Saturday, 6 January 2007

Shut it, Ana! (You're only free if you're not wrong)

The greatest threats to freedom of speech do not come in edicts aimed at preventing public protests against our government or righteous expressions of belief.

This may seem surprising, at a time when our Government has banned public protests near parliament and frequently threatens laws that might criminalize criticism of religious beliefs or practices that are affronts to liberty. Yet the very fact that these are blatant abuses of power, flagrant violations of ancient rights, make them difficult and controversial. The majority of the public probably opposes bans on public protests – die-hard supporters of the Iraq War would undoubtedly argue that the freedom of a million protesters to march up Whitehall demanding that the war not be fought was the very freedom that they wanted to spread to Iraq.

The real threats to freedom of speech come not from bans of righteous and sympathetic causes such as public protest, investigative journalism or cultural debate. Rather, freedom of expression is undermined at its weakest point: the unsympathetic and quite controversial areas where people of conscience genuinely worry about threats to society and the suffering of individuals.

I have discussed before the importance of allowing holocaust deniers to argue their case even though it insults the victims of Nazism and might perhaps fuel neo-fascism. Another example of the trend is in the news today: a call for the banning of so called “Ana/Mia” websites aimed at sufferers of Anorexia and Bulimia.

There are many websites aimed at sufferers of Anorexia and Bulimia, from the informative through support sites through to group networks. It is these last that are causing concern. Sites using phrases like “I love you to the bones” are viewed by some as glorifying the disease; others enable sufferers to swap hints and tips. Many view these as encouraging the syndrome and thus inciting self-harm. The typical reaction is – as always – to ban them.

There are many problems involved here. The first is a straight-forward legal one; as long as no crime is being broken, the Government probably has no legal right to ban them. Some are being censored already, probably by internet service providers and search engines that have been leant on by pressure groups opposed to the sites (see, for example, the Pro Ana Mia Website & Forum).

But a far greater problem is the consequences of such a ban. If we create a society whereby whatever we consider to be abhorrent and disgusting we ban, we are in effect abrogating other people freedom to be different. If we ban even the discussion of such issues, we create a moralistic society that seeks to “look into men’s souls” and dictate to them what they may think, feel or say.

The danger here comes from the very fact that most of us probably sympathise with the emotions lying behind the calls for censorship. I am appalled that people might glorify self-harm, or terrorism or paedophilia or any number of other crimes. But there is a fundamental difference between discussing a subject – even approving of it – and practicing it, or inciting others to do so. Not being a lawyer I can only guess that incitement to cause self-harm is as much a crime as incitement to commit violence upon others. But swapping hints and tips or providing non-condemnatory support for sufferers is a far cry from encouraging others into the condition: teaching somebody to hotwire a car is not necessarily an incitement to steal one, even if most of us cannot imagine what use such a skill could be except for criminal purposes. Similarly, the Samaritans are not encouraging suicide by providing confidential help and support to those who feel suicidal.

There are plenty of other reasons why a ban would be both unwise and unenforceable. It would be difficult to draw the line between support and incitement, or between serious debate and malicious encouragement. It may be (indeed probably is) the case that those who glorify and encourage sufferers are themselves sufferers, so that we would be making double-victims of those who are already sick. Furthermore, we would drive them underground – the exchange of information would not be eliminated, but it would become clandestine, just as the exchange of child pornography is facilitated by the internet even though it is illegal (which argument should not be taken to suggest that the latter should therefore not be banned – the market clearly fuels the abuse of children which is in itself a crime). Moreover, as the internet is a space without borders (this being an innate part of its nature) a UK ban would merely see these sites migrate abroad. A ban would not work.

But the fact that a ban would not be effective is beside the point. We should not ban these sites because this would be the thin end of the wedge. What would follow would be an ever-more prescriptive approach to information, enforced by an ever-more powerful state censor. Where today we would ban sites for anorexics and drug users, tomorrow we would ban sites for fox hunters, and after them for smokers (as guilty of self-harm as any anorexic). Richard Dawkins would ban religions and others would ban gambling. We would be creating the paternalist-progressive state where individuals are protected from themselves and their own bad choices. Before it was over liberty would be curtailed as individuals were only able to discuss that which society viewed as wholesome. And after that we would have to do what was wholesome.

This is not just an absurd fantasy. German families in the 1930s were cajoled to go on country walks together in matching beige uniforms; homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967. This is not the society we want. What little benefit there is to sufferers of tragic illnesses will be as nothing compared to the loss of freedom which will follow. We must learn to allow people to practice – and to share – their freedom, even if they are free to be wrong.

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