Lee v. Ashers Baking Company, A Victory Against Compelled Speech

Asher Bakery Belfast gay marriage cake compelled speech

Today saw a victory against compelled speech and authoritarian government, but fewer and fewer voices on the Left are in the mood to celebrate

Today the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom handed down a decision in Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd, the UK’s equivalent of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in the United States (which the UK court actually cited in its ruling).

Both cases came about when plaintiffs claimed discrimination based on sexual orientation after trying to place an order for wedding cakes bearing messages supportive of gay marriage at bakeries owned and operated by traditional conservative Christians, who then refused the orders on the grounds that to produce the cakes bearing the specific messages would violate their deeply held religious beliefs.

From the BBC:

The UK’s highest court ruled that Ashers bakery’s refusal to make a cake with a slogan supporting same-sex marriage was not discriminatory.

The five justices on the Supreme Court were unanimous in their judgement.

[…] The customer, gay rights activist Gareth Lee, sued the company for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and political beliefs.

But the bakery has always insisted its objection was to the message on the cake, not the customer.

I have long taken the view put forward many years ago by Andrew Sullivan, that gay marriage should be accepted on the grounds that broadening an institution which promotes stability, permanence, mutual responsibility and (consequently) social capital can only be a good thing, especially at a time when social atomization and selfish, destructive cultural hedonism are doing so much to weaken vital bonds at the community and national level.

I would never advocate (nor tolerate) religious institutions being forced to conduct gay marriage ceremonies against their will, but rolling out the basic template of marriage and making it more widely accessible – especially to one of the only demographics which currently shows any enthusiasm for the institution! – seems perfectly sensible to me.

But even more abhorrent than the idea that the government might compel religious organizations to conduct ceremonies which violated their codes and moral systems is the  prospect of government compelling the speech of ordinary people, making anybody who wishes to participate in the public square affirm certain social dogmas on pain of civil or criminal liability. We have already seen Canada start to go down this road with Canadian Bill C-16, a statutory amendment which adds gender identity and gender expression to classes of individuals protected under Canadian human rights law, and moves perilously close to criminalizing the “misgendering” of people. Thus it is not inconceivable that someone could be held criminally liable in Canada were they to refuse to conform their speech to proclaim that trans women are women and trans men are men.

Compelled speech is the very last thing a healthy liberal democracy should be striving to enact. Thus it is great to see at least one human rights and civil liberties group – one which has not yet fully prostrated itself before the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics – celebrate the Ashers Baking Company decision.

From the Peter Tatchell Foundation:

“This verdict is a victory for freedom of expression. As well as meaning that Ashers cannot be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage, it also means that gay bakers cannot be compelled by law to decorate cakes with anti-gay marriage slogans,” said human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation.

“Businesses can now lawfully refuse a customer’s request to emblazon a political message if they have a conscientious objection to it. This includes the right to refuse messages that are sexist, xenophobic or anti-gay, which is a good thing.

“Although I profoundly disagree with Ashers opposition to marriage equality, in a free society neither they nor anyone else should be forced to facilitate a political idea that they oppose.

“The ruling does not permit anyone to discriminate against LGBT people. Such discrimination rightly remains unlawful.

“Ashers did not discriminate against the customer, Gareth Lee, because he was gay. They objected to the message he wanted on the cake: Support gay marriage.’

It is sad that statements like this now have to be cheered and encouraged rather than taken for granted by civil liberties defenders and free speech advocates, but such are the authoritarian times in which we live – trapped in a pincer movement between what Maajid Nawaz calls the “Control Left” on one side, and reactionary, protectionist nationalists on the other.

Proving that he is one of the few prominent voices on the British Left who remains capable of thinking through the consequences of implementing illiberal leftist identity politics dogma heedless of the ramifications, Tatchell continues:

If the original judgement against Ashers had been upheld it would have meant that a Muslim printer could be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed and a Jewish printer could be forced to publish a book that propagates Holocaust denial. It could have also encouraged far right extremists to demand that bakers and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim opinions.

Of course it wouldn’t be; we know that the administrators of this illiberal code – including establishment figures as powerful as the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service – would implement any such statutes or case law highly selectively, punishing only the disfavored “white, Christian male” group while refraining from holding other groups to the same draconian standard. But Tatchell is quite right that the argument for compelled speech, taken not even so far as to its logical conclusion but merely a few steps down the road, would swiftly end up censoring and controlling us all.

The real concern is that old-school campaigners like Peter Tatchell are a dying breed. In fact, they are being hunted to extinction by a new generation of social justice warrior activists whose petty accomplishments are nothing compared to someone like Tatchell (who, like him or not, has labored for years and put his body in harms way more than once in advance of his ideals) but who deludedly think they morally outrank him because they are willing to go further in their rhetorical, legal and constitutional attacks on dissenters.

This is a time when conservatives – indeed, anyone not of an ultra-progressive persuasion – need to pick their battles very carefully. Social conservatives may disagree vehemently with the social views of someone like Peter Tatchell, but in this authoritarian age it is not he who seeks to impose his views on others. Indeed, given the opportunity, some social conservatives would be more likely to impose their own views on progressive dissenters than Tatchell would do to them – which should give serious pause for reflection.

At this time the threat to fundamental rights and civil liberties, when the identity politics Left is hell-bent on compelling the speech of private citizens, forcing them to say words or endorse ideas in which they do not believe, old political divisions must be put aside in order to withstand the creeping incursions of authoritarianism into society. There will be time enough to relitigate social issues once we have jointly confronted and dispensed with the band of zealots who would actually put us in prison for thinking the wrong things.

In these fractious times, the sane(r) Left urgently needs shoring up. Because if things continue on their current trajectory, Peter Tatchell’s ideological opponents on the right will miss him when he is gone.

 

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Oh, So Now You’re A Liberal? Part 2 – Maajid Nawaz Calls Out The Illiberal British Left

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Maajid Nawaz warns about the rise of the “Control Left”, an authoritarian tendency which has left liberalism and liberal values far behind

Recently, this blog took to task those on the authoritarian Left who have reacted to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump by falsely draping themselves in the clothes of liberalism and hysterically mourning an idealised liberal past which they did as much as anybody else to knife in the back.

In that piece, I made the point that people who only weeks ago could be found arguing for greater censorship, the expansion of “hate crime” legislation, trigger warnings, safe spaces, higher taxes on alcohol and tobacco, national ID cards, longer pre-trial detention periods and even more intrusive government surveillance have absolutely no business calling themselves “liberal”.

Though the authoritarian Right are by no means innocent in this regard, it must be acknowledged that most of the recent assaults on liberty and liberalism have come from the Left, in America as well as Britain.

Picking up on this thread, Maajid Nawaz hits the nail on the head on his LBC talk radio show yesterday:

I suspect that the most vocal elements of the Left – and I don’t mean every single person who sympathises with left-wing views, let me make that very clear, I’m talking about the organised left, the most vocal elements of our Left, and the Left in the form of Momentum who have taken over the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn – my view is that that Left, today’s Left, today’s active, organised Left is no longer liberal.

What do I mean by that? Well let’s look at a few things that I don’t consider to be liberal. Let’s look at censorship, let’s look at being “post-factual”, let’s look at violence being seen as an option, let’s look at prioritising group identity over individual rights. None of these four traits are liberal.

Censorship is not liberal, so when today’s organised Left begins organising in campuses and across colleges across the nation, across the world, and says things like “you cannot say that here, this is a safe space, we will exclude you from speaking because your views offend us”, when they choose to take offence, when they become more sensitive, and so sensitive in fact that they want to shut debate down simply because they don’t like what somebody is saying, that’s not a liberal approach. A liberal will always prioritise free speech over offence.

What about being post-factual? Well I remember – and I hope many of you remember – at the beginning of this year, the way in which mass sex attacks were reported in the German city of Cologne. And what was known then as the liberal press actively conspired to cover up that news. Facts were known and they were not reported because they didn’t want to be accused of being racist. The German state television station had to come out and openly apologise, days later, when they realised that this story was not one that they could cover up. So being post-factual is also not being liberal.

What about considering violence as an option? When you have the Shadow Chancellor of the UK Labour Party, John McDonnell, being caught on video saying that it’s okay to riot, it’s okay to destroy property and to ruin people’s lives and their private property, that’s not liberal. That may be anarchist, it may be revolutionary hard-left socialist, as John McTernan suggested, but it isn’t liberal.

When people are prioritising group identity over individual rights, saying things like “kill all white men”, saying things like “black people can’t be racist because racism is about power and only white men have power” – Diane Abbott says that. Well I’m sorry Diane Abbott MP, go and walk into any council estate and speak to a white working class lad and try and have a rational, reasonable conversation with that young white working class lad and tell him that he has more power than you, and that’s why you can’t be racist towards him. Complete and utter rubbish. But when group identity is prioritised over individual rights in that way, when leftist activists think it’s okay to say “kill all white men” and that that’s somehow an empowering statement, when they think it’s okay to be racist to all white people as a group, and think somehow that’s what it means to be progressive, erasing the individual, stereotyping entire groups, that is not liberal.

So I have taken the view that this behaviour – censorship on the organised Left, post-factual behaviour, violence being seen as an option and prioritising group identity over individual rights, that isn’t liberal. And like the alt-right has emerged, we’ve now got this new group – it’s called the Control Left. They want to control our lives, control what we think, control how we behave, control how we even feel. And control what we think. That is not liberal. That is the Control Left.

So my message to you, Control Left, is stop telling us you are liberal. My message to the press: stop describing them as the liberal Left, they are no longer liberal. Call them for what they are – Control Left.

A devastating excoriation of the modern Left. And while I’m not sure that Nawaz’s preferred phrase “the Control Left” will catch on, it does describe quite plainly their new strategy of bringing about change not through persuasion but by coercion and force.

Maajid Nawaz has cause to be particularly aware of the new illiberalism gripping the Left, having recently been singled out by the fabled Southern Poverty Law Center in America for supposedly promoting anti-Islamic extremism, a ludicrous accusation given that Nawaz is himself a Muslim. (Nawaz’s real sin was to call for moderate Islam to take more responsibility for its violent, fundamentalist offshoots at a time when much of the Left is furiously pretending that “there is nothing Islamic about ISIS”).

We now need many more people to summon the courage and willingness to tell truth to power exhibited by Maajid Nawaz. It’s all very well having dyed-in-the-wool conservative, libertarian or conservatarian journalists and bloggers such as myself ranting on about the many ways that the modern Left has left liberalism behind. But we can only carry the message so far – since it is we who are most often the targets of this censorship and identity politics, it is too easy for the Control Left to accuse us of acting in our own self-interest rather than the national interest.

Therefore it is vital that more left-wing liberals like Maajid Nawaz stand up and call out these authoritarian tendencies, declaring “not in my name” to the censorship, bullying and control freakery of the modern Left. This is in their interest as much as anyone else’s – with the election of Donald Trump in America, we have seen that peddling a constant diet of authoritarian identity politics eventually provokes a similar identity politics backlash among those groups not marked out for special favour by the Left.

So for the country’s sake as much as their own, those on the Left must learn to renounce authoritarianism and seek to achieve their political agenda through persuasion rather than coercion. To continue on their present course is to plant the seeds of their own destruction, as well as ours.

 

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