Homophobic ads on London buses
The above ad is one which anyone who’s been online or reading the news in the last 24 hours will probably be quite familiar with. It is the controversial advert which the Core Issues trust wanted to splash onto London buses for a couple of weeks. The CIT is a group who claim they “[seek] to support men and women with homosexual issues (sic) who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression”. You get the idea.
Despite my instinctive delight at finding out that London Mayor Boris Johnson had pulled the ad, claiming it is “clearly offensive” and “[intolerant]”, I have been searching my thoughts ever since, slightly troubled by the censorship at play here.
Ideally, I would always favour the free expression of alternative viewpoints. I have always been a big fan of what Mill had to say in the second chapter of On Liberty (1869) about the value of free expression. We could usefully condense this here to (a) we are fallible and what we think is true may not be true, and (b) even when we’re fairly certain that we’re correct, there is value to the discussion of contrary opinion (Mill himself employs the now over-used phrase “devil’s advocate”) because it may yet illuminate nuances we have not yet considered.
As such, in this case, I am fairly convinced that sexuality is something produced by a complex physiological and psychological process which cannot be and should not be unpicked and altered. I buy into the kind of argument made by Professor Michael King in the Guardian today that suggests that these “treatments” don’t even really work, and I’m also convinced that, much like encouraging people to surgically alter their skin colour by claiming one skin colour to be morally superior to another, this campaign is morally repugnant. It flies in the face of decades of struggles by activist groups for greater rights and tolerance, and will cause immense harm to young people struggling to accept themselves for who they are, and be happy about the fact that they happen to prefer sex acts with people of the same sex, in the face of what remains scary social hostility.
The liberal response is simple – yeah, sure, you’re probably right. But what if you’re not? What if there really is a god, and this god (however unlikely) would be angered by homosexuality? The suggested path would then be to allow these people to publish their adverts, and engage them in debate in search of a conclusion: hopefully, that homophobia is sick and wrong and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying having sex with other men. (Strangely, the CIT seem to focus on this far more than lesbian relationships: knowing a little about gender history, I’m inclined to venture the suggestion that this tendency has historical roots.)
At this point I do think it’s well worth expressing that, for consistency, 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.
Here is my problem with this liberal approach. 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.
So, intrinsic value? Value without justification – a priori value which is contingent on nothing else – is always going to be sensory and intuitive, built on a conviction that this is the best way for things to work. I’m not convinced by that. It seems to me that clinging to my right to freely express myself however I want in the face of me propagating some heinous statement which causes massive social harms and creates no social goods apart from satisfying some vague notion I have (which I can’t even justify) that this is my right does more to undermine the value of liberty than cement it.
P.S. I know I’m hugely over-citing Guardian articles in this post, but they have (unsurprisingly) taken the lead on this story. I just thought I’d mention David Shariatmadari’s commentary on how this Stonewall campaign might have fuelled these fires a bit. Firstly, no – the way Shariatmadari has pitched this sounds too much like apologism (even though it’s obviously not). Stonewall could publish “Love anal prolapse? Support gay marriage!” and it would still be wrong for groups like CIT to come in off the back of this and attempt to propagate homophobia. But, the main thrust of Shariatmadari’s article actually struck a perfect chord with me. I was in London earlier this week, and noticed one of the Stonewall ads emblazoned on the side of a bus – “Some people are gay. Get over it!” – which prompted exactly the same thought he says he had: what is that actually going to achieve? It’s provocative, not educational.