I was waiting at a bus stop in Manchester the other day when a gleaming new Range Rover worth more than my entire existence drove up and parked just in front of me. The driver was on the down-slope side of orcish; his bald head perched upon a tattooed neck the width of an elephant’s shin. As he pulled up, he shouted out the window to an old lady standing at the head of the queue. What followed was a steroid-pumping tirade that was remarkable for being racist, misogynistic, and homophobic all at the same time. He quickly made it clear that he was very unhappy with the woman’s son and he threatening a fair amount of GBH on the same the next time he saw him. Yet the woman didn’t seem fazed. She shrugged and agreed to pass on the message, leaving the driver to scream one last four letter obscenity before he sped back to whatever life it is that has made him one of the city’s success stories.
That such men exist is no surprise to anybody who struggles to live out here in real Britain. That such men thrive should also be no surprise. One such local man has recently become the unified world boxing champion. He believes that women sometimes deserve a slap and that they belong in the kitchen making him cups of tea. He also believes that gay rights and legalized abortions took us two steps closer to the Apocalypse, whilst only our prohibition against pedophilia is currently saving us from the End of Days. He also claims that Jesus Christ is his savior in the very same Youtube interview that he threatened sports journalist, Oliver Holt, through one of his bull-brained proxies:
See Big Shane there… Have a look at Big Shane. Six foot six and twenty five stone. He’s going to break his jaw completely with one straight right hand. I won’t do it because I’ll get in trouble but the big fella there, he’ll annihilate him. So, Oliver, take a good look at him. That’s the face you’ll see before you hit the deck. [Turns to another goon in his party] And that’s the face you’re going to see when he’s jumping on your head.
By late Sunday night, over 75,000 people had signed the petition demanding that the BBC remove Tyson Fury from the Sports Personality of the Year shortlist (for those of you not in the UK: our most prestigious end-of-year sporting accolade). It was the standard pattern of social media leading the way. People want to turn Fury into a pariah, as though the reality of Fury and men like him could be erased so long as we collectively cover our eyes and ears.
Yet, the uncomfortable truth is that men like Fury are commonplace and emerge from a culture of ignorance and worse. Fury’s father, John, recently left prison after serving five years of an eleven year sentence for gouging out another man’s eye. Consider, if you could, the psychology required to place your fingers deep into another person’s eye socket and to squeeze out the jelly. Do you think such a man might feel mildly concerned by a Twitter campaign, a stinging retort in a newspaper, or a taunting cartoon? Or do you think the only thing to upset him would be his omission from the next series of Britain’s Hardest Man?
It is laughable to see the reaction of people learning for the first time that our new World Heavyweight Champion is no modern, liberal, secular, or, indeed, entirely rational human being. Being a throwback to the Paleolithic period is legally permitted in this country and long may it continue to be so because silencing men like Tyson Fury is the last thing we should ever do.
One of the perennial problems of defending free speech is that it often puts us on the side of the debate where we feel least comfortable. Everything I know about Tyson Fury makes me wish I was seven foot tall with a head like a Glaswegian wrecking ball. I wish I could take Fury up on his open offer to debate with his detractors inside the ring. I wish I could beat some sense into that Cro-Magnon skull of his. Instead, I find myself writing a defense of his stupidity.
The same happened this week after Donald Trump suggested that Muslims should be banned from travelling to the United States. Some well-meaning individual started a petition to ban Trump from the UK and many others took up the cause by signing their name. At the time of my writing this, the petition has 102,949 signatures. Yet I put it to you that we’ve only really established is that at least 102,949 people fail to understand the concept of free speech. 102,949 people are casually trying to impose censorship for nothing more than a man expressing an opinion shared by a group of like-minded individuals. Almost incidentally, those 102,949 people have also demonstrated the frightening ease with which dictatorships can form.
I suppose these 102,949 would, in their defence, cite ‘decency’ and the ‘human rights’ of the people affected by Trump’s words. Yet that is usually how censorship of any kind is usually framed: it is done for our good or the good our community. In fact, in Saudi Arabia, that’s exactly how it is written into law:
Mass media and all other vehicles of expression shall employ civil and polite language, contribute towards the education of the nation and strengthen unity. It is prohibited to commit acts leading to disorder and division, affecting the security of the state and its public relations, or undermining human dignity and rights.
Perhaps those 102,949 people would like to add their names to that kind of petition, so reasonable in its ambition to ‘strengthen unity’.
The unity of voice is perhaps one of the most worrying aspects of the current campaign to vilify Trump. We are in a very bad place when our understand is no more sophisticated than J.K. Rowling explaining Donald Trump in Hogwartian terms: ‘Voldemort was nowhere near as bad’. It is bad not just because it is wrong (Voldermort was a fictional sadistic mass murderer, whilst Trump is merely a right-wing demagogue) but because it quickly becomes ubiquitous and unchallenged.
Personally, I’d rather welcome Trump into the UK and perhaps set up a meeting with our boxing champ so the two can talk nonsense. It’s such freedom that defines the greatest of our disagreements with the thugs of Daesh. If what the two men say offends a great many people, then those many people have the right to counter with reason, insults, or ridicule. We have a rich heritage of satire to draw upon, political campaigners who use language to change hearts and minds. We have the right to peaceful protest and we can withdraw our patronage from their businesses. What we do not have is a tradition by which a small but vocal group have the right to censor another person’s right to talk or believe nonsense. Words, however offensive, must be protected because, otherwise, the limits of our freedom will be decided by governments. That is not to say it’s not without difficulties. We face challenges ensuring that hateful words don’t become hateful actions, which is where the defense of ‘free speech’ becomes a defense of an individual’s right not to feel threatened. Beyond that, however, we should be very mindful about censoring words and mindful too of pushing dissent into the fringes of our debates.
That is my greatest fear. The intentions of a mob motivated by moral goodness leads us to a type of censorship that is self-defeating. Whatever we ban today will emerge tomorrow in viler forms that are harder to constrain. The more we force people to limit what they say today, we also restrict our understanding of what they might think tomorrow. The fascist open about their fascism is far less dangerous than the fascist who keeps their prejudices a secret. Censorship aids tyrants. It rarely helps people to become more free.
That is the ultimate challenge. We might think that there’s no place for sexism, misogyny, or racism in our society but both Fury and Trump are healthy reminders that ignorance has already found its place and will always have a place in one form or another. Freedom of speech isn’t defined by what the majority say. It is defined by the babbling rubbish spewed by men like Fury and Trump and we should be thankful that they do because alongside the things we would shame ourselves for thinking or saying are the words, arguments, poetry, ideas and intellectual revolutions of the future.
Stupidity really is the last thing we should ever censor because it also happens to be the point at which better things begin to be said.