Scot Gov’s hate crime proposals would have a deadening effect on intellectual life

Jim Sillars, former Deputy Leader of the SNP

Legislation concerning thought and speech always raises questions of great importance to society. Is there a presumption in favour of free thought and the right to express it? Is there a narrow focus so that police and judicial interpretation does not catch in the criminal net thought and language not intended to be there? And does the legislation widen or restrict the value of liberty for society as a whole?

In the Hate Crime Bill there is not even a suggestion that these central principles have been taken into account. At the most fundamental level, about what it means to be in a free society, with the right to speak one’s mind, it fails.

The Scottish Enlightenment helped shine a beacon of reason and tolerance upon the world. It is a matter of profound regret that our Parliament is invited by a Scottish government to dim that light and place our nation now, in a veil of intolerance.

The Hate Crime Bill is not sui generis. It has been fashioned in the fevered climate created within, and now gripping western society, which, if not checked, will destroy with intolerance our inheritance from the Enlightenment to speak without fear of retribution from the organs of the state.

“There is nothing more dangerous to human freedom than those who are so righteous in their certainty over what can and what cannot be said”

There is nothing more dangerous to human freedom than those who are so righteous in their certainty over what can and what cannot be said. They so easily slide from disapproval to punishment, believing they are entitled to do so. That righteous certainty underpinned the Inquisition, Marxist-Leninism as practised by Stalin, and the vicious persecution and humiliation of teachers, academics and many others in Mao’s cultural revolution. Today in Hong Kong, the libraries are being cleared of books that do not conform to Xi Jinping thought. No doubt, they will be burned.

Of course here in the West, those guided today by righteous certainty on what is WrongSpeak don’t burn people at the stake, consign them to the Gulag or the basement of the Lubyanka, or hang shameful placards round their necks before a beating. No, but they are with those cited above in principle, in that they seek to punish those whose views they do not like: by demanding they be sacked; that others and their works be “cancelled,” and some imprisoned as the Hate Crime Bill proposes. And just like those I have cited, the promotion of the idea of WrongSpeak inevitably puts a halter on the tongues of millions who fear making a mistake in saying what is in their minds.

Free thinking and the use of language to express thoughts is the intellectual life-blood of a society, without which it ultimately stagnates. Without freedom in thinking and the use of language to articulate thought, that great human asset of curiosity will be curbed lest it lead into dangerous, uncomfortable areas; vigorous dispute and challenges to orthodoxy, from which new ideas and new vibrancy in society emerge, cannot flourish in a verbal desert.

The more we examine what is happening in this Western-wide phenomenon, the more important it is to contest it, because the road it would set us on is a dangerous one, as it already is for those who are losing their ability to work, not because their work is deficient but for what they say outside of work.

“Free thinking and the use of language to express thoughts is the intellectual life-blood of a society”

I readily accept that the law has an important function: to enshrine a moral value and so promote its support and acceptance, such as racial equality. And I have no disagreement with the contention that our immigrant minorities need special protection. Part of the proposed Hate Crime Bill consolidates what have been piecemeal approaches in providing that protection, but it does not stop there. It casts that net of criminality much wider, with a longer list of protected persons, extending the collection of stirring-up offences to non-racial groups, a possession offence (Clause 5) that will censor the communication of material to someone else, even if in private, and something to take the breath away of the artistic community, we have Clause 4 (with reference to 3) meant to catch anyone judged culpable for language expressed during the public performance of a play.

I can think of no worse way to inflict damage upon a society than to have the law hover over those who write provocative plays that challenge us to think outside the box of orthodoxy, the writers who explore contentious issues, satirists who insult saintly pretence, those who say the unsayable, and we citizens who believe we have a birth right to freedom of thought and speech.

This weekend a new campaign, Free to Disagree, launches to resist this cynical legislation. I’m proud to lend my support to the campaign and implore other free-minded citizens to do the same. If we live in fear of saying what we think, lest the law punish us, we are into self-censorship and its deadening effect upon our intellectual life. Self-censorship or freedom of speech? This Bill will bring the former. We must oppose it to maintain the latter.

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