Extremists like Milo should be challenged, not shut down by mobs

Rashad Ali replies to James Bloodworth on fascism and free speech


Rashad Ali is a counter-extremism expert. Here he replies to former Left Foot Forward editor James Bloodworth’s recent piece on a cancelled talk by right-wing activist Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkley. Bloodworth argued fascists should not be given a platform to express their views. 


Democracy, or the right of people to govern themselves, cannot be undertaken without the right to form your own beliefs and express them. After all, we would like to think that we have thought through our ideas and won the argument in the public sphere before executing them.

As such, freedom of thought or belief and the freedom to express such ideas become ontologically necessary in any democratic state. The rule of law aimed at protecting the rights of people to freely do so become axiomatic.

You cannot shut down the media, for example, and still claim to be a free and democratic society. Nor can you restrict the right of parties to hold beliefs and ideas and even advocate policies which we may find repugnant. Laws which are unjust are no laws at all, as Augustine put it.

Laws or decrees which curb people’s basic rights, whether discriminating on grounds of race or of political or religious views deserve to be struck down and rejected.

This is why we have seen US courts reject President Donald Trump’s executive order which singled out people from seven Muslim majority countries and prevented them from even seeking asylum and refugee status, along with merely travelling to the US.

It’s also why we have seen strong reactions to Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, seeking to make the press an enemy of the state, and why Republicans have repudiated Trump’s attacking a Federal Judge.

These matters undermine the rule of law, and standing up against them becomes necessary and fundamental to the prevention of authoritarian rule, and basic norms of democratic governance.

You cannot therefore defend the actions of an unruly mob violating the basic rule of law and undermining the right to freely express obnoxious views, especially when the mob uses intimidation or violence.

The debate around a cancelled talk by right-wing activist Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkely is a case in point.

The limits by law and among human rights activists and philosophers tend to be at the extreme end of the spectrum. We should allow all to express their views unless they are going to incite people to violence.

Different states have passed different pieces of legislation with particular political and historic contexts in mind (banning terror glorification, holocaust denial and anti-Semitism are two examples). But these don’t form good precedents to follow in curbing free speech.

Nor is the argument that if we don’t shut bad speech down it will spread like a cancer one which is well founded. First, because it is wrong – this would still restricting free speech on non-legal grounds.

Second, restricting such speech even on legal grounds has never been effective. Weimar Germany had anti-hate speech laws, under which people were convicted. This did not deter the Nazis. It did however increase their notoriety, furthered their victimhood narrative and made pseudo-martyrs of them.

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that our pubic institutions must give the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos unfettered public support and access to our universities without being challenged. This same argument has been had at UK universities regarding the far-right and right-wing Islamists.

Instead, challenging them and their ideologies – not necessarily with a view  to winning them over, but rather to defeating their ideas – is key to stopping those who are engaged by them becoming more enthralled with their ludicrous and dangerous ideology.

Our research countering extremism has found this can be done, even online, through campaigns and one-on-one engagement. You can get a reasonably high level of engagement and even have senior or active members of such organisations leave and rescind their affiliation to such groups and ideas.

And you can certainly dissuade those who are initially attracted to those ideas and engage them in their thousands.

There is no reason why an intelligent, articulate, persuasive public thinker and activist like James Bloodworth could not take on and expose neo-fascist ideology for what it is – populist, elite-supporting nativism – rather than provide justification for the rule of the mob, however well-intentioned that mob might be.

Rashad Ali is a senior fellow of the Institute of Strategic Dialogue and a director of the counter-extremism consultancy CENTRI

See: ISIS targets refugees who need our help, says Quilliam

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