Tom Sutcliffe: Tolerance doesn't mean removing the intolerable

Social Studies: The best defence against the offensive and wrong-headed may be restrained indifference
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The Independent Online

On the face of it, Sion Owens and Kenza Drider wouldn't appear to have a lot in common. Mr Owens, in case you missed it, was the BNP candidate who decided to incinerate the Koran in a Quality Street tin, while Ms Drider is the French Muslim woman who promised to become the first to be arrested when France's new burka law came into effect. One deliberately set out to insult and enrage Muslims, the other – notionally at least – is taking action on their behalf. But they do share some things. Both of them now find themselves at odds with the authority of the state in which they live, both of them have had their unrepresentative views amplified beyond their wildest dreams, and both of them are testing the point at which private liberty comes into conflict with public good. Both of them also illuminate a fundamental error when it comes to thinking about the defence of a tolerant society.

We're yet to find out how serious the error will be. Though Sion Owens was arrested and charged with a public order offence over the weekend he learned yesterday that the CPS was withdrawing the case against him (though investigations will continue). And while Kenza Drider was detained yesterday, after wearing a burka in public, the French police insisted – surreally – that she'd been taken into custody not because she had deliberately broken the new law but because she hadn't applied for official permission to protest against it. It was almost as if someone somewhere had recognised that applying these laws might actually be counter-productive. Yes, both Mr Owens and Ms Drider are intransigent zealots. And yes, they both engage in activities which are offensive to many people. But is their offensiveness so great and so dangerous as to justify prohibition rather than scornful disregard?

To say yes, is to make the mistake of thinking that a tolerant society is best created by ensuring that no citizen ever encounters something they find intolerable. But if you believe that, tolerance effectively becomes redundant. And in any case it's quite difficult to know where to stop. Is it to be an offence against public order to burn any religious text – or just one whose followers may violently over-react? And if the latter is the case doesn't that implicitly concede the power of prohibition to violent over-reactors? By definition the tolerant lose out and the intolerant get what they want. Of course there has to be reciprocity. In yesterday's paper, my colleague Yasmin Alibhai-Brown asked this: "Will the Koran-burner be backed by libertarians, atheists and Muslim-bashers? Or will he face the same opprobrium as those Muslims who burnt Salman Rushdie's book?".

To which I would want to answer that you can be a libertarian without being a Muslim-basher and that you don't have to "back" someone to defend their right to be offensively wrong. As for The Satanic Verses – do with your copy what you will. I might find it distasteful but I'll get over it. It's only if you burn my copy, or exhort people to kill its author, that we might have a problem, and it's at that point only that the law should become involved. Similarly while I personally find burkas offensive – an insult to men and an oppression of women – there are real dangers in expecting the state to protect me from the civic duty of peaceably putting up with my neighbour's folly.

A free society, in short, isn't one in which only people we agree with are entitled to speak and argue. It's one which also protects the rights of the offensive and wrong-headed – and understands that the best defence against their folly may be restrained indifference. Ignoring Sion Owens and Kenza Drider would damage their respective causes far more than turning them into self-appointed martyrs for liberty of conscience.

Always spike a book with plant names

Steve Hely's very entertaining literary satire How I Became A Famous Novelist includes a scene in which the narrator trawls through the bestseller tables in a big American bookshop assembling a set of rules to guide the composition of his book.

These include: "Rule 1: Abandon truth" and "Rule 12: Give readers versions of themselves, infused with extra awesomeness". The rule I liked most though was his last one – "Rule 16: Include plant names" – because it rightly identified an implausible botanical exactitude as one of the affectations of the upmarket bestseller.

Then I opened up David Foster Wallace's new novel – The Pale King – and found a four-line list of plants in the very first sentence. Space precludes a full quotation but the list includes shattercane, nutgrass, jimsonweed, Creeping Charlie, muscadine, spine-cabbage and "invaginate volunteer beans", all of which are described as "gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother's soft hand on your cheek" ("Rule 7: Prose should be lyrical").

I assumed Wallace must have invented "shattercane" as a joke but it seems not, and "jimsonweed" and "Creeping Charlie" turn out to be real too. But the only results I can find for "spine-cabbage" in a Google search refer back to quotations from this passage in Wallace's novel. So, did he spike his own list with an invention as a kind of secret joke about the trope? Or was he absolutely in earnest all the way through? And if it's the latter how am I going to get my straight face back in place for the next 550 pages?