One thought too many

No. Wrong. Quite, quite wrong.

Brown responded to the BNP verdict by saying Griffin’s description of Islam as a ‘wicked, vicious faith’ would offend ‘mainstream opinion in this country’. He said: ‘If there is something that needs to be done to look at the law, then I think we will have to do that.’

Brown may have said more than that; the Observer may be being unfair to him; but all the same, that selection from what he did say is somewhat alarmingly (if you’ll forgive a foreigner for saying so) wrong if it is meant as a justification for the selection that follows. If it’s just a statement of fact, it may or may not be accurate but it’s not very alarming; but if the two parts of that passage go together, it’s a mess. “Offend’ and ‘mainstream’ and ‘opinion’ are three of the best words he could possibly have chosen not to cite as reasons for ‘looking at,’ i.e. changing, the law. In other words, liberal democracies aren’t supposed to be in the business of crafting laws to criminalize speech that would ‘offend mainstream opinion.’ Really they’re not. Really. Promise. Believe it or not, speech that ‘offends mainstream opinion’ and causes no other harm is precisely, but precisely, the kind of speech that is meant to be protected in liberal democracies; protected, not criminalized; protected, in fact, exactly from these fretful impulses to make them illegal that trouble the sleep of governments. I realize you guys don’t have the actual slip of paper that spells that out in so many words, but you do have the idea. But some of the people who make the laws apparently don’t, quite. Apparently they actually do think that saying things that would offend mainstream opinion really ought to be illegal. But (a whisper in your shell-like) mainstream opinion can sometimes be wrong. It has been known. So outlawing all speech that would offend mainstream opinion could have some perverse effects. And then, what of all these hymns to richness and diversity? Hm? If we’re going to rejoice at richness and diversity, we can’t very well with the next breath declare that mainstream opinion should have veto power over speech, can we.

That’s not to say that I think threatening speech should be protected. I have mixed opinions about that. But it sure is to say that offensive is not the same thing as threatening, and that the distinction is important.

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