In a thought-provoking video clip uploaded by The Guardian, feminist writer and activist Julie Bindel claims the censorship of views we deem offensive is dangerously becoming “the new normal” in today’s society…
Is censorship becoming the standard response to anything and everything that offends us?
Bindel arguably makes a fair point: the public has attempted on various occasions to silence the views of controversial public figures via petitions. After Katie Hopkins labelled migrants “cockroaches” and said we should “force them back to their shores and burn the boats”, over 300,000 people signed a petition calling on The Sun Newspaper to remove her as a columnist. A similar petition to ban the sale of ‘pro-rape’ books penned by ‘pick-up artist’ Roosh V has amassed over 250,000 signatures, and most recently British MPs debated whether to ban Donald Trump from entering the UK after 579,000 people petitioned the government to do so.
‘Censorship’ is also on the rise across universities in the UK, with unions cracking down on the speakers they host, the songs they deem appropriate to play, and the fancy dress costumes students are allowed to wear on campus. According to the 2016 Free Speech University Rankings published by Spiked, 9 out of 10 universities in the UK have ‘censored’ speech in some form and 55% have “banned and actively censored ideas on campus”.
What about Freedom of Expression…?
Article 19 of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
The censorship of offensive views not only undermines this fundamental right, argues Bindel – it also denies the opportunity for rational debate, through which we can openly discredit opinions that we deem unacceptable. And she is right: silencing or ‘no-platforming’ views which offend us won’t make them disappear. Instead of taking this approach, she says, we should listen to people’s views (so long as they are not inciting crime) and respond by showing “rational resistance”.
Free speech vs hate speech: where do we draw the line?
But how do we differentiate between offensive views that are nevertheless worthy of being listened to, and damaging hate speech that incites discrimination or violence? Should The Sun have published Katie Hopkins’ article on the refugee/migrant crisis, given its potential to incite anti-migrant discrimination or hate crime? Similarly, should Donald Trump be allowed a platform to spread Islamophobic rhetoric?
Should freedom of speech be respected in the case of Roosh V, whose publications promote sexist, objectifying views towards women and arguably advocate rape? His online blog articles and videos don’t just ‘offend’ women – they represent a genuine threat to our safety and wellbeing. Surely then, it is wrong to allow him a platform for normalising and advocating an abhorrent attitude towards women that inarguably has the potential to inspire sexual violence and rape.
Perhaps these questions are an insult to the intelligence of the majority of people who neither support nor take seriously any of the views expressed by these figures. Nevertheless though, it is important to take seriously the fine line separating views that merely ’cause offence’, and views that could incite discrimination or hate crime.