Hah! Farewell then, to the appalling, despicable, terrorist-sympathising[i], holocaust-denying[ii] Naz Shah, from her role as parliamentary aide to John McDonnell, and let’s hope that she gets dumped from the parliamentary select committee on anti-Semitism too! Exposed in her opinions by the uncovering of a facebook post made months before she became an MP, she has apologised and stepped down from her role, and quite right too.

Apparently, right, what she did was, she shared something which suggested – one assumes satirically, but hey, that’s not the point – that if Israel moved to the US, it would be a whole lot cheaper, and maybe the Palestinians could get their land and life back. This was all written by someone else. She added the words ‘problem solved’, and a few comments underneath.

Vile, eh? Isn’t that vile? She might as well be Hitler. I hope she’s going to prison for a long, long time.

Not really.

Plenty has been written, and a tiny proportion of it on this blog, about the state of free speech in the modern world. Much of it, including mine, appears to be a response to the ‘regressive Left’, particularly as characterised by student unions with their safe space policies preventing what may be said less they ‘trigger’ negative feelings, and their no-platform policies preventing visiting speakers from being allowed to speak where their opinions have already been pre-judged as unacceptable.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the rather foolish tweet of Matthew Doyle which prompted much mockery on Twitter (entirely justified) and his subsequent arrest and charge under the Public Order Act 1984 (not even legally justified, as it turned out). The tweet was idiotic and borderline offensive, and that was exactly why he should have faced mockery in response, rather than silencing or arrest. The thing about free speech is that other people have it, too. Say nasty things about Mohammed if you like – no really, say them – but don’t expect people not to say nasty and possibly threatening things about you in response. The only free speech worth defending is offensive speech, the things that people don’t want you to say, and that matters not only in Parliament, but in academia too (by which I mean hard, empirical academia, not ‘gender studies’, ‘post-colonial studies’ or their ilk).

I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that Naz Shah leans toward sympathising with the Palestinians in the Israel/Palestine problem (her post was in fact at the height of the 2014 conflict, when it was a very hot topic). Does that make her anti-Semitic? Does believing that it would have been better if the nascent state of Israel had been sited elsewhere (as was indeed proposed by some Zionists early in the 20th century) mean that you in some sense hate Jews? Is it, in fact, not possible to be opposed to the state of Israel, in favour of the liberation of the Palestinian people, and yet still not actually despise Jews and the Jewish people. I rather think so. And isn’t the point of a cross-party parliamentary select committee that a range of opinions can be represented, and that a Palestine sympathiser might have an important dimension to lend, just as it would be right for atheists, feminists and homosexuals to be present in an inquiry into Islamophobia.

So it’s far from clear to me why Ms Shah would have to stand down even if she had written all of the post herself. But she did not. Someone else did that. All she did was share it. She saw it, liked it, and clicked the share button. Anyone who uses Facebook knows how easy it is to do this, and how very often it is almost completely without thought or consideration. You would, of course, expect a public figure to be careful about what they shared, though, wouldn’t you? Oh, except that she wasn’t a public figure then; this was months before she became an MP (all right, she must have been hoping or expecting to become one soon, and given that the incumbent in her constituency was the shouty beardy, blue-eyed hat-wearing pretending-to-be-a-cat-for-Rula-Lenska-on-Big-Brother-lest-we-forget George Galloway, she might have reckoned that she was in with a chance, but still.)

When Cameron’s tax affairs were all over the papers, it was suggested by various (distinctively Tory) MPs that if we were to expect the financial arrangements of MPs to be simple and open, then we would exclude from valuable service in public office anyone who was a bit of a swashbuckler in the financial world, anyone, in short, who was a bit rich. Whether we agree with that or not, if we are going to start sacking MPs from various roles just because of something they unadvisedly shared on facebook at some point in the past, then we will end up with politicians who are too bland to do anything at all.

There’s a different kind of freedom also under threat though, not associated with the rough and tumble of ideas in Westminster, but with massive consequences for the rest of us, and we should care. I’m not a climate-change sceptic, just as I’m not a holocaust denier, but like almost everyone, I do not have the relevant meteorological or historical knowledge respectively, and I haven’t collected my own empirical data on either matter. I rely on those who have to tell me whether something is or is not the case, and as part of this, I am also relying on the freedom of others to show when something which is said by them is wrong. These two matters are polar opposites in various ways – for a start one of them is about the future, the other is about the past, and for that reason, while what is predicted about the climate either will or will not come true, what is said about Auschwitz is likely to be based on foggier and foggier data, as people die and documents get lost. But they are akin in that, frankly hardly anyone can be an expert, and they trust what they have been told about them to have been ‘proven’ – not in the mathematical sense, which is impossible – but in the sense of having been exposed to scrutiny and to alternative opinion. As far as I am aware, all that I know about the holocaust – mainly from TV series and a whole genre of Hollywood movies, along with various fairly recent novels (The Pork Butcher, The Zone of Interest etc) – is based broadly on contemporaneous accounts which have been verified as accurate as far as that is possible. This may be naïve, but if it could be convincingly demonstrated that the entire thing was a fabrication – such as some people say of the Apollo landings – then I would care very much, and I would want to know the details. But merely presenting such an argument is a crime in Austria, and more worryingly (and relevantly in the UK at the present time) the European Union’s Framework decision on Racism and Xenophobia states that denying or grossly trivializing “crimes of genocide” should be made “punishable in all EU Member States”.

Surely facts and arguments should speak for themselves, and will be easily exposed if ludicrously wrong? Even Deborah Lipstadt, whose 1993 book Denying the Holocaust ultimately led to the imprisonment of British historian David Irving in Austria for things he had said in the past, was unhappy with censorship as a way of winning the argument. ‘The way of fighting Holocausts deniers is with history and the truth.’

So with climate change. I don’t have much doubt that human action is probably leading to global warming and climate change, but I – and you, let’s face it, unless you happen to be a pretty rarefied sort of scientist – base that opinion on the popular green consensus which is itself based on scientific data which has been presented to the public increasingly since the 1970s. If there are reasons for doubting that data, then they need to be expressed, and expressed clearly so that they can be scrutinised and decisions made which may not be consistent with what we are currently doing. They should not be supressed and strangled by the doubtless significant vested interests of those who want the public to continue with the consensus, even though that includes a general self-loathing of an entire species – us – and the rather bizarre notion often expressed that the world would be better if we weren’t here. (For whom?)

But according to Matt Ridley, writing in the Times earlier this week, who is my kind of sceptic, media outlets are making policy decisions about whether climate sceptics should even be heard, a version, essentially, of no-platforming on a much more damaging scale. If Germaine Greer can’t speak at some student union because she says there are only two genders, whatever, even she probably doesn’t mind that much. But if, as Ridley says, ‘The Los Angeles Times said it would “no longer publish letters from climate change deniers”, in which category it included sceptics’ and scientists like Roger Pielke and Lennart Bengtsson among others are intimidated from presenting their views because they do not fit the consensus, then we are impoverished not just for academic reasons, but also because

[c]limate policies are hitting mainly poor people while enriching mainly wealthy people. The lack of affordable electricity in poor countries is responsible for poverty and at least three million deaths a year from indoor smoke, yet western countries and international institutions largely refuse to support the cheapest source of electricity, fossil fuels. It is reasonable that journalists should occasionally report challenges to the evidence on which these policies are based.

It may be that these policies are necessary to ‘save the Earth’. But if they aren’t, we sure as hell need to know, and openness, not censorship, neither by governments, nor students, nor vested interests, is the key to knowledge.

[i] As far as I know, she’s not a terrorist sympathizer in any but the David Cameron sense. Which just means she might not have been in favour of bombing Syria.

[ii] As far as I know, she’s not a holocaust-denier either. Don’t believe everything you read. Especially not here. She’s probably not appalling or despicable either. It’s called irony. Read the rest of the piece.

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