Was Boris right to ban the bus ads?

Boris Johnson has intervened to stop an ad that celebrates corrective therapy for homosexuals being plastered over London buses:

London is one of the most tolerant cities in the world and intolerant of intolerance. It is clearly offensive to suggest that being gay is an illness that someone recovers from and I am not prepared to have that suggestion driven around.

Labour MP Chris Bryant condemns the ad, but thinks it should have been allowed to run in the name of free speech:

The emotional damage that is done to the individuals who try to suppress their sexuality, the women they marry and the children they might have is immeasurable. Most sane Christians believe that homosexuality is not a lifestyle or a choice but is a fact to be discovered or not. The pretence that homosexuality is something you can be weaned off in some way is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of creation.

The Guardian quotes the British Medical Association as agreeing with him about the status of corrective therapy as discredited, harmful ‘science’.

Jon Robinson uses Mill’s On Liberty to reach a novel conclusion:

There is no danger that racist, sexist and homophobic discourses have been under-represented, and no risk that they have not had thorough enough examination. If they have come to be heterodox positions then this is because they have been rejected, not because they need promotion. This nullifies the instrumental value of free speech here, leaving us only with a choice between clinging to free speech on nothing but intrinsic value and rejecting and censoring these ads on the grounds of all the harms they create.

I trust my posting the Real Time video, whilst not directly relevant, makes sense. This is, at heart, an issue about the value of liberty in light of some pretty crass speech. And I think it’s a debate that was already hinted at by current affairs very recently, when a man was jailed for tweeting racist slurs.

There’s no point pretending this is an easy case. It’s such a longstanding problem precisely because our intuitions tear us in two directions, and there’s no easy solution which won’t let doubts about the morality of the conclusion linger. Nevertheless, a few comments.

I struggle to see how the science is relevant. It may be the case that corrective therapy does not work, but there’s sufficient ambiguity in the words of the ad to mean banning it on the grounds that it is misleading and empirically false will never wash. The sponsors could, clearly, claim their ad is reasonably interpreted as meaning that homosexual desires can be sufficiently suppressed as to prevent acting upon them, and in this sense corrective therapy is possible. And the BMA could hardly deny that. Only if the ad explicitly claimed homosexual desires could be eradicated would there be reason to pursue this route.

I also suspect Chris Bryant is right to not seek a ban on the grounds that the speech is likely to do no good for those struggling to deal with their sexuality. If there was ever a slope to be slipped down, this would be it. Any combination of words could be interpreted in a way that means they have such effects. If this became the litmus test for free speech, we’d soon reach Russia.

The interesting part of Johnson’s defence of his decision is, I think, his implicitly invoking the fact that London buses are public. That raises the suspicion that this is a little different than normal issues of free speech. Does the Mayor have a duty to ensure such messages don’t appear to be state sanctioned?

This is, surely, once more a red herring. Nobody who sees posters for The Hunger Games on the Underground can fairly assume the government is encouraging a trip to the cinema.

So instead we’re left with the question of what the value of liberty is conditional on. It’s interesting that Robinson thinks Mill may be used to justify a ban, because despite Mill’s thinking that free speech is valuable because it fosters critical thinking about how we should live, which in turn is most likely to lead to happiness, this looks to me like it warrants the protection of speech even in cases like these, because even something as obviously bad as homophobia can never be propped up enough times only to then be knocked down.

But I’ve never found this line of defence for liberty appealing. It strikes me as entirely wrong to make the value of free speech contingent on social consequences. Much more intuitive, surely, to seek the basis for an unconditional right possessed by all individuals to express whatever views they have. And the day the state starts to intentionally block that is the day to be worried. I don’t want any elected officials possessing the power to qualitatively discriminate between the value of various messages.

Robinson notes some ugly consequences:

This should mean that people could freely publish signs reading “blacks go home” and “women: stay in the kitchen”. If anyone’s liberal tendencies mean they’re willing to defend all of this then we can carry on talking about the value of unrestricted expression, but if you can accept the CIT ad but not those, then you may need to ask yourself some serious questions.

These are big bullets, of course, and they’re not to be bitten lightly. But despite concerns about the potential effects of such speech on someone’s sense of esteem and worth, and despite the fact the ads are on public buses, hint at junk science and only arguably provoke fruitful debate, I still can’t shake the feeling that liberty, if it is to be real, requires stubborn acceptance. Followed, of course, by mockery, and robust refutation.


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