“Stop closing down the debate!”: some thoughts on racism, free speech and UKIP

I’m currently listening to BBC Any Questions and, perhaps predictably, it’s filled with UKIP supporters following their success this week. Its astonishingly depressing stuff. But one recurrent feature has been the notion that politicians have continually suppressed free debate on immigration by “playing the race card” until Nigel came to their rescue and allowed the “silent majority” to freely voice their concerns. One caller I found particularly interesting said: “anyone who criticises an ethnic minority group in this country would be immediately labelled a racist. Then there would be those lazy analogies where anyone who criticises ethnic minorities is said to lead to the gas chambers”.

The point here seems to be an expectation of criticism free speech rather than free speech – why do so many seem to believe that their views being criticised amounts to views being suppressed? I think a lot of these people are effectively trying to say “you’re being racist about racists” i.e. those inclined to criticise ‘ethnic minority groups’ are being treated unfairly, reduced as complex persons to this one particular trait that is the target of their critics. It’s a reflection of the same tendency which leads some to argue, with seeming seriousness, that “posh people are the last persecuted minority”.

Those making this argument don’t see themselves as racist, with ‘racist’ being a term seen to imply imminently genocidal inclinations*, but rather as having ‘legitimate fears and anxieties’ targeted at ‘ethnic minority groups’ (understand as homogenous blocs). So to be called racist is experienced as an impediment to their articulation of these anxieties… until Mr. Farage comes along to stand up for this ‘silent majority’.

*I suspect answers to the question “what is a racist?” vary significantly along party lines.

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