Free to spread hatred

Kenan Malik ("Protect the freedom to shock", 13 August) seems to think that he is revealing some hitherto undiscovered truth when he argues that a "vibrant and diverse society" should encourage "offensive speech". John Stuart Mill said much the same nearly 150 years ago. Malik, like Mill before him, is right to argue that because an opinion causes offence is not a good reason for prohibiting it. But this does not begin to address what is at stake in the debate over free speech for fascists.

Last weekend, the police mounted a huge operation to protect a British National Party "festival of British culture" near Welshpool in Mid Wales, only a few days after the authorities had banned an anti-racist carnival initiated by the Anti-Nazi League in Burnley. The British state thus defends the civil liberties of fascists at the same time as it denies those of anti-fascists.

These realities render Malik's cliche- ridden fulminations against "liberal orthodoxy" quite irrelevant. Are we seriously supposed to regard the BNP's leader, Nick Griffin, as a daring intellectual transgressor comparable to Galileo or Darwin? Malik appears to believe that the miasma of barbarian prejudice and third-hand ideas that passes for fascist ideology occupies some refined intellectual sphere in which open-ended debates can be pursued. In reality, Nazi words serve to legitimise and encourage racist attacks, to humiliate and isolate blacks, Asians and asylum-seekers, and to build support for a politics of hatred, subordination and exclusion.

Alex Callinicos
Department of Politics, University of York

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Ulster enters the endgame