ by the American President and afforded a whole new level of exposure.
Britain First benefitted from an indulgence of tolerance that would never be afforded them in a general election campaign or in conventional British politics. They breached the boundaries of Free Speech with the same disregard that they ruptured the limits of truth. Their filth was excreted into the mainstream and their actions became more and more reckless. The ban was wholly appropriate.
In the days that have followed, I have been amused to observe many of our ‘home grown’ alt-right commentators lambast twitter – er – on twitter – for curtailing free speech. People like James Delingpole, Katie Hopkins and that funny little man who calls himself ‘Old Holborn’ have busied themselves about the internet branding those who welcome the move as ‘haters of democracy.’ The truth is that these defenders of free speech no more believe in it than I believe in flying car-parks called Steve. To them, like Britain First, ‘free speech’ means the ‘permission to be a racist and say racist things like you could in the old days.’
For myself, I think it’s important to hear different opinions and not merely paint myself into an echo chamber. Try it guys.