Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Trial for racism

This morning a story was reported on BBC Breakfast casually and without comment. Though noteworthy, they must have seen it as the most natural thing in the world: John Galliano will stand trial in Paris today on charges of racism.

Had he been burning crosses in the gardens of Parisian suburbs? Had he been desecrating graves? Had he been walking about, face covered, violently attacking those he disapproves of? Had he even been inciting others to violence?

No, it's nothing you might traditionally think of as a crime. As CBC reports,
Prosecutors have said Galliano could face up to six months in prison and $31,000 US in fines if convicted of "public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity."
Six months in prison for public insults. Six months in prison for causing offence.

Perhaps he will be let off, but the frightening thing here is that the law exists and prosecutors are prepared to use it.

Couldn't happen here? Consider this, as reported in The Guardian:
[Nick] Griffin was given a suspended prison sentence in 1998 after being convicted of "publishing or distributing racially ­inflammatory written material", an offence under the 1986 Public Order Act
In 2005, as BNP leader, he was charged again
accused of using words or behaviour intended or likely to stir up racial hatred.
The trial opened in 2006, as reported by The Guardian:
Opening the prosecution's case, Rodney Jameson QC said that both of the accused had tried to win BNP votes by creating a "nightmare vision" of Asians carrying out attacks on white people.

Mr Jameson said: "The prosecution allege that each of the six speeches ... included words which were threatening, abusive and insulting towards, in particular, people of Asian ethnicity. Such words were used with the intention of stirring up racial hatred."
I hate the Labour party. I hate the trade unions. I hate the EU. There are plenty on the Left who openly declare their hatred for Margaret Thatcher, Tories, toffs, and bankers. Some even chanted "off with their heads" to Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. Unlike Galliano and Griffin, they backed up their words with actual acts of violence.

But should 'hate' itself be illegal? What is 'hate', on its own, but a poisonous emotion that affects the one who holds it? Is 'racial hatred' really so different that it deserves special treatment by the law.

As Tom Paine wrote recently
A Jew, a German and two Poles are among the ten best people I have ever met. There are two Jews, three Germans and a Pole among the ten worst. From this, admittedly anecdotal, evidence I have concluded that peoples of all nations, tribes and religions come in all ethical flavours. That's why racism is so stupid as to be not worth worrying about. People who have no better criteria than ethnicity for ranking themselves against the rest of humanity are cretins.
I couldn't agree more. We should pity racists, not prosecute them.

Do we really want to live in a society where holding certain opinions, or expressing them, is punishable by prison. Can we call such a society free?

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