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Let’s hear it for contempt

The Blairite ‘Respect agenda’ is bunkum. We must all be free to insult each other or else only bullies will prevail


Stealthily, an idea which was born under New Labour has wormed itself into the imagination of post-millennial Britain. It is the concept of Respect, not least as applied to how we talk or write about each other. The implications of the ‘Respect agenda’ for free speech are perilous, and subterranean — the more insidious for imposing self-censorship by means of a model of supposed 21st-century good manners backed by laws which ‘send a message’ and chill the climate in which ‘hate-speech’ might otherwise occur.

The message is that we may argue at will in abstract terms, but should not offend

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other groups in society by speech or writing that they find personally hateful.

At first glance this rule sounds innocuous. But I believe that the freedom to give gratuitous offence, to mock, sneer, scorn, belittle, deride and verbally abuse, is one of the most important pillars in the power of language to challenge belief and behaviour. Hate-speech, far from being gratuitous, is a cornerstone of our liberty.

I know from the response whenever I write contemptuously about religious belief or practice that many readers think my error has not been arguing against what some believe, but being ‘gratuitously’ offensive to the people who believe it.Words like ‘superstitious’, ‘idiotic’ or ‘delusional’, all of which I’ve used of certain religious believers, fall into this category.

I know from responses to my somewhat lonely defence last year of Jan Moir’s right to publish her oblique attack on the late Stephen Gately, that sneering at him personally — not arguing against homosexual practice in general —was the error many

Scorn has always been so sharp and prominent a weapon in the battle of ideas thought the Daily Mail’s columnist should have been censured by the Press Complaints Commission for committing.

Readers outraged that a columnist should call Roman Catholic relic-worshippers ‘superstitious’ form an almost entirely different set of people from the readers outraged that Jan Moir should use the word ‘sleazy’ of a gay man’s death after drinking heavily in a club. Indeed, many in each set would have defended a columnist’s right to offend those in the other set as gratuitously as she or he chose. But both sets implicitly base their objection upon the same assertion. Others should be entitled to make a general argument against a cause, they would say (at least as regards their own cause), but not ‘gratuitously’ to hurt the feelings of real people associated with that cause.

It was Blairites who coined the term ‘Respect agenda’. Catch-all in its ambit,

it carries a distinct message, a streetwise thought but suitable for embroidering onto a cushion. Respect — modern, cool, liberal and multicultural — finds equal favour with reactionary conservatives and free-thinking leftists, for it seems to be about common courtesy. Cool Britannia and Middle England meet in their shared distaste for what Respect’s slang calls ‘dissing’ (showing disrespect). It isn’t smart, it isn’t cool, to diss another’s faith, race, values, culture, gender, appearance or sexual orientation.

Post-millennial beneficiaries of Mr Blair’s ‘new Britain’ (and maybe David Cameron’s ‘modern Conservatism’ too) have as a foundation to the edifice of their social ethic, not an idea of deference to rules or hierarchy, but the free and manly thought that each of us, of our own volition, should respect the sensibilities, beliefs and tastes of our fellow citizens.

The idea has a wide range of applications, many of them unobjectionable, from leaving the pub quietly and taking care not to piss into other people’s privet hedges, to helping the elderly across the road, or disregarding race, gender or sexuality in the processing of job applications. But the Respect agenda also spawned the paraphernalia of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) and the concept of hate-speech as a prosecutable crime.

The application of the Respect agenda to what it dubs hate-speech is exceptionally clear. Polite discussion is acceptable; vulgar abuse is not. We may dispute, but must not diss. Had Voltaire approved, he might have said ‘I disagree with everything you say, but will defend to the death your right not to have your opinions dissed.’

Except that Voltaire never would have approved. He lived by dissing. The great French polemicist’s talent for rational philosophical argument was limited; it is for impertinence and insult that he is remembered, and mockery at which he shines. Voltaire’s genius was for confronting blind, cruel or arrogant faith with common abuse; for pricking pomposity with vulgarity; for raillery; for taking down the pious a peg or two. The writer and his work become unexcep-

the spectator | 18 September 2010 |

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