Jonathan Pie and the myth of ‘absolute’ freedom of speech

In a recent interview with Channel 4, Tom Walker – better known as Jonathan Pie, the fictional news reporter who explodes with a fit of rage when the camera turns off and blurts out his true feelings to the thing he was reporting on – argues a case he’s argued before. That we should have should have ‘more’ freedom of speech. Here’s the relevant extract from said interview:

Freedom of speech is an immovable right for horrible people as well as nice people. If you’re a horrible person, if you’re a racist for example – I want to hear it. As long as you’re not inciting hatred, as long as you’re not inciting violence. If your opinion is that the colour of your skin makes you superior to me because of the colour of my skin, you should be able to say because then I can argue against you. If it’s illegal for you to say it, it just bubbles up. So that’s just the general level of what surely freedom of speech should be.

Now, I’m not the biggest fan of the Jonathan Pie videos but I can see why they’re popular and why some people find them amusing. And on the face of it, Walker is a nice guy with seemingly good intentions too. He postures himself as a very fair and unbiased political commentator (in the same interview, he cites that he follows Breitbart and BBC, Rees-Mogg and Corbyn all the same. He doesn’t want to fall into the trap of the echo-chamber, which is good). But the extract above demonstrates what I would say is Walker’s biggest blind-spot and something I’ve seen crop up in a fair few of his videos: that he is too concerned with raw “fact” and theorising and is either unaware or non-cognisant of what marginalised people go through in their everyday lives. He oversimplifies complex issues and ignores their practical consequences. There’s so much I disagree with in the thought he expresses above but I want to try and unpick each part, bit by bit.

Theorising and practicality should inform each other. But most of the times, in philosophical discussions like this, the two become separate and that’s when context is lost. Context is key. It sounds great to say, “freedom of speech is for everyone”, and it’s a ‘hot take’ I’ve seen given very commonly these days to defend horrible statements, but the idea that it should be the same for “nice” and “horrible” people is… irrelevant. How nice or ‘mean’ someone is has nothing to do with how their statements should be treated. What’s more important is the consequences of that statement. It’s great to say that racists should have a platform to air their bigotry but what that statement ignores is the actual effects of spreading racism.

It’s no coincidence that the biggest proponents of ‘absolute’ fair speech are usually the ones completely unaffected by the consequences of bigotry. While Walker might say, “Hey, if you’re a racist, I want to hear from you”, that’s very easy for him to say, because racists aren’t out to deride, deport or dehumanise him. And that is the context in which we’re living. Walker’s interview comes right in the middle of what should be one of the political scandals of the decade – the fact that an unknown number of British citizens – thought to be over 50,000 – have had their lives ruined by our government. If they haven’t been flat out deported, they’ve lost their citizenship status and have been denied healthcare, welfare and social services in their own country and are struggling to survive, simply for the crime of being from the Caribbean, i.e. being black. So while Walker may speak of the need for racists to have a better platform, he ignores the fact that it’s the rise of racism that has caused issues like these to become far too common  an occurrence in Britain, with hate crime on the rise post-Brexit.

The only reason things like the Windrush scandal can happen is because politicians like Theresa May and Amber Rudd feel comfortable creating a ‘hostile environment’ (as they have so proudly claimed) for people who are not native white-British. The fact that even people who have been in the country for 60 or 70 years are not immune from it, shows how deeply this attitude has pervaded into the psyche of the country, or at least how much politicians think this is something people will be fine with. And while The Sun and The Daily Mail might disingenuously claim to be outraged by the scandal, it is a hostile environment they have helped to create by consistently and persistently spreading the message that immigrants and coloured people are not welcome in the UK.

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But since Walker, in his interview, asks that rather than just invalidate his opinion because he is a “straight white man,” critics should point out how he is wrong, allow me to point out how he is wrong.

If a certain type of liberal left disagree with my argument, the reason will be because I’m a straight white man. Because of the colour of my skin, my gender and my sexuality.

I find it regressive that… tell me that my argument is wrong because of something that I said rather than “the colour of your skin is why you’re wrong”. And even if the colour of my skin is the reason why I’m wrong, how am I wrong? Tell me how.

Putting aside the moral question of giving racists greater freedoms and platforms to speak, there is a logical fallacy in Walker’s argument.

If your opinion is that the colour of your skin makes you superior to me because of the colour of my skin, you should be able to say because then I can argue against you.

The idea that you can debate someone out of being racist is naïve at best and downright stupid at worst. If that were the case then racism and other bigotry would have already been eradicated by now. It’s as if to suggest that in 2018 we still need to sit grown adults down and tell them that racism is bad.

Racism cannot be logic-ed out of someone because racism is not a logical ideology. There is no reasonable evidence behind the philosophy that any one race is superior to the others. So how can you “fact” your way through racism? And for the same reason you cannot logic someone out of racism, you cannot logic them into it. No one becomes a racist overnight. No one becomes a racist after hearing one speech. And no one is snapped out of it by one either. Racism spreads through emotional appeals, misinformation and rhetoric that scapegoats minorities for problems that have systemic and governmental roots. It’s a process that takes years and seeps into someone slowly, over time, till they’re invested deeper and deeper into the ’cause’. And the reason it spreads is because media outlets like the Daily Mail and the Sun and people like Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Katie Hopkins, Tommy Robinson spew their bile consistently and persistently without challenge. We, as a society, have helped facilitate a scenario where lies about immigration, refugees and religion have been spread daily without enough people standing up to say, “Hey, that’s wrong.” Yes, in a society with free speech they should all be allowed to say whatever they want without legal recourse, but freedom of speech is not freedom from consequence.

Even Walker understands this idea, which is why he caveats his statement with the following, “As long as you’re not inciting hatred, as long as you’re not inciting violence…” Well where does the line begin and end, Tom? Because it’s very easy to draw an arbitrary line on physical violence but where does the spread of hatred begin? Is it when Katie Hopkins brands refugees as “cockroaches… built to survive a nuclear bomb”? Or when the Prime Minister of Britain refers to humans as a “swarm of migrants”? Because if there’s anything that history has taught us, it’s that the first step to facilitate the abuse and slaughter of a group of people is to dehumanise them. To make them lesser – to make them into insects and not people.

If you say racist things, you should be called a racist. That is the consequence of your free speech. Free speech does not mean that we should accept what anyone says without challenge and without question. And the idea that the feelings of racists should be protected over the lives of the people they are trying to hurt is preposterous. If ever you wanted an example of white privilege, there it is.

I’ve now heard Walker defending racists more often than I’ve seen him “debate” racists out of their racism. That is where the “colour of his skin” seems to influence why he is wrong. Because he is immune to ever being threatened with deportation or second-class citizenship or criminalisation for who he is. That’s not to say that white men are incapable of holding a fair stance on such issues, because there are millions of straight white men who are aware of their privilege and of the marginalisation that minority groups face and how all of it interplays in society. But when, like Walker, you feign ignorance to your privilege and your power and ask for the empowerment of bigots over those they would seek to harm, then you’re guilty of being in the wrong precisely because you’re a “straight white man”.

The final part of Walker’s quote is perhaps the most misguided.

If it’s illegal for you to say it, it just bubbles up. So that’s just the general level of what surely freedom of speech should be.

The idea that racism actually arises and “bubbles up” because certain things are made illegal is yet another gross logical fallacy. Following on from Walker’s lead, perhaps tomorrow we should make theft and rape legal because if you make it illegal, it bubbles up, right?? Let’s give murderers more freedom to murder so that, when they do it, we can explain to them why it’s wrong. If we keep calling them murderers they’ll just bubble up till they can’t contain their urge to murder anymore.

Walker cites this same idea later in the interview to explain why he thinks Trump and Brexit happened. And while the symptoms he identifies are correct, his diagnosis isn’t.

People want explanations of how they got Brexit so wrong. How everyone got it so wrong. Well you’re not engaging with people. With Brexit people were so scared that they were going to vote leave: “Bigot”. No argument. No, “Why?”, no persuasion. “You’re a bigot. You’re like Nigel Farage then”. That’s how you lose. That’s how Trump got in. “If you’re thinking of voting for Trump you’re a sexist. You’re a misogynist. You want to feel women up because he does”. Not going, “What is it about him you’re thinking of voting for?” You just get, “You’re a bigot”.

Yes, just brazenly calling people bigots is bad. No one was ever convinced by being insulted. That shouldn’t need to be said. And yes, the reason that the media and political establishment and ‘left-wingers’ were so wrong about Brexit and then Trump is because they didn’t engage with people and they were out of touch. But what they were actually out of touch with was just how much bigotry has become acceptable in society. What they were really out of touch with was how openly racist you can be – in the case of Brexit, with Nigel Farage standing in front of a billboard with refugees fleeing war titled ‘BREAKING POINT’ – and get away with it. What has really surprised everyone, or should have, is just how much society is/was willing to tolerate bigotry if they felt they were gaining something from it. That people were happy to blame and hate migrants for their own economic disenfranchisement or perceived lack of autonomy. How much hateful rhetoric targeting immigrants trumped any attempted dialogue of logic and sense about the benefits that immigrants bring.

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And it is all a consequence of a culture which media outlets and politicians alike have helped facilitate over many years by blaming foreigners when all else fails. By citing increased migration as the problem instead of decreased funding. By linking rising crime with rising diversity, instead of reduced policing. If ‘the establishment’ was shocked, it was by how far the monster they created had gone without them.

It was the same in the case of Trump where the reason “everyone got it so wrong” was because they underestimated just how much bigotry American people would tolerate and even condone and approve of, if it meant that they might ‘Make America Great Again’. They underestimated just how pervasive misogyny and particularly racism is in White America – even amongst white women who, despite Trump’s many gender-specific crimes, voted for him in a majority.

So yes, if political ‘experts’ were wrong in their predictions for both votes, it was because the pervasive bigotry in both countries was largely closeted. But the votes were won because that bigotry was so pervasive. If it was less closeted, it wouldn’t have changed the bigotry, only made it more commonly known and made the result of the elections less of a shock. The pundits might have gotten it right… but the result would have been the same. What we should be focusing on is how to turn back years of encouraged bigotry, not how to justify it.

In a sense, Walker is right. Now that the votes have happened, we have a better idea that these issues exist so freely. We have a better sense of the scale of the task of eradicating bigotry. But the battle will not be won by allowing hatred to be spread more easily and with less repercussions, but by challenging xenophobic, racist, homophobic, sexist, transphobic rhetoric and any other form of dialogue that seeks to make one group of people sub-human or lesser and with less rights. We must call out bigotry for what it is – bigotry. That does not mean, as Walker seems to suggest, that we must run around calling everyone a bigot. There is a difference.

Not everyone who holds a false belief is a bigot – I myself have held countless stupid ideas in my head in the past – about feminism and transgender issues for example – and probably hold plenty still that I haven’t realised. A dialogue is absolutely necessary to engage with issues. But that’s exactly why it’s important to speak up when someone is actively advocating regressive views that can damage the lives of the people it targets. We shouldn’t be afraid of hurting the feelings of people whose intent is to hurt the lives of others. And we definitely shouldn’t aid in the facilitation of people like Farage, Hopkins or Robinson in posturing themselves as victims when they, in reality, are the perpetrators.

If it wasn’t already obvious that Walker doesn’t understand the controversy around free speech, he explicitly states it himself in the interview.

And I just think it amazes me that the left aren’t really scared that the right seem to have claimed freedom of speech as their thing. The idea that Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson are the only people that are shouting about freedom of speech doesn’t prove that freedom of speech is a right-wing idea. It proves that the right have gone, “We’ll have that”. And the left are running scared. The left are scared to say that they are pro-freedom of speech because they don’t want to be branded right-wing. It’s a very, very bizarre state of affairs and it’s something I’ve learned since doing Pie that freedom of speech is a controversial topic. I find it very bizarre to me.

But what he neglects to mention, as he champions Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson as advocates of free speech, is that people like that are not interested in the free speech of society at all. They’re only interested in their own free speech. Does Katie Hopkins care about the free speech of Syrian refugees? Not in the slightest. And, I cannot emphasise this point enough but, neither of them are actually ‘fighting’ for free speech. There is absolutely nothing infringing upon their free speech in this country.  There’s no Gestapo knocking on their door. They’ve been freely speaking their minds for years and, in the case of Hopkins, have been getting actively paid by ‘news’ outlets to give these opinions. How can someone claim they don’t have free speech in that scenario!?

What they’re really after is freedom from consequence. They want to be able to call for the use of gunships against refugee boats without being called out for what they are – bigots. They don’t want people harassing them in the street or on the internet for their views, even though they themselves want to be free to harass and attack Muslim people, for example, for their beliefs. And yet, people like Walker, convincing themselves that they are champions of free speech, seem quicker to defend their right to say these things – which no one reasonable person would challenge – without ever actually condemning them. Or without sitting down to “debate” them as claims he wants to do.

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The Left are not paragons of virtue and are not always right on this or any other issue (Walker is, after all, himself a ‘leftist’) but if Walker is sensing a reluctance from the Left to cry “free speech!” every time an abhorrent commentary is made or someone like Hopkins calls for a “final solution” to the ‘Muslim problem’, it’s probably because there are some people who understand the dangers of allowing xenophobic propaganda – which is what this is – to be proliferated unchecked. I won’t resort to comparisons that lead me into Godwin’s Law territory but hopefully the parallels are already there to be seen. We shouldn’t need reminders of the dangers of consistently prejudiced propaganda.

I can only hope that Walker, as he tries to understand why it is people are so angry about this hate-rhetoric malarkey, takes the time to look at things from the perspective of the victims of racism and bigotry instead of always from the perspective of racists and bigots. He should ask the victims of the Windrush scandal what the rhetoric around migration has done for them. And if people tell Walker that it’s the colour of his skin that’s misguiding him, perhaps he will not consider it as “regressive” as he currently does. As things stand, he seems to be blind to the privilege he holds as a “straight white man” who will never be the target of attacks such as these that would make his life significantly harder. But if he needs help understanding it, then the comparison is this: Think of how egregious it feels when rich people eagerly call for the cutting of welfare and public funding, knowing it will not hurt them in the slightest (something that Jonathan Pie has stood against). That is what it feels like when people like Walker call for things to be done that affect minority groups far more than they affect him.

So, hopefully he will remember – next time he thinks of calling for ‘absolute’ freedom of speech – that he is not the one who is going to feel the repercussions of it.  And that, in reality, what the people who ask for it are after is not freedom of speech at all, but freedom from consequence. And, if we actually want to stem the tide of bigotry, we can’t let them have it.

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