John Cleese, the creative genius behind Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, warned of a “disastrous” attack on free speech last night during a debate on the Hate Crime Bill.
During an online debate, hosted by the Academy of Ideas, the veteran comic was asked what restrictions his profession could face under the bill when some of his most well-known work has already been labelled “hateful”.
Event host Dr Simon Knight said: “What kind of fetter will it place on the creative process if you have to start thinking things through three or four times before you say them?”
And Cleese responded: “it’s disastrous to the creative process because the creative process is a matter of spontaneity. If you’re going to come up with something that’s really interesting it’s going to come out of your unconscious and if you’re having to edit everything you say before you say it then nothing is going to happen creatively and also things that are rather lovely and funny in ordinary conversation they’re not going to happen either.”
He added: “There is a whole form of over-sensitivity and I think some of it is because people who are trying to feel that they are very good people almost sit around waiting to be offended. It’s actually very silly.
“You simply cannot legislate for all these different kinds of attitudes. We’ve got to take seriously the fact that people have got to become a little more stoical and a little less easily upset because we don’t want to run society according to the sensitivities of the people who are most easily upset”.
Asked about some of the more controversial characters in his comedy sketch Cleese added: “There’s two ways of attacking somebody with humour. One is a sort of frontal attack – calling him silly or stupid or whatever – and the other is to put words in their mouth that you want to discredit and make clear that the person saying those words is not someone to be taken seriously”.
Laurence Fox blasts ‘assault on language’
The debate also featured a contribution from actor Laurence Fox. He described the Hate Crime Bill as “symbolic legislation”, and added: “To what purpose would you introduce this legislation other than to please people?”
The actor turned free speech activist added that “creativity is a casualty” of the bill, which represents “an absolute assault on our language and the way that we communicate”.
“If you create subjectivity in a crime you are already making a very difficult situation a hundred times more difficult. I ultimately believe that freedom of speech is the best way forward, equality is the best way forward”.
Sillars speaks of ‘dead society’
Former SNP Deputy Leader Jim Sillars, a supporter of the Free to Disagree campaign which is leading opposition to the Scottish Bill, also spoke out.
Mr Sillars argued that “western civilisation is having a nervous breakdown over thought and speech” and said:
“People are chasing JK Rowling for example. Would she be done under this legislation? Chances are someone would make a complaint?”
He added: “You make progress in society by having free debate, discussion taking on prejudiced discussion and knocking it down. The legislation will fail whereas debate, discussion and progress in society will in fact succeed. The fundamental error they have made with this legislation is the idea that they can determine how we think and what words we say.
“The state is telling us: ‘only think the thoughts that we define and only speak the words that we allow’. That’s a dead society.”
Hate Crime Bill controversy
Draft stirring up hatred offences in the Hate Crime Bill would make “abusive” (rude or insulting) behaviour intended to stir up hatred against certain groups a criminal offence, punishable by up to seven years in prison. The offences also cover the “public performance of a play”.
Over the last five months, numerous professionals including actors and comics have warned that artistic expression could be undermined due to the vague and subjective terminology used in the draft legislation.
Free to Disagree spokesman Jamie Gillies commented:
“The anxiety of much-loved comics like John Cleese shows just how problematic the ‘stirring up’ proposals are. If these subjective offences pass, comedy skits of the kind seen in Monty Python and Fawlty Towers could be a problem. Comedians would be constantly self-censoring for fear of causing offence and being reported to the police.
“Eroding artistic freedom through well-meaning but badly-drafted hate crime laws would greatly diminish Scottish culture and discourage comedians from pursuing their careers in Scotland in the future. The remaining problems with the Hate Crime Bill must be addressed by MSPs urgently if we are to avoid these negative outcomes.”