Of fascists and the fascinating Mr Wilders
Anyone who thinks that researching community cohesion and working with communities is from the warm, fluffy and intellectually flabby end of the policy spectrum be warned. This post will touch on the tough stuff – freedom of speech, the trouble with human rights and Bounty Killer.
I’m going to start with a controversialism: I wanted to see Mr Geert Wilders’ film about the “fascist” Quran.
This is not to say that I agree with anything in it, or like it, or want to see it on general release at the Brixton Ritzy.
But I’ve always made it my business to know my opponent’s arguments, and as an ex-journalist and in my current profession I feel I have a duty to understand the people that perpetuate our society’s deepest cleavages. I have at times extended that courtesy to members of the organisations Mr Wilders’ polemic attacks. I ought to extend this approach to Mr Wilders too. I like to think that if a moderate majority were to engage with his arguments, we could render them ludicrous by their very extremism.
So I’m sitting here watching it online, at work. It’s not subtle stuff: in fact, it’s rediculous and vacuous. You can watch it too, anyone with a reasonable internet connection can do so. This has been pointed out to the Home Office, who have banned him from entering the country on the grounds that he will incite hatred.
But that of course is not the point of the ban: it’s to send out a message about what is an obscenity in our society. Encouraging discrimination and violence against a person because of their faith, race or sexual orientation is considered obscene and therefore unspeakable. The aforementioned Jamaican rapper Bounty Killer was refused entry to the UK because of his homophobic music, though you can download it all you wish. The Muslim cleric Dr Yusuf Al-Qaradawi is also banned from Britain on the basis that he is a threat to community cohesion.
This is a profound challenge to those who work with deeply divided communities. My friends who work in this field say striking the balance between protecting the security of minority interests (who, let’s be honest, aren’t necessarily saintly themselves) and the wider community’s freedom of speech is doubly challenging. Firstly, that freedom of speech is our most fundamental protection against oppression.
Secondly, such extremism often exploits a real or percieved threat to the security of a community. Those I know who are involved in cross-community conflict resolution have often unearthed visceral anger and a lust for revenge alongside righteous indignation about injustice. But we do need to be able to talk about that sense of insecurity and injustice, and explore it, in order that it be demystified and resolved.
If we just don’t talk about the darker forces in our communal life, we reduce our capacity to negotiate conflict. Rendering something like anti-Semitism or homophobia unspeakable, obscene and refusing any mention of it isn’t quite the same thing as dealing with it. We tried that with sex once and it didn’t work; people kept on doing it. The internet is only a traceable network that demonstrates a pre-digital process: it is virtually impossible to effect a ban on hate-speech. Some would argue this renders the whole right to freedom of speech vs. minority rights argument, indeed the whole Human Rights schema, to be a straw dog.
However, most legal systems recognise Rights to be in a slightly different category to other laws about the curve of bananas or the statutory duties of social workers. They are quasi-sacred guiding principles for self-governance – taboos if we want to get Freudian.
By all means make an example of what an idiot Mr Wilders is, and Mr Al-Qaradawi too while we’re at it. But let’s use this as an opportunity to think about what it means to be guided in our daily lives by respect for others, and how we can create more spaces in our communities for reconciliation and redressing grievances rather than repressing conflict altogether.