Guest post by Super__Cyan
On 11 November 2016, Jamie Foster, a solicitor had an opinion piece posted on countrysquire titled Trump, Brexit and a new Freedom. Foster begins with a critique about the left wing intelligentsia and their political correctness which was shattered by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Foster remarks that free speech is breaking bounds much to the anxiety of its guardians. Of course, Foster continues with his critique of ‘experts’ and the like, but for the sake of this post, it’s not relevant for this discussion, so let’s just skip it right?
Foster asks, does Brexit and Tump bring a new Dark Age upon us? Foster quite rightly eludes to that it is more complicated than that. He then remarks about what he perceives as the overzealous use of phrases like ‘racist, sexist, homophobe’ to anyone inadvertently stepping on a taboo, which he argues has bred contempt. Of course, ‘taboo’ is not defined in this regard, so makes it difficult to make an assessment of what Foster may have meant. And sure, blindly saying anything and everything is racist, sexist and homophobic devalues the meaning of important phrases, phrases that should never be lost or forgotten, but that all depends upon context. Foster is also right to highlight that ‘[d]iscriminating against individuals on the basis of a prejudicial reaction to a characteristic common to a group is wrong.’
This is, however, when opinions sharply diverge. Foster argues that ‘labelling people you have never met as ‘racist, sexist or homophobic’ on the basis of words that you don’t like’ also amounts to prejudicial discrimination. First of all, that depends on the words in question used, which Foster does not elaborate upon. They may not be liked because they are racist, sexist or homophobic. Secondly, it may not be the person per se that is labelled a racist, sexist or homophobe, but the choice or words used. Thirdly, if it required actually meeting someone to establish whether they are racist, sexist or homophobic, then what is even the point of the internet? Fourthly, context is key. Foster follows that ‘[i]t is a prejudicial discrimination where a human being is branded as unworthy because they have dared to say something wrong.’ Here, Foster conflates calling someone a racist, sexist or homophobe as being unworthy when that may not be the case, depending upon the meaning attached by the person making the accusation, one could argue, such an ideology is dangerous. One does not need to document the many horrors of intolerance of others to hammer this point home. Foster implicitly admits that an accusation of racism, sexism and homophobia may stem from something wrongly said. And of course, Foster does not define what ‘wrong’ means in this context, as saying something factually incorrect could constitute racism, sexism, or homophobia, as is saying something that is based on a characteristic that is generalised to a group could also be wrong i.e. all black people are criminals, all women should stay in the kitchen. The presumption, is based on a clear characteristic i.e. race and gender. This of course, also accords with Foster’s own inclination to rely on ‘prejudicial reactions.’ What we have here, is Foster trying to equate a fundamental characteristic of a person with a possible opinion of another, they are not analogous. To do so would devalue the importance of said characteristic whilst simultaneously elevating a possible opinion.
Foster further argues prejudice is important and not the target. This ignores that the target is fundamental to determining whether or not discrimination has occurred. Foster continues that it is no worse to prejudice a black person than a white person. This is correct, but Foster himself identifies the target in both instances, the black and white person and therefore is betrayed by his own logic. If one targets a person because they are white or black, this highlights the importance of consideration for the target. Not considering the importance of a target would defeat the purpose of non-discrimination laws, because to what criteria is it to be assessed that discrimination has in fact occurred?
Foster then ironically states that terms like ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ exist only to ‘to allow the user their own prejudices while condemning those of others’ therefore implying those who use the term are projecting their own prejudices. Ironic because prejudice can be inferred from such a statement where Foster himself earlier notes ‘[a]ny chance of persuading them to a different view is lost.’ If one has already formed a view that words such as ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ are used for projection, then any chance of persuading them to a different view is equally lost. Furthermore, these prejudices are of course, not defined. There is no attempt to discern genuinely calling out racism, sexism and homophobia from the potential of it being used overzealously and carelessly. Foster calls for the challenging of prejudice, but not to fall prey to dehumanising those guilty of it. This sounds a lot like suggesting that one should not call someone racist, sexist or homophobic, if and when they are, whilst also ignoring the fact that calling people racist, sexist and homophobic can be the beginning of the challenge. Sometimes this can be followed by an explanation as to why it is believed what was said was racist, sexist or homophobic ‘this is x because…’, sometimes this may not be necessary.
Foster argues, tolerance is the willingness to put up with things we do not like. Sure, British weather can be unpredictably awful at times, and I deal with it because there is nothing I can do about it, bar moving. But putting up with things that someone does not like is not the same as expecting one to tolerate discrimination, because discrimination is discrimination irrespective of whether it is liked or not. Foster argues that discrimination ‘is a valuable tool that allows us to distinguish between that which is good and useful and that which isn’t.’ But that entirely depends upon the discriminatory measure at hand, and what is defined as ‘good’ and ‘useful.’ Foster highlights that being indiscriminate used to be frowned upon. But guess what? Not only can this still be frowned upon, in some instances it can be illegal. Foster continues that we should not confuse discrimination with prejudice, whilst also maintaining that prejudicial discrimination is wrong. This fails to acknowledge that discrimination need not be prejudicial to be wrong, all that is required is a difference in treatment of those in an analogous situation without objective justification.
Foster makes note that we should tolerate what is lawful and refuse to tolerate what is not. Then I suggest it is important to consider the law on this matter. There are various forms of non-discrimination laws set forth by the European Union (EU) and the Council of Europe (CoE). But because we are supposed to be leaving the EU, it is useful to just consider discrimination from the perspective of the CoE, namely Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which states that:
The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this European Convention on Human Rights shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.
Article 14 is not a standalone right, and can only be utilised when in conjunction with another Convention Right. But it does create a non exhaustive list of characteristics that can be discriminated against, in particular it is noted that ‘political or other opinion’ can indeed be discriminated upon. The Handbook on European non-discrimination law highlights that this may be ‘where a particular conviction is held by an individual but it does not satisfy the requirements of being a ‘religion or belief’’ (p117). This seems to equate the political opinion for the purposes of Article 14 to be on a similar level of religion or belief, not just an ‘I like coffee’ opinion. It was further suggested that:
As with other areas of the ECHR, ‘political or other opinion’ is protected in its own right through the right to freedom of expression under Article 10, and from the case-law in this area it is possible to gain an appreciation of what may be covered by this ground. In practice it would seem that where an alleged victim feels that there has been differential treatment on this basis, it is more likely that the ECtHR would simply examine the claim under Article 10. (p.117).
And so it begins to unravel that this may not even be a discrimination issue at all, but one of freedom of expression. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Handyside v. United Kingdom noted that:
Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of such a society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every man. Subject to paragraph 2 of Article 10 (art. 10-2), it is applicable not only to “information” or “ideas” that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no “democratic society”. This means, amongst other things, that every “formality”, “condition”, “restriction” or “penalty” imposed in this sphere must be proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued. (para 49).
And so from the ECtHR’s case law, it is clear that freedom of expression can allow us to be utter shits, but this can be subject to limitations, depending upon the manner to which we are utter shits. In Erbakan v. Turkey (in French) the ECtHR held that:
…[T]olerance and respect for the equal dignity of all human beings constitute the foundations of a democratic, pluralistic society. That being so, as a matter of principle it may be considered necessary in certain democratic societies to sanction or even prevent all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred based on intolerance…(para 56).
In the ECtHR’s admissibility decision in Seurot v. France (in French) it was maintained that:
[T]here is no doubt that any remark directed against the Convention’s underlying values would be removed from the protection of Article 10 [freedom of expression] by Article 17 [prohibition of abuse of rights].
Such intolerance and exclusion from Article 10 includes anti-Semitism, racial hate, homophobia etc. In essence, what the ECtHR are saying is that you cannot be a racist or say racist things, and then cry about it afterwards provided that the consequences are proportionate.
What about calling out racism? Is this problematic? It wouldn’t seem so. The case of Jersild v. Denmark was an ECtHR Grand Chamber (GC) case that concerned a journalist who had made a documentary which contained abusive opinions towards immigrants and ethnic groups from young people calling themselves the ‘Greenjackets.’ The journalist was convicted of aiding and abetting the dissemination of racist remarks. The journalist alleged a breach of Article 10. The GC emphasised that it was ‘particularly conscious of the vital importance of combating racial discrimination in all its forms and manifestations’ (para 30). The GC noted that the feature sought to ‘expose, analyse and explain this particular group of youths, limited and frustrated by their social situation, with criminal records and violent attitudes’ and ‘thus dealing with specific aspects of a matter that already then was of great public concern’ (para 33). The GC also noted that the journalist rebutted some of the racist statements although not explicitly ‘recall[ing] the immorality, dangers and unlawfulness of the promotion of racial hatred and of ideas of superiority of one race’ (para 34). In the end, the GC found a violation of Article 10 (para 37). This clearly demonstrates that challenging racism is protected by the same freedom of expression Foster was adamantly advocating for at the beginning of his article. Foster then, ironically gradually moves onto attacking the very thing he sought to defend. It’s ok to say things that are wrong or comment on the taboo, but you shouldn’t be called a racist, sexist, homophobe even if those sentiments ring true because they dehumanise the person making the comment?
Under UK law under the Equality Act 2010, there are provisions of non-discrimination; one notably is ‘philosophical belief.’ In Olivier v Department for Work and Pensions ET/1701407/2013 it was noted by the Employment Appeal Tribunal that a philosophical belief must be a ‘belief, not an opinion or viewpoint’ which ‘must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.’ This poses two problems for Foster’s analysis. First of all, if it is an opinion i.e. vote Trump, vote Brexit, then it is not a characteristic that can be discriminated against. Secondly, if that opinion is a racist, sexist, or homophobic one, it cannot be regarded as worthy of respect, or compatible with the fundamental rights of others, and therefore, again, cannot be discriminated against.
Of course, calling out racism is subject to the laws of defamation and libel for example if such calling out does not ring true as Frankie Boyle demonstrated in 2012. However, across the pond in France, Marie Le Pen, leader of the French National Party, on two occasions did not have similar successes when called a ‘fascist.’
Racism, sexism, homophobia are the objects of discrimination, never the subjects to it. And when one of the prominent figures for leaving the EU feels that race discrimination laws should be scrapped, refused to support same sex marriage and supported its discrimination, it creates an association based on intolerance. This is not to quantify how many ‘racist, sexist, and homophobic’ votes Trump or leaving the EU gained, but to highlight the futility in ignoring that it did pander to those ideologies. Calling someone racist, sexist or homophobe can be correct at best, or ignorant, offensive and defamatory at worst, but never discriminatory.
Finally, Foster notes that people should put down their labels and sanctimony, and talk, because ‘It’s good to talk.’ In response to this it is stressed that these labels exist for a reason, a good talk cannot begin by controlling the narrative as to deny their existence and importance. These labels are important, it’s the exercise of those labels where a good talk can only begin.