Let me first say I didn’t want to write this post. But that pesky thing in my head that urges me to switch laundry loads and to avoid throwing full cans of beer at David Beckham hasn’t let up since I first read the news. So here goes, conscience, I hope you’re happy.
I don’t feel comfortable with the arrest by police of 21 year-old Welsh bell-end and complete and utter waste of space Liam Stacey for the crime of posting some appalling racist abuse about Fabrice Muamba on Twitter.
In case you don’t know who Stacey is (you really shouldn’t), here’s his story. As what usually happens in the face of an awful tragedy such as that which befell Fabrice Muamba on Saturday, people took to social media to express both their shock and support for the player, his family, the staff at the London chest hospital.
But some Tweeters out of lurid curiosity went out in deliberate search for the type of person who would post abusive messages about said event, and one in particular—Liam Stacey—was happy to oblige. I won’t link to his bile; it’s the Internet, so if you really want to read it, you know what to do. I will simply say that Liam did not have many followers, and the world would not know him had several hundreds of thousands of Twitter users not been on the deliberate look-out for the type of human being who would write what he wrote, and willing to RT it for a mass audience. They, of course, are not deemed complicit by the powers-that-be, although one wonders why not under the UK’s stringent anti- hate speech laws.
I don’t want to hash out a long legal argument over the limits of free speech in the face of bigotry (Wikipedia, as ever, lays the arguments on either side quite succinctly). I’m a writer (no really), so I tend to side with Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s famous dictum: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I don’t have any personal sympathy with the man (who would?), but I don’t think it’s healthy for a modern democracy to criminalize speech, which is merely kinetic thought.
The use of such laws is clearly meant to be a deterrent, but any time the state can prosecute you for expressing what you think, no matter how vile, it does little to address the core problem: bigotry itself. Rather it gives the illusion that the state will take care of it, so you just keep calm and carry on. But bigotry is a problem of culture, not the law. Once you criminalize a belief or a thought, you give it the dubious honour of being ‘subversive.’ You don’t allow a forum for the haters to expose themselves, or the means for a culture to address the problem from the inside out.
So the state have made their example of Stacey, and the public is satisfied. Few will bother to question the effectiveness of hate speech laws, or their place within a healthy democracy. But the next time tragedy strikes there will be another arsehole on Twitter to take his place, and, perhaps more sadly, thousands more who will oblige them by seeking out their bile and displaying it to the world.