A devout Catholic, an environmental activist, a comedian, and a secularist, all walk up to the same bar. This could be the start of a brilliant joke, but it could also be a reflection of what the courts could look like in a Britain under Theresa May’s new ‘anti-extremism’ commission.
Avid readers of British political manifestos are likely to recognise Theresa May’s plans for an anti-extremism commission from the 2017 Conservative party manifesto. (For anyone looking to find the reference, turn to the bottom of page 55.) May’s plan to tackle extremism is underpinned by the idea of a commission for countering extremism, which, in a Britain that’s experienced many shocking terror attacks in the last decade, sounds like a robust step in the right direction.
This is of course until you read further into what the commission is established to do. The commission for countering extremism is to be established to 'identify examples of extremism and expose them, to support the public sector and civil society, and help the government to identify policies to defeat extremism and promote pluralistic values'. If you think this sounds like something out of George Orwell’s 1984, then you’re not alone.
The commission's aim to identify examples of extremism, and in terms as vague as that, has inspired concerns from a whole host of organisations. A coalition, Defend Free Speech, was established following the Conservative party proposal of Extremism Disruption Orders, similar to ASBOs but for ‘extremist behaviours’ (the predecessor of the ant-extremism commission). The Defend Free Speech coalition has members from all sides of the political spectrum, including the National Secular Society, the Christian Institute, Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas, Brexit Secretary, David Davis, and the chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum, Mohammed Amin.
The biggest concern shared by opponents to the commission and its predecessor is the slippery and complex nature of trying to define what extremism actually is. The best way to illustrate this problem is to look at the results of this ComRes poll, commissioned by the Evangelical Alliance. The poll asked 2004 adults in July of 2017 'In your opinion, is it extreme to believe that…', followed by a series of statements.
One of the results of this survey does not look too good for David Davis, as 36% of responders answered 'yes' when asked if it is extreme to believe that The UK should leave the European Union. For the sake of balance, 30% of responders suggested it was extreme to believe that the UK should remain in the European Union. Other notable responses include 49% of responders suggesting the view that children should not be assigned gender at birth is extreme, 41% of responders suggesting that believing marriage should be between a man and a woman is extreme, and 42% thinking that believing that the monarchy should be abolished is extreme.
The results of this study illustrate just how vague the concept of 'extreme' is. So, what exactly will the examples of extremism that the commission identifies and exposes look like? What should they look like? And what views do you, or those you admire, hold that could come under the commission's remit?
Any of us could have views or beliefs that appear extreme to others. The contrast between religious conservatives and secularists, pro-life and pro-choice campaigners, environmental activists and corporations, or even Remain voters and Leave voters, exists on subjective opinion. How can we establish a commission to identify extreme ideology or views when we know that subjectivity plays such a huge part in defining the value of ‘extreme’?
Any commission of this nature would inspire a culture where academics, journalists, activists, and politicians would constantly be conscious of their views being labelled as 'extreme'. The implications of such a commission on whistleblowers, critics, and opposition figures like trade unions and charities, could be dangerous. In an age dominated by social media, such concerns are exacerbated, with public expression of opinion being easier than ever for governments to monitor.
To protect freedom of speech and expression, and the right to critique, parody, and disagree, we have to be careful where we draw the line between protecting people and damaging the valuable culture of debate, discussion, and continuous dissonance that built, and continues to build, the culture we live in. A commission to counter extremism, however well meaning, cannot be constructed in a way that risks one of our most essential liberties, and which risks destroying the diverse political, social, and academic community we have built.