Political Correctness and the curious case of Markus Meechan

The problem with legislating for political correctness in liberal democracies

Photograph: sad pug by Matt Wiebe

When I first read about Markus Meechan being taken into custody by Police in Scotland earlier this year it occurred to me that political correctness has become a serious threat to some of the freedoms I had hitherto taken for granted.

Police arrested Markus after he posted a video on YouTube which featured several clips he had edited together showing his girlfriend’s pug responding to various Nazi-related prompts. A brief assessment of the video content indicates that it was intended to be comedic and not inflammatory. However, whether or not the video is funny is beside the point. The problem is that Markus was accused of being offensive and was therefore suspected of having committed a crime. As a matter of fact, offensiveness is a crime under UK law. For example, the Communications Act (2003), section 127(1)(a) states that it is an offence to send ‘by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive‘. Section 127(3) allows for a term of imprisonment of up to six months for anyone found guilty of that offence.

The reason that Markus was suspected of being grossly offensive and taken into custody is that his words if we take them literally, seem to glorify Nazism. That brings with it a whole host of implications such as racism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. According to the doctrine of political correctness, sympathetic attitudes toward Nazism is not only inappropriate but given its connection to prejudice and genocide, it is also deeply offensive. Indeed, it is easy to see how glorifying those events could be offensive to people who experienced the Holocaust first hand or lost friends and loved ones during those years. But regardless of a particular statement being offensive, we are talking about the law which is meant to be fair and objective, yet what is meant by ‘grossly offensive’ is ultimately subjective and therefore impossible to define objectively. In other words, what is offensive to some may not be offensive to others.

Political correctness helpfully outlines some ideas and statements that should be considered unquestionably offensive and therefore not suitable for expression. At face value, political correctness appears to be a noble enterprise to help an otherwise clumsily spoken plebiscite to communicate with one another in a way that does not hurt anyone’s feelings. It is an important aspect of our personal freedom that we should all be able to say to one another things like ‘I don’t agree with what you said and I feel offended by it’. But by the same token, we should also be free to accept their point, apologise and make the personal decision to change our own thoughts. Alternatively, we should be free to dismiss their offence and accept any social consequences for our actions, such as losing their company or respect.

But by criminalising members of the public based on words that someone felt offended by, we step into a much more frightening territory. What should be a relatively benign situation wherein someone’s feelings were hurt becomes the imposition of state power on the individual in order to curb their free expression and imprison them for the verbalisation of certain thoughts. Liberal democracies like Britain are supposed to protect free speech, especially when they adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 of that document protects our rights to ‘receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. Section 127 of the Communications Act seems to be inconsistent with the Human Rights that Westminster has ratified into law so it might be necessary for Government to determine which one to enforce based on how it serves a greater public interest and its consistency with British constitutional traditions.

Just to be clear, the purpose of this article is not to question the Police since I do have a great deal of respect for the service they provide. Their actions here are precisely what should be expected because it is their responsibility to enforce laws. It is the idea of legislating political correctness that I intend to evaluate here so as to provide evidence as to why the British Government should protect free expression over the personal feelings of others. I would also prefer to do so without making too much reference to Orwell or Kafka. Rather, it seems more useful to approach the subject in the context of a fundamental document associated with the diaspora of British constitutional traditions: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

On Liberty was first published in 1859 and is considered to be one of the most important texts outlining British constitutional philosophy with regards to freedom of expression and action. Perhaps the most striking excerpt from the book is Mill’s clear statement on free expression:

‘If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.’

Not that an explanation is required here, but the gist of what Mill said is that no matter how unpopular an opinion might be, there are no circumstances where it is legitimate to prevent an individual from expressing it. Moreover, this is not a periphery point that is briefly touched upon in On Liberty, it is one of its most central arguments.

Mill was concerned primarily with what he called the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Put simply, he identified that democracies are, by their very nature, vulnerable to majority opinion which could descend into a social tyranny of the majority against an unpopular minority. In a democracy is it not enough to establish protections against the meddling hand of a particular Government, but also to protect individuals ‘against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling’ and to prevent society from imposing ‘it’s own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them’. Legislating against certain types of thought or expression is paternalistic and inconsistent with open dialogue. By having an open dialogue we can exchange ideas and challenge them fairly so that each of us can make informed decisions about what is right and what is wrong. That is why the freedom to express an opinion is necessary for a democracy to function, even if that opinion is not shared by anyone else.

Of course, Markus was not expressing an opinion. He was demonstrating how a pug can be taught to respond when prompted with politically incorrect statements. So in objection to my argument so far someone might suggest that an unpopular, though otherwise thought-out opinion may be tolerated in a liberal democracy, but that the content of this particular video was purely intended to provoke and cause offence. Therefore those who would like to legislate for political correctness might say that the video was a careless assault on the sensibilities of others and there is a need for laws to target individuals who behave in such a way. You will be pleased to know that Mill addressed this very point in On Liberty under the limitations of free expression which he called the ‘Harm Principle’.

According to the Harm Principle, free speech can be limited insofar as it constitutes an incitement of harm against others. Mill defines harm as the negative impact of someone’s behaviour on the life, liberty or property of another.  So for example, merely saying that money from the rich should be used to help support the poor does not violate the Harm Principle because it is the expression of an opinion. However, identifying a particular individual, providing information on how to trace them and rallying a group to rob their property is a clear violation of the principal because it is a direct incitement of harm.

Now this part seems silly but I believe that it is important to stress in order to make a broader point about Markus’ intentions. When he asks the pug if it wants to participate in genocide he is not inciting violence against others because he is suggesting it to a dog. It would be disingenuous and ridiculous to argue that Markus violated the Harm Principle by making those comments since a dog cannot realistically understand or act on what is being said. The fact that a dog is responding to such an abhorrent prompt is the comedic element of this entire video. In this circumstance, there is not a direct incitement of harm against any other person. However, if he had been addressing members of the public and encouraging them to commit actual acts of violence then it would not be so simple to dismiss his actions.

The video may have made light of one of the most reprehensible periods of time in human history and some people could very well have felt offended by that. But their feelings do not justify the imposition of state power over his personal liberty. The Police are not to blame for this incident because they only acted in their rightful duty to enforce legislation. But as I have shown, the implications of this sort of law are contrary to the Declaration of Human Rights, which I personally believe to be of greater public interest. If there is a need to determine whether we value Human Rights rights and free expression over political correctness and personal sensibilities then it is important to refer to British constitutional tradition. The traditions of our democracy tend towards protecting free speech and so our current political trajectory needs to be reassessed.

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