Moral fog on the Tyne

By George Caffrey

On 19th September, Paul Gascoigne changed his plea to guilty on the charge of ‘racially aggravated abuse’. The charge refers to a ‘joke’ Gascoigne made on 30th Nov. 2015 in which he said to his black security guard, “Can you smile so I can see you?” He was fined £1,000 and ordered to pay the victim of his crime £1,000 also.

I don’t intend to be drawn into discussing whether Gascoigne’s comment ought to qualify as ‘racially aggravated abuse’ (although if it does, it no doubt lies toward the mild end of the spectrum.) I will however say: this is a bad law. I will also say that racially aggravated abuse is a bad thing. These two statements are not mutually exclusive. This conviction, however, illustrates how far down a path which makes these two things seem contradictory we are. Laws that police people’s thoughts, attitudes and words are on the increase. For example, police forces in the UK are expanding existing ‘hate laws’ to include misogyny as a crime.  The simple fact is: the law is not there to reflect morality. If you think that it should, I suggest you investigate how well this turned out for the citizens of the Soviet Union, or, if you would prefer a modern day example, go and live in Saudi Arabia or Iran. In these societies, state-sponsored morality was/is imposed through the law. We must not take this direction; it is the route towards tyranny.

The purpose of the rule of law is simple; to protect the rights of all the individual citizens who live under them. The question at hand in this case is: should one of those rights be the right not to have your feelings hurt? The answer to this must be no. Some ideas are repellent and undoubtedly racism falls into this category. I am also not calling into question the impact that racist abuse can have on a person: the victim of Gascoigne’s remark said he had cried and had been unable to work after it. And it is not up to me to tell people how they should react to words; we all have the right to feel offended, outraged and upset by them. In a free society however, we should not have the right to insist that no one make comments that make us feel offended, outraged or upset. Laws that protect this right, elevate our feelings to having a privileged legal status. It is this kind of thinking that is making the exchange and discussion of ideas so toxic. It is no longer the case that someone who thinks or says something (or at least something you find) egregious is ill-informed, an idiot, a bad person, or any combination of these. Now, they are a criminal and need to be stopped. The principle that transgressing our sensitivities is a crime is a dangerous and consequential one.

For some, it will be important here that I repeat that I recognise the seriousness of racism. I agree with District Judge Graham Wilkinson when he said in his case summary:

“It’s important that we, as a multicultural, multiracial society, challenge racist behaviour in all its forms.”

Of course he is right. It is with the sentence that preceded this one that I must take issue:

“I applaud the Crown Prosecution Service for bringing this matter to court.”

Racism needs to be challenged and defeated. But this needs to be done by us: the people, not the government. Judge Wilkinson’s statement articulates how this case is a clear example of the insidious move towards the mind-set that the government is responsible for everything. Duties such as challenging racists’ ideas and words should fall to individuals and the communities they make up. This is not a job we should be passing on to the state. We must take back responsibility for ourselves and our communities and not make the lazy and ultimately unproductive step of criminalizing those whose views don’t fall into line with ours.

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