Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Tolerance and diversity

"Diversity" is a much abused word. In its modern political sense it has come to mean anything but. Diversity of appearance, diversity defined as a number of officially-defined, externally-validated "characteristics" is to be tolerated, celebrated and legally enforced. Diversity of thought and opinion, on the other hand, attracts suspicion and censure, sometimes official, often moral, always self-righteous. Intolerance of dissent has become the hallmark of a "diverse" society.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the matter of free speech. John Stuart Mill wrote that "all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility." Today lip-service is paid to the principle of free speech but belief in its value can be remarkably shallow. It is enough for a group or its self-appointed representatives to claim offence for propopents of an unfashionable, minority or merely controversial opinion to be thrown onto the defensive. Censors invariably begin their remarks with the pat phrase "I believe in free speech, but..." If you believe in "free speech, but", you don't believe in free speech. Or as Mill also wrote,

Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being "pushed to an extreme", not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.

And increasingly, it is not merely in "extreme" cases - overt racism, say, or Holocaust denial - that opponents of free speech have successfully closed down debate, prevented people from speaking and discussing in public ideas with which campaigners happen not to agree. Merely offending - or being held to offend - against the sacred principle of "diversity" is enough.

Two recent cases. Last month, Christian Concern and the World Congress of Families wished to hold a mini-conference on the subject of marriage (and in opposition to government plans to "redefine" marriage so as to allow same-sex couples to contract civil marriages). Originally they had booked the Law Society as a venue. A similar event went ahead on the same premises last year without incident. This year, however, the Law Society cancelled the booking, citing "diversity" considerations. Even though one of the speakers was a high court judge, the venue decreed that the conference was "contrary to our diversity policy, espousing as it does an ethos which is opposed to same sex marriage."

The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre then agreed to host the event. But this booking, too, was cancelled the day before the conference was due to take place, leaving the organisers scrabbling around to find somewhere to meet.

Next it was announced that a group of radical feminists planned to hold a conference at Conway Hall in London, the spiritual home of British humanism. The prospect caused great offence to transsexual activists and their allies, for two main reasons. First, because attendance was to be limited to "women born and living as women", thus excluding transsexuals of both genders. And secondly, because one of the speakers announced was Sheila Jeffries, an Australian academic who has been highly critical of what she likes to call "the practice of transsexualism". According to Roz Kaveny writing for Comment is Free, Jeffries' opinion of transsexuality "constitutes hate speech".

Following a Twitter storm and heavy pressure from activists, Conway Hall first banned Jeffries from speaking at the venue and then cancelled the booking altogether on the grounds that the RadFem organisers refused to "allow access to all". The venue cited both its own "ethos regarding issues of discrimination" and fears that allowing the conference to proceed might breach the 2010 Equality Act.

Conway Hall was not always so censorious when it came to the political views of those using its premises. In the 1970s, such was its commitment to free speech that it hosted meetings of the National Front (the casually violent predecessor of the BNP) and the Paedophile Information Exchange.

In both recent cases, venues have banned conferences in which like-minded people planned to come together to discuss issues of public importance, apparently because the opinions to be aired and shared offended against the current orthodoxy. Worryingly, in both cases the venues invoked "diversity", not merely as a moral or political principle but as a legal standard that they felt themselves bound to uphold. In their view, fulfilling their duty to promote "diversity" required them to censor entirely legal speech and the enunciation of perfectly legal ideas.

There is irony, of course, in the fact that both conservative Christians and radical feminists regularly call for the censorship of things, such as porn, which for different reasons they themselves find objectionable. That they may want to ban things does not, however, mean that they themselves deserve to be banned. You do not win arguments by silencing your opponents. Nor do you demonstrate the moral superiority or superior logic of your own opinions by the loudness with which you howl down those who disagree with you.

Roz Kaveney singled out RadFem's promise that "Space will not be given to anti-feminist sentiments", which she considered "another way of saying that, on most crucial issues, the party line is predetermined and that any dissent from correct radical feminist thinking will be stigmatised and driven out." But that is to mistake the nature of a radical feminist gathering, which is by its nature a bringing-together of women whose minds are already largely made up.

A distinction may be drawn between banning someone from saying something and merely refusing to provide a venue for them to say it in. It's Christian Concern's right to argue against equal marriage rights, you might think, but it's equally the Law Society's right to assert its pro-diversity credentials by denying them access to its premises. I find that a very dangerous approach. Free speech is about far more than just a legal right to speak without being arrested: it's also about access. When free speech is denied because a public venue takes a political stance, or is afraid of being targeted by extremists, or feels it has no option under Equality law, then those who wish to speak are discriminated against no less surely than a disabled person who can't access the building or a black person subject to an illegal colour bar.

Under the Equality Act and its predecessor legislation, guest-house owners have been sued for refusing to refusing same-sex couples a double bed, on the grounds that service providers have an obligation to provide their services equally to all. Yet such an obligation does not seem to extend to conference venues when the object discrimination is not a person with "protected characteristics" but someone in possession of a currently controversial idea.

This, I think, is quite revealing. It shows a blindspot in the law. It's not just that equalities law is being interpreted in ways that can have a chilling effect on free speech. More fundamentally, it demonstrates the low position free expression now operates in the hierarchy of values, especially those values that are officially endorsed and protected. The law goes out of its way to promote and protect the most superficial type of diversity, the diversity of "characteristic", whether of race, gender or sexuality. But when it comes to diversity of opinion, you're on your own.