opinion

Opinion | Minorities refusing to debate their right to exist is not 'shutting down free speech'

We should all be open to having our ideas challenged - but ideas are very different to our basic humanity, writes Amrou Al-Kadhi.

2020-10-01

This article was first published in Attitude issue 325, August 2020.

Early in June, I responded impulsively to an annoying tweet by Laurence Fox.

It was at the height of the global response to the harrowing murder of George Floyd, and the world seemed to be having a collective reckoning with systems of white supremacy.

Laurence tweeted that “Every single human life is precious,” and as this seemed to be invoking an ‘All Lives Matter’ sentiment — and by virtue, a discrediting of the Black Lives Matter project — I tweeted that this was a “profoundly dumb” statement.

Next thing I knew, Laurence Fox was telling his followers that he knew which park I took my dog to, and that he would like to have a chat. We arranged to meet.

I was nervous, I admit. As a queer, non-binary person of colour, I was dreading talking to a man who has said provocative and hurtful things about issues that affect my life on a daily basis.

But I decided to approach the meeting in good faith. Perhaps I could change his mind and encourage him to use his platform more sensitively, and make him see why words really do matter in conversations around race.

We met and, in truth, he was perfectly nice as we had a calm, polite conversation. When the sting is taken out of an online feud, it’s easier to recognise your foe’s humanity.

He explained why he felt taking a knee for George Floyd was an assault on people’s Britishness. I was wholly unconvinced — mainly because his argument seemed to have very little awareness about how the aristocratic connotations of kneeling are tied up in a brutal history of colonialism; Britain is Britain because of its continued kneeling on the necks of non-Western nations.

I recommended he read a book that might challenge some of his beliefs (namely, that minorities and the Left are assaulting free speech). In return, he suggested that I read a book by a notorious transphobe, who believes racism and sexism to be fake constructs that have gone “too far” and who has written repeatedly against “trans activism”.

I know this author’s work well, but I declined to read his new book. This is when the Twitter goading of me escalated — it even formed the subject of a video interview Laurence released online.

I appreciate Fox’s willingness to read the book I recommended, but there’s an important distinction. We should all be open to having our ideas challenged; it’s why I went on the walk with him. But I was being asked to read an author whose toxic writings don’t just challenge my ideas, but my very rights and lived experiences.

This is where Laurence, and many others on the Right, have, I think, made a mistake. I would never ask anyone to read something that undermined their existence. Their ideas? Yes. Their humanity? Never.

By refusing to engage in debates about our humanity, minorities are not shutting down ‘free speech’ – we are simply refusing to engage with ideas that seek to deny us freedom in the first place.