You’re at home and you get a visit from the police. A teacher has reported you for saying something the state does not like. Your child said at school that you said it.
What is wrong with this picture?
Try this. You invite someone for a meal at your home. You speak and eat and this person departs. The police arrive. Your guest has reported you for saying something that the state does not like, at the table.
Your family must be questioned since they may be witnesses. You have offended because you have caused offence and you have caused offence because your guest was offended.
There is no right not to be offended, but the law has made it criminal to give offence. Offence is given when it is taken and not only when it is intended. Yet it will not be enough to beg for forgiveness. Your guest has gone to the law, and it is not enough to say that you did not mean what they thought you meant, nor say what they believed you said.
Here is what is wrong with this picture. Rights were there to protect us from power, but today power is here to enforce them. You are guilty of the offence even if your mitigation, once found guilty, is successful. You are recorded as an offender even if your punishment is lenient. Your real punishment is criminalisation for something you were said to say in your home. What people think about you is more dangerous to you than what you yourself do.
Of course, there are many other problems. The state has abolished privacy, under this law. It has destroyed the private realm. It has made trust still more difficult than already it is today. You cannot trust a guest in your house. You cannot completely trust your partner or spouse, or you take a great risk when you do. You have to expect your child to act with the discretion of an adult and with perfectly accurate understanding and recall, or secretly refuse to trust your growing child. And there is no room for mercy. The state has already intervened; two individuals cannot be reconciled.
As in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, law enforcers will draw attention to themselves if they back down once they start prosecutions. As in George Orwell’s 1984, children will denounce their parents — whether they mean to or not. As in Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers and Anna Funder’s Stasiland — which are not fiction — we will fear our own flesh and blood.
Human beings need relationships to be human. Individuality relies on that. Integrity relies on it: not just integrity in the moral sense; but the very ability to hold things together. This law poisons at root the very things that make us human. It makes love and trust into heroic acts. It turns integrity into a supererogatory demand. It destroys people. Unbelievably, this language is not exaggerated. This is not hyperbole.
The last and third picture might seem very different, but think of the Leuven; a ship which drowned its cargo of enslaved people. Think of the compensation paid to those forced, in 1833, to liberate those whom they had enslaved, or kept in slavery. They had the right: first to ownership, and then to compensation. Think of the traders who drank and gambled on the other side of a wall from the enslaved. It is generally agreed that they lacked mercy.
Law is not enough. Sometimes it is the wrong tool entirely.
You might think it is a question of which rights you enforce; of what the rights are. Yet abolition of private thought makes resistance impossible once the wrong rights get enforced. You will not be able to campaign for changes in the law, like re-definitions of rights, free from the fear any rational person must have when they know that accusation or hearsay is enough to ruin them. We cope with that fear in the workplace only because we also know we can be in love in the home.
Just as someone who stops growing at six feet cannot wish himself to become nine feet tall, there are intrinsic limits to the good the state can do without utterly wrecking the good we have in common. It is all very well to say that something must be done, but to do so does not magic into existence things which a democratic state cannot do.
What is coming is a world where I do not reach out to you, lest you strike me dead — yet both of us agree that ‘community’ is good; a world of women and children afraid of what may be said — yet one that says its priority is the safety of women and children in the home; a world which is like a workplace, but a workplace from which there is no rest; a world where resentment becomes the diminishing cultural capital for our lives. We are half-way there and now, the insider class wants to make it law.
Specifics do not matter. It could be anything that the state disliked: your pet hate; mine; or something on which we are agreed. Allow this kind of law with anything, and the problem will arise. In Scotland right now a Hate Crimes Bill is proposed that, if law, will criminalise people in their own homes, regardless of their intention. England is considering such a law. The kind of injustice which totalitarian states imposed on families and individuals, deliberately, to break their spirit, is something we are about to bring upon ourselves.