John Pilger writes in this week’s New Statesman about the threat to freedom of speech proposed by recent UK legislation, and commentary in the US. He makes an important point but fails to say strongly enough, I think, how important dissident voices are in a culture. A culture that has no approved outlet for people’s anger and frustration forces otherwise law abiding people to extremes. Very few people will take extreme action as their first course of action – only when other forms don’t work and they find that legitimate means are not available or are completely ignored. One of the powerful things about democracy is this ability to let off steam, which is what makes genuine debate and freedom of expression so important.
Yes, it gets complicated when those views are unpleasant or contradict the values that allow them to be expressed. But I’d rather have a reasoned argument with, for example, a racist or a homophobe, than find people with those views expressing them in other, more violent, ways. It’s also good to have to defend your most closely held assumptions and beliefs – it’s just possible you don’t know why you think them!