Brendan O’Neill of British online mag sp!ked writes about the effort to ban what is known as “murder music” (though not by fans of said music), i.e. Jamaican dancehall, in the southern England city of Brighton. The music is accused of inciting violence (or at least stuff that leads to it) against gays and lesbians, and is thus more than a simple issue of free speech. It’s “Hate Speech”. Notable artists in this genre include Elephant Man and Sizzla. I first heard of this controversy a few years back when the gay advocacy group OutRage! urged boycotts of performances by the above artists during their European tour. I supported this move.
O’Neill rightly warns of the dangers of taking seriously the attempt to ban offensive speech. Though some make the claim that “incitement” (to attack gays) is what is really at issue, and not simply unpopular and offensive speech, the case would then have to be made that the lyrics in question directly call upon listeners to attack (gay) minorities. But in the article it is clear that by “incitement” the proponents of the ban mean incitement to hate. Not to attack, but to hate.
Indeed, the London Evening Standard reports that the music of mainstream artists such as 50 Cent and Eminem, which is considered by some to be homophobic, could also fall foul of Brighton’s new licensing regime and find itself banned. The Times (London) reports that Brave New Brighton plans to censor any kind of art that incites ‘hatred’ against minorities, including art exhibitions and plays.
If speech is now subject to prohibition on the pretext of avoiding ugly emotional states of mind directed at a particular group, any notion of the free society is seriously undermined, not to mention any notion of political art worth the designation. O’Neill gives some examples of famous works of art that could have conceivably been banned if yesteryear had adopted this outlook of legal “sensitivity” toward certain groups. Here’s a short list of contemporary group targets of my own:
(1) The Rich
(4) The Amish
(6) Poor Southern Whites
(7) Branch Davidians
But there’s another way of looking at the issue.
In the case of the restriction of speech disproportionately adored by black immigrants – such as the British of Jamaican origin – we have a case of censorship in the service of protecting minorities…at the expense of minorities. The “lifeworld“, as Habermas would put it, of Jamaican immigrants finds itself on trial. There is far more to dancehall than simply non-progressive poetry, and the thousands of gays and lesbians in the US who enjoy mainstream hip hop despite its anti-gay lyrics are a stateside testimony to this.
One could claim that the rights of the minority within the minority should be prioritized, but this veritable rule of thumb is not so obviously the most liberal after all. When the United States Congress allowed for a certain drug (nowhere else allowed) called Peyote to be consumed by Native Americans on their reservations for ceremonial purposes, no doubt the minority (assuming they weren’t in fact the majority!) of Native Americans who opposed this allowance, for the same reason many Americans support drug prohibition, were disenfranchised. (As a libertarian, I don’t believe one can be truly disenfranchised by the use of drugs by others, as it does not violate their property rights, but the same goes for “murder music”.)
So, if Jamaican dancehall were to be banned, a far larger number of minorities will have been harmed than saved. Of course this is subject to criticism too. Who is to say, especially in the so called “long run”, what will harm or save the greatest number of minorities? But this is precisely my point. For the sake of playing devil’s advocate with perfectly good hearted liberals who only seek to advance the cause of minority interests at large, without positing a hierarchy among non-white, non-rich populations, I wish to show that the effort to advance “minority interests” in a case such as controversial dancehall in Brighton, U.K. is fraught with philosophical conundrums.
In addition to all of this, one could critique the actual implementation of a ban on, say, lyrics only, instead of the musical form itself. To think that lawyers, judges and activists won’t sound the alarm on lyrics that sound suspiciously anti-gay (or too obscene), but can’t be proven so, is more than naive.