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                                     On Liberty - A. C. Grayling

                                                        From Life, Sex and Ideas (2003)


As the angry gloom of Fascism and impending war massed over Europe in the 1930s, an international congress of writers assembled in Paris to discuss the threat to freedom posed by the increasingly harsh and illiberal laws being passed not only in Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy, but in countries traditionally jealous of liberty, such as England and France.

One speaker at the congress was E. M. Forster. Then and in the war years that followed Forster was a quiet but doughty spokesman for civil liberties, a fact forgotten now that it is fashionable to slight his fiction and asperse the nature of his sympathies for Britain's colonised. After acknowledging the proper limitations on British pride in its long-cherished liberties - these being the racism of its colonial policies and its oppressive domestic class structure - he said that he was not afraid of Oswald Mosley's black-shirted Fascists but instead of what he called 'fabio-Fascism', by which he meant 'the dictator-spirit working quietly away behind the facade of constitutional forms, passing a little law (like the Sedition Act) here, endorsing a departmental tyranny there, emphasising the national need for secrecy elsewhere' - and then he quoted Kipling describing how a tyrant works:

He shall mark our goings, question whence we came, Set his guards about us, as in Freedom's name. He shall peep and mutter, and night shall bring Watchers 'neath our window, lest we mock the King.

What Forster understood was that it is precisely in times of emergency that a people has to be most vigorous in defending its civil liberties, for that is when governments take the opportunity to limit them, preaching necessity. In 1911, as the result of the now forgotten Agadir Incident in Morocco which resulted in the transfer of the Congo from France to Germany, thus putatively compromising Britain's imperial interests in Africa, a law was passed in a single day's sitting in Parliament - the reviled, harmful, wretched Official Secrets Act of unlamented memory, which, so hastily passed, stubbornly resisted repeal thereafter, and caused decades of difficulty.

It is a strange sad fact that the exact number of dead in the mass murders of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington might never be known. Some among the victims were illegal immigrants, working as cleaners and labourers. The nature of the catastrophe made it difficult to identify, even to find, the dead. One bitter estimate says that perhaps more than a thousand children lost a parent in the atrocities.


But the larger count of 11 September's victims is even harder to compute. Additional deaths occurred in Afghanistan and elsewhere in military actions taken to revenge them. Most cruelly, an estimate made by the World Bank projected 30,000 extra infant deaths world-wide for the ensuing twelve months, on the grounds that the terrorism-steepened world recession would push 10 million people below the poverty income of $1 a day - and infant death is poverty's bedfellow.


Such are the fruits of xenophobia, dogma and callousness, which lead humans to inflict wretchedness on other humans in the name of one or another abstraction. But there are other victims besides, not least among them civil liberties. Politicians react to terrorism by limiting liberties, the West's most cherished possession, in hopes of facilitating the capture of the minuscule percentage of people who are zealots intent on perpetrating atrocities.


Even if restrictions upon whole populations could deter terrorists - which is highly unlikely - the mere fact of going so far is tantamount to yielding too much to the terrorists who assault liberal societies and seek to reinstate ancient oppressions in them. The keystones of liberal society are individual autonomy and mutual tolerance, and even though both are indeed properly subject to limits, the limits should be such as to protect what is most valuable in them, not to compromise them. Zealots, most especially religious zealots, hate the liberality of liberal society; their terrorism aims to destroy it. To start putting handcuffs on ourselves is to achieve their goals for them.


Tolerance is not only a key feature of liberalism, but - familiarly - its paradox too. Liberalism's tolerance leaves the dem­ocracy of ideas to decide which among opposing viewpoints will prevail. The risk is the death of liberty itself, because those who live by hard and uncompromising views in political, moral and religious respects always, if given half a chance, silence liberals because liberalism, by its nature, threatens the hegemony they seek to impose.

So it is endlessly worth iterating that the answer to the question, 'Should the tolerant tolerate the intolerant?' must be a mighty and resounding 'No.' Liberal society can oppose intolerance by living up to the principle that anyone can put a point of view, but no one can be forced to accept it. The only coercion should be that of argument, the only obligation that of honest reasoning. But when anyone tries to bully others into his own point of view, he should be brought up short. It is the technique of the baboon to try to get its way by violence. The way of civilised human beings is to live and let live. Alas, violence sometimes invites nothing other than more of itself as the only possible defence.


Among the points worth remembering about liberty, these three are chief: that, as Judge Hand remarked, liberty is about allowing alternatives and promoting open-mindedness; that, in Thomas Paine's words, 'he that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression'; and that liberty does not come free, but at the price of vigilance - and of sacrifice when the need arises.


                                                  From Life, Sex and Ideas (2003)


A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford -  and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com


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