Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and particularly important to us writers. But the government in Britain, as elsewhere in the world, is increasingly legislating to restrict this freedom.
It began with the idea of making offending someone a criminal offence. When the repressive and largely unenforced blasphemy law was finally abolished in 2008, after 140 years of campaigning by the National Secular Society, religious groups began looking for other laws to protect their organisations and ideologies from criticism. There are a number of ill-thought-out bills from modern times, such as Section 5 of the Public Order Act, which criminalise doing or saying anything that might offend someone. The rise of the use of ‘offence’ laws has seen a corresponding increase in the capacity of people to be offended by anything that doesn’t suit them (usually expressed in language that exactly matches that of the legislation – just in case the courts are in any doubt).
The Scottish government have just pushed through a law criminalising hate speech. They were warned by a number of prominent campaigning groups (including some religious organisations) that it will have a severe detrimental effect on freedom of expression. Under great pressure, they accepted some amendments. The new law does abolish the blasphemy law in Scotland, so that’s good. But despite the amendments, it still has the potential to restrict freedom of expression, and thereby exempt organisations and ideas from criticism.
And now, taking this assault on our freedoms still further, comes the planned law against misogyny. Defined in my OED as ‘hatred of women’ (and by feminist campaigners as ‘hatred of women by men’), I would hope we can all agree it isn’t conducive to the free and fair society most of us crave. But hatred is not an action, but a state of mind, and to criminalise a state of mind is both a very foolish, and at the same time, very dangerous thing to do. It’s an unnecessary law, because gender is already a protected characteristic under existing equality legislation, along with race and sexual orientation (with many other characteristics currently being considered for inclusion). The existing legislation protects us against harmful actions, rather than trying to criminalise the animosity of those who might wish to harm us.
Of course the proposed new law is by definition discriminatory – how can you legislate to protect people of a particular gender, but not other genders, without being so? But it also has frightening implications for freedom of expression. The old quote about hating someone’s opinion, but defending their right to express it, is highly relevant here. An obnoxious opinion expressed openly can be challenged openly. Criminalise that opinion and you push it underground where, hidden away like the roots of bindweed covered with plastic membrane, it will develop and multiply, ready to burst out into growth at some point in the future.
What will it mean for us writers; this proposed new law? If I write a misogynistic character into one of my stories, even though I might be portraying them as the bad guy, will I be breaking the law? And what about existing books that contain misogynistic ideas or characters? Will they run contrary to the law? In which case, we’ll have no choice but to burn them. I can’t help thinking that wasn’t what the millions of men who suffered and died in the last great war were fighting for…