Voltaire did not in fact say “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”: it was instead attributed to him by S.G. Tallentyre on the basis that, if he didn’t actually say it, he ought to have done. Whether he said it or thought it or not is immaterial – the sentiment encapsulates the spirit of freedom of speech in a liberal democracy. It makes explicit the fact that we are sufficiently confident in our institutions to allow any sentiment to be expressed, even those invidious to liberal-minded democrats, as in an environment of rational tolerance the better argument must prevail. The only exception, prima facie, must be the preaching of violence or hatred against individuals or groups.
The prospect of Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, appearing on Question Time on BBC1, has outraged many who find the views of him and his party abhorrent. Peter Hain, that great fighter against racism in all its forms, has passionately set out his belief that views such as those of Griffin should not be allowed a platform. He points to the ticking clock on the BNP website marking down the seconds till the start of the program, and argues that the publicity and legitimacy that Griffin’s appearance will accord will counter the great steps made in the past 40 years against racism in the UK.
However, I disagree. If Griffin’s views are abhorrent, then we must allow him the opportunity to state them so that they can be rebutted in free debate. If his views are genuinely unacceptable, then it is incumbent upon the other panellists to prove to the audience why this should be the case. If they cannot do that, then one must query if Griffin’s views are so extreme that they shouldn’t be aired. What we cannot do however, is allow ourselves to descend to the level of the bookburners, the totalitarian enemies of democracy whose legitimacy is so fragile that they cannot allow their opponents the freedom to state their case. In preventing Griffin from having the opportunity to state his case, we are, paradoxically, lowering ourselves to the level of Fascist enemies of free speech ourselves.
There are limits however. That freedom which we bestow does not extend so far that it encompasses incitement to hatred or violence against others, but where these boundaries lie is not clear-cut. Is speaking in favour of forced repatriation of non-“Europeans” an incitement to violence when the Government today forcibly repatriates failed asylum-seekers? Those who monitor the activities of the BNP would do well to ensure that these perimeters are clearly defined and maintained.
Does this extend, however, to statements of untruth – such as Holocaust denial? Ultimately, who can define what is true. A Tennessee Christian may believe in the truth of the Biblical creation story, Clarence Darrow may choose to differ. Truth in the eyes of scientists and the State will evolve through time – “E pur si muove”! Newton’s Laws of Motion were inviolable until Einstein proved otherwise. Freedom of thought and of speech ensured that Einstein expressed his heretical views with less comeback than Galileo. And yet, Holocaust denial is an opinion held by a tiny minority against overwhelming evidence, and the espousal of such a view is likely to cause deep offence to a many people. Should it be made illegal to support such an opinion, as in Germany or Austria? In my opinion, no. Once again, I believe that the errors of such a position must be demonstrated in open debate with reference to the copious evidence which survives.
In a free society, we must preserve everyone’s right to be wrong, to express opinions which are contrary to those of the majority, and to believe what almost everyone else believes to be incorrect. For it is only through healthy debate that we can revalidate what we stand for and believe in.