Thursday, August 25, 2005

That shallow feeling

Light blogging ahead - life calls.

Very briefly: Ken Macleod asks, "if you are going to limit free speech at all, is it more illiberal to do so by making the proclamation of certain specific and narrowly defined doctrines illegal, or by making administrative decisions based on broad and vague provisions?" It's an interesting dilemma, but what strikes me most forcibly is that both alternatives are counsels of weakness. A thriving political movement - and, by extension, a government confident in its ability to rally support - will not issue Clarkean all-purpose anathemata against anyone who might in future turn a bit dodgy; but neither will it spend time and effort coming up with a precise legal definition for the Men of Evil, their Evil Groups and their Evil Ideology.

I'm not even sure that this second approach is a real alternative to the first: in practice this type of definition would, I think, inevitably catch too much or too little, and end up so garlanded with interpretative codicils as to amount to an alternative approach to Clarkean constructive vagueness. The real alternative - the counsel of strength - is not narrowing the field of free speech. A thriving movement or a confident government would engage its opponents (or, more to the point, their sympathisers) in open debate, secure in the knowledge that its resources and its support were superior to theirs - so that anything good they had to offer could be quietly appropriated and re-framed within its own ideological and tactical vocabulary, bringing (most of) their supporters across into the bargain.

Of course, the idea of New Labour doing this with radical young British Muslims would make a cat laugh - but that's a reflection of the weakness of New Labour in 2005, not a statement about the general conditions of political dialogue with disorderly social movements (or with British Muslims in particular). We are where we are - but the conditions of possibility imposed by our current situation aren't absolute.


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