Howard Jacobson: Our standing up for minorities is nothing if it's merely special pleading

Can we censure people for saying hateful things in language that is itself hateful?

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Here are a number of statements to which you might or might not want to give your assent.

Immigrants are taking the jobs of the British white working classes and are given priority when it comes to housing and other benefits; the majority of prostitutes working in this country do so against their will, at least 25,000 of them having been trafficked from Moldavia, or is it Moldova; gay so-called marriages are not the happy-ever-after unions they are cracked up to be, though don't ask me who cracks them up to be; the Holocaust was a hoax perpetrated to facilitate the expropriation of Arab land; the BNP is an illegal fascist party which ought not to be given a moment's airtime; Jews control the media.

My guess is that you will bin most of these but not quite all. I am not asking for a show of hands. Enough to acknowledge that when it comes to having attitudes to the beliefs and lifestyles of other people we are essentially the same creatures of mistrust and fear we were before there was such a thing as liberalism. Or, to put it another way, it's always the Dark Ages in someone's mind.

An elderly person of my acquaintance, let's call him Colin, confided his concerns to me as we sat talking on a park bench together last week – I am, reader, often to be found on park benches these days – in the matter of the article the Daily Mail journalist Jan Moir had written about the death of Stephen Gately. "Yeah, a piece she ought to have thought twice about before writing, let alone publishing," I agreed. But that wasn't what bothered Colin. What bothered Colin was the virulence of those who had attacked her. "After all," he whispered, looking around, "she was only saying what we all suspected."

"I think this is one to be subjected to the Jew test," I said. As he wasn't Jewish I had to explain to him what the Jew test is. The Jew test is what one Jew tells another to apply when he is falling victim to a prejudice he wouldn't approve if the object of that prejudice were Jews.

Colin, whose attention had wandered, was surprised to hear there were Jewish homosexuals. I told him I barely knew any other kind, but that wasn't my point. My point was that the suspicions he felt Jan Moir had been voicing were of a sort everybody harbours when it comes to groups they know little about, and for that reason fear. I didn't deny that my first thought, too, when I read of the death of a pop singer I had never heard of, in circumstances I was perfectly prepared to believe were sleazy, was that it was all down to sex, drugs, rock and roll, and the other thing. But it was precisely my readiness to think it that told me not to. Never trust a first thought when it bears on how others live. Particularly when it is clearly demonstrable that in all essentials they live no differently to us.

"The dark side of gay civil unions, Colin? Don't make me laugh. What about the five failed heterosexual marriages between us?"

"Six," he said, letting me know that his latest was in trouble. And he 82, abstemious and straight.

"There you are, then," I said, as sympathetically as I could manage. Not, I added, returning to my theme, that I was offering myself as a paragon of tolerance. When it came to the BNP, for example, my second thoughts were if anything more violent than my first.

"So shouldn't you be applying the Jew test to them?" Colin wondered. "I think the BNP by its nature," I said, "eludes the Jew test. And besides, I doubt that what I feel about it can be called prejudice. I judge Griffin by his own words. Oh, and did you know he went to Downing College, Cambridge, like me. Though you don't often see his picture in the alumni newsletter."

My friend was not aware of the Downing College connection, but wondered if that made Griffin and me blood brothers – a speculation that required no response. He also wanted to know if refusing Griffin the Jew test meant that I thought he and his party shouldn't be given airtime. This is not a question I find it easy to decide. No they shouldn't, yes they should, is more or less where I come out. Let them be damned by their own mouths is a powerful argument. The only trouble is it doesn't work. The moment a demagogue speaks, a million of the aggrieved and the gullible raise their arms in their air and start buying boots. We will know later whether it was a good idea to put the BNP on telly, and by then it might be too late. Is that not the lesson of history? That we should have strangled them all – Stalin, Hitler, Franco, Pol Pot – at birth? And as for how we decide who has a right to a public platform or not, we just decide. Not you, Sonny Jim. But then again...

Well, it seemed rum to Colin that the leader of a bunch of fascists could go on Question Time while a Daily Mail journalist couldn't write a think-piece about the gay lifestyle without suffering an orchestrated campaign of abuse. I knew nothing of any campaign, I said. The like-minded will always pipe up as one when they have to, just as crocuses show their snouts together in early spring. They need no orchestrating. It's a climate thing. But I agreed about the vicious tenor of the criticism. Stephen Fry, I gathered, had twittered words to the effect that Jan Moir was a repulsive nobody writing in a paper nobody of any decency would be seen dead with.

Where the sense is in censuring somebody for saying hateful things in language that is itself hateful I do not see. If the crime of homophobia is that it is a loathing for difference, expressed in an unacceptably contemptuous or violent manner, then you had better be careful in what manner you stigmatise it. Dailymailophobia might not be an offence but Dailymailreaderophobia most certainly is.

Our standing up for minorities is nothing if it's merely special pleading. It must mean to humanise us generally. Step by step we go from not hating Jews and Gypsies to not hating anybody. You cannot oppose intolerance of X with one breath and then glory in your own intolerance of Y with another. It's all or nothing.

So where does that leave throttling the BNP? Reader, there is an exception to every rule.

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