Monday, January 18, 2016

Yet another modest proposal ...

(Warning - this post may contain irony)

It seems that there is a great reluctance on the part of some people to accept the suggestion that other people should have the right to express ideas they think are offensive or barmy.

In a disappointing proportion of Universities, students demand "safe spaces" which appears to mean that their minds should be safe from coming into contact with ideas they don't like.

I have to say to those people that, if you can't handle ideas you find offensive and wish to be protected from coming into contact with them, a University is not the right place for you.

Since so many people believe such a host of utterly different things, and many of them find so many completely opposed ideas offensive, it is logically certain that there must be millions of people for whom some ideas they find offensive are, in fact, the literal truth.

And banning the expression of even the most offensive human idea tends to have unfortunate consequences. When the German Jewish poet and playright Heinrich Heine, predicted nearly 200 years ago that  “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen" (Those who begin by burning books will end by burning people,) there are many other cases besides what was to happen to the Jews of Germany to prove him right.

In my student days the idea of "No platform for racists and fascists" led one college student union to ban their Jewish society in the name of anti-racism (because they also had a policy alleging that "Zionism = racism.") Last year there was an decision, ultimately overturned, to ban a human rights activist from an organisation for ex-Muslims from speaking to a university Atheist society on trumped-up and ridiculous grounds that she might pose a threat to public order.

And speaking of things that are "Trumped up" and ridiculous, a House of Commons committee held a debate today on whether to ban Donald Trump from entering the UK because enough people signed a petition to require such a debate.

As I think it is actually a good thing to have a rule which says that when a petition gets a certain level of support MPs should automatically debate it, and more than half a million signed the petition trying to bar The Donald from coming to the UK, I am not in a position to accuse MPs of a waste of parliamentary time for holding such a debate.

But, frankly, his description of the debate as "ridiculous" is about the only thing Donald Trump has said in the past year or so which I have agreed with. As was pointed out several times in today's debate, banning him for wanting to ban people would have been a ludicrous decision.

This is a video record of the debate, noteworthy mainly for the range of interesting insults hurled at Donald Trump (my favourite was from Victoria Atkins MP who said her constituents would consider him a "Wazzock") though there were a few very good contributions.



Mind you, if saying something stupid is a bar to being allowed to be in the UK, there are other people besides Donald Trump who should be considered. The Leader of the Opposition is perhaps one of the few people in the world to demonstrate even more spectacular stupidity than The Donald has.

And perhaps, that suggests we could borrow an idea from ancient history which would create a safety valve, allowing people to propose the exile of those who are considered a threat to the security of the people but subject to democratic constraints.

That is the ancient Greek practice of Ostracism.

Every year the people of Athens were asked in their assembly whether they wished to hold an Ostracism. If the answer was yes, a vote was held two months later. All citizens could write the name on an "ostrakon" (they used pottery shards as ballot papers) of a person they wanted to exile. Provided a minimum quorum of votes were cast in total or cast for the person with most votes, the individual whom the largest number of their fellow citizens voted to exile had to leave the country for ten years.

So, yet another modest proposal: let us consider re-introducing the Athenian practice of Ostracism. If there was a vote to hold an Ostracism that year, electors could vote each year on whether they would most like to encourage Piers Morgan to remain in the US, or send Katie Hopkins for a long holiday abroad. I'm sure at least 80% of Labour MPs would, provided it was a secret ballot, be delighted to take the opportunity to vote to ostracise Jeremy Corbyn. It might be a very popular move ...


Being serious again, the most interesting thing about the practice of ostracism is that although it was on the statute book of the Athenian republic for at least two centuries, it was only used in the fifth century BC. The last known ostracism was in 403 BC: but during the fourth century BC, although the practice remained law, and the option to hold an ostracism was put to the assembly each law, they always responded after 403BC that they did not wish to hold one.

Perhaps the people of Athens had learned a lesson: perhaps those modern British people who want to ban speakers they disagree with should learn the same lesson.

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