Jemima Lewis: Tyranny begins with self-censorship

A society that is forever biting its tongue is one that has already surrendered its freedom
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The Independent Online

"SUCCESS: Orange suspends Islamophobe!" The report on the website of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee is jubilant. "Alhamdulillah (Praise God), a vigorous campaign by Muslim activists on the MPACUK Forum has resulted in a high-profile success," it trumpets. "Mobile phone company Orange has suspended its Community Affairs Manager ... [proving] that when Muslims put the effort into simple, democratic campaigning it is Islamophobes who are on the back foot."

It seems churlish to interrupt the celebrations, but perhaps we should spare a thought for Inigo Wilson, the alleged Islamophobe at the centre of this "democratic campaign". Wilson is an Orange executive who, in his spare time, wrote what he thought was a funny piece about left-wing jargon for a website for Conservative supporters. Alas, as many a blind date veteran can testify, one person's "good sense of humour" may be another's idea of eye-watering bad taste.

Wilson's "Lefty Lexicon" is chiefly a broadside against the kind of euphemistic, insincere language that infests modern discourse - and of which, as a "community affairs manager" for a telecommunications company, he has doubtless had a gut full. Thus, "consultation" is irritably redefined as "a formal system for ignoring public views while patronising them at the same time". "Child-centred education" means "we can't be bothered to teach them ... perhaps they'll do it themselves".

Unfortunately, Wilson's irritation is not confined to Whitehall sophistry. He is also impatient with notions of Muslim victimhood. The definition that enraged MPACUK was this: "Islamophobic - anyone who objects to having their transport blown up on the way to work." There was also considerable outrage at this: "Palestinians - archetypal 'victims' no matter how many teenagers they murder in bars and fast food outlets. Never responsible for anything they do - or have done in their name - because of 'root causes' or 'legitimate grievances'."

These are choppy waters in which to sail, and Wilson's comedy seamanship is perhaps not up to the task. But making jokes of questionable funniness has not, hitherto, been a sackable offence in Britain. When the first wave of complaints from MPACUK campaigners came in, Orange stood by its man, pointing out that its employees were entitled to hold their own opinions, which should not be mistaken for those of the company.

But MPACUK is not an organisation to be easily defeated. It began life as a media-monitoring group, sniffing out offensive sentiments and then pursuing the perpetrators. The website boasts an entire section entitled "Media Jihad", offering hints on how to spot covert Zionist propaganda and how to extract an apology. It also provides a list of "Islamophobic journalists" (including several impeccable liberals of this parish) to save you the trouble of making up your own mind.

Faced with such a formidable and organised foe, Orange lost its nerve. It has suspended Wilson and promised "a full investigation". The irony of a telecommunications company caving in to this assault on free speech is too bitter to dwell on. Sadly, however, it does not come as much of a surprise.

In the battle to preserve freedom of speech, British organisations have so far proved pusillanimous. The makers of the film Brick Lane were hounded off location by a small band of self-appointed community leaders who insisted the book had been offensive to Bangladeshis. In May, the Asia House Gallery in London cancelled an exhibition by India's most distinguished artist, M F Husain, after Hindu nationalists complained about his painting of a naked Mother India.

I am not without sympathy for these organisations. Given the pressing choice between a quiet life and a heroic, possibly dangerous, defence of free speech, most of us would probably choose the ignoble route. The line between self-preservation and self-censorship is gossamer thin.

But a society that is forever biting its tongue is one that has already surrendered its freedom. It is the chief privilege of living in a post-Enlightenment civilisation that we can all - whatever our religion or politics - speak our minds without fear of persecution.

Self-censorship does nothing for our mutual understanding, or our dignity. Some organisations have taken to second-guessing what might offend Muslims - the police inspectors who banned their officers from eating pork sandwiches, for instance, or the councils who keep banning Christmas - to the indignation of Muslims themselves, who protest that they have no desire to interfere in such matters.

Which is worse: Inigo Wilson's Lefty Lexicon, or the rantings of the MPACUK contributor who defines Israelis as "mass murderers and child rapists"? It hardly matters: if you care at all for the "British values" of which we hear so much these days, you will defend the right of both to be heard. As Adlai Stevenson put it, "The sound of tireless voices is the price we pay for the right to hear the music of our own opinions."