Sunday, 19 February 2012

Speaking out for the rights of Morons

One of my favourite lines, from a film full of them, is spoken by Tom Cruise as a young naval lawyer in A few good men: ‘my client's a moron but that's not against the law.’

Tom Cruise as Lieutenant Kaffee: no moron he
Being a moron certainly isn’t against the law, and never should be, and not just because a lot of lawmakers would be in gaol themselves if it were. The prison population would explode to levels that would make today’s overcrowding seem trivial. And the worst of it: no-one would be immune. I like to think of myself as not a moron, but I wouldn’t be the judge; the thought that someone else could decide whether my ideas were sensible enough to justify my being left in freedom is one I'm not especially comfortable with.

All this came to mind when I saw that Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the ugly Front National ultra-right wing party in France, had lost his appeal against a conviction for denying crimes against humanity. The French Senate recently passed legislation banning denial of Turkish genocide against Armenians. Holocaust denial is a crime in numerous countries, most notably Germany.

Le Pen, on the other hand...
There’s no doubt that few people deserve gaol as much as Le Pen (not that he’s likely ever to go there), but in his cases it would be for demagoguery and the attempt to legitimise racism, not for his dotty opinions. His views on the extent and depth of the holocaust and other Nazi era crimes against humanity strike me as completely the wrong issues on which to attack him.

After all, what is holocaust denial when it comes down to it? I’m certain that Le Pen would accept, say, that several thousand Protestants were massacred in Paris in 1572. And yet the evidence for the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre is far less extensive and detailed than for the Holocaust. If we’re prepared to accept the evidence of the earlier crime, how can one explain the refusal to accept the much greater evidence of the later one? Except, that is, by assuming that the person doing the denying is, to use Tom Cruise’s technical term, a moron.

That, I repeat, shouldn’t be against the law. In fact, the law should get out of our heads. It shouldn’t be pronouncing on what we think but only on what we do. To take a completely different matter, I’m not convinced that the rule of the Umayyad dynasty, for example, would inspire many of us these days to want to bring it back. If others, however, believe in a revival of the Moslem Caliphate, I see no reason why they should not say so, or even debate the use of violence to achieve the aim: it could be argued that a debate on what is or is not legitimate violence is overdue. It might have been useful before Coalition forces invaded Iraq.

If, however, those who seek a new Caliphate decide to take their use of free speech to the point of inciting others to actual violence here and now, of neogiating the purchase of arms for that purpose, or of conspiring with others to wreak violence on the rest of us, then they have stepped beyond what the law should tolerate. Then it should intervene.

In other words, the law should prevent certain actions, even if they are only planned actions. It should not attempt to prohibit thoughts, or the open expression of those thoughts. However bizarre and ill-founded they are. 

Let’s remember: merely being a moron may be offensive, but it should never be regarded as an an offence. 

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