Freedom of Speech and the BNP

We live in interesting times. For the first time ever, the BBC invited the BNP’s leader, Nick Griffin, to take part in an edition of its flagship discussion programme, Question Time. Their justification: the BNP represented the UK in the European Parliament and should, therefore, be treated as a normal political party and invited to engage in public debate.

The reaction was predictable and rather worrying. Politicians, the media and various other beacons of public opinion put enormous pressure on the BBC to withdraw the invitation; protesters protested, marchers marched, and placards were made and held aloft. Apparently, the BNP’s views are so reprehensible that they should not be given an airing in a democratic society.

That’s right: a democratic society should not allow certain views to be heard, in the name of democracy.

The programme, too, was predictable. Instead of the usual menu of current affairs and party-politicking, the entire show was dedicated to grilling, roasting and generally attacking Mr. Griffin. Only one question on a non-BNP -related topic was heard. Under the heat, poor Mr. Griffin came off rather badly, unable to give a convincing account of himself or his party.

Meanwhile, outside the studio the protesters protested and placards were held aloft.

The following morning, the newspapers and electronic media had a field day.

So what?

Most sensible people have little sympathy with the BNP’s worldview or political aims. However, things have come to a pretty pass when democracy demands the silencing of those whose views are reprehensible to the majority. On the morning-after, the Daily Express labelled Mr. Griffin, apparently without any irony, “A Disgrace to Humanity”.

We can only claim to believe in freedom of speech when that freedom allows those to speak whose views are most odious to us. Racism is bad. Immigrant-bashing, Holocaust denial and all that stuff is also bad. But pelting people who hold unpleasant views with eggs in order to silence them, as was done recently outside Westminster, is also bad. If the barometer of public opinion gets to decide whose views are allowed and whose are banned, we no longer operate in a democracy. Morally, there is no difference between silencing Nick Griffin on the BBC and silencing Dietrich Bonhoeffer on German radio in January 1933.

As the old cliché goes,

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Regardless of who coined the phrase, you can’t quibble with the sentiment. You’d better not—just in case it’s your views that fall foul of public approval. If you are a Christian, that’s more than likely.

The Benefit of the Doubt (8th Commandment)

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.

What does this mean?

We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbour, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.

It has been heartening to see the way the Eighth Commandment has been applied to Barack Obama’s little stumble over the oath of office. One commentator on the BBC‘s Today Programme even suggested that it was his oratorical genius that led to the mistake.

I can’t help wondering what the reaction had been if it had been Obama’s predecessor. Does the Eighth Commandment apply to all, or only to polished orators?