French comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala’s recent exclusion from the UK shows how much brain rot has descended on those in authority. The exclusion became known through a leaked alert issued at the end of January, which imposed a fine of “up to £10,000” on anybody who committed the grave offence of “carrying” Dieudonné to the UK.
As an explanation, the Home Office gave the sort of allusions to “public policy and public security” that we have become drowsily accustomed to. Any substantive reasons remain undisclosed. By banning M’Bala, however, the government has made a very large claim--that they know enough in advance of the danger from which they are protecting us. And it has done so without any consultation of the British people on whether we take the view that M’Bala is dangerous and we require protection.
The exclusion raises several important points. To begin with, what was it that the government were protecting us from? As far as I can tell, it was the “racist and anti-Semitic content” found in M’Bala’s shows--several of which have been banned in France. Yet the purpose of M’Bala’s proposed visit to the UK was not to perform his controversial show but to support his friend Premier League footballer Nicholas Anelka. Incredibly, the coalition could not take, even that, revealing an element of infantile regression.
The mores of the government’s conduct have been shaped by their delirium of fear that certain speech will offend. Notice that before the Home Office took action nobody demanded that M’Bala be denied entry to the UK. They gave in before they had been asked. This is an unfailing symptom of surrender by those whose responsibility it is to protect our freedom of speech.
With good reason we now return to a vital question: to what extent should speech be restricted? My opinion is that speech should not be restricted; that free speech is granted without exception. I cannot improve on Christopher Hitchens’s summary of the classic texts on this matter: “It’s not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen and to hear. And every time you silence somebody you make yourself a prisoner of your own action because you deny yourself the right to hear something.” In his glittering essay on liberty, John Stuart Mill asserts, if all of mankind except one were agreed upon an opinion, it would become even more important that one person of the contrary opinion be heard because we would still benefit from his perhaps vulgar opinion. This would, it is argued, present an opportunity to think about why we know what we know, and to defeat outrageous views through the merits of argument--not abject censorship.
We are well aware of the fetishisation of Joel Feinberg’s offense principle. One thinks here of the publication of some caricatures by a Danish newspaper of the prophet Mohammed several years ago. No keen support was given to our democratic colleagues when members of a hysterical mob violated diplomatic immunity by destroying Danish embassies in countries where demonstrations are not normally allowed. Condemnation was reserved not for the death toll which stood at over 50, but for the cartoons.
The fear of offending places an open ended limit on freedom of expression. The offended--with one paw placed firmly on the top of this limit--now have the joy of being conferred special privileges. This is not the hallmark of a tolerant society. Bear in mind, once one person’s right to express their views is denied, it will not stop there. And as Christopher Hitchens was unable to, I too, cannot think of anybody I would trust with the job of deciding in advance which speech is harmful.
The banning of M’Bala erodes an already contingent right to free speech. Existing legal recognition of freedom of speech in the UK has a dubious provenance. Based on the semiliterate Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, it stands in stark contrast to the ineradicable right to free expression guaranteed in the beautifully worded First Amendment to the US Constitution. The conflict we now face involves opposing centuries. The fight against censorship must therefore continue before the sad day comes when freedom of speech is found in a grave.
Richard M. Ridyard is a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford, having previously studied there for a BCL.