Byline: It seems that free speech is being treated more and more as a debatable topic, something with good and bad aspects. I’m not sure I like this development… but anyway in your opinion, where is the ‘line’ on free speech?

Peter Tatchell: Free speech is one of the most precious and important of all human rights. Through history, many people many great thinkers said things that caused great offence in their time – such as Galileo Galilei, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. Much of human progress starts off as a minority dissident opinion – usually controversial, provocative, and offensive to many people. If we don’t allow the right of people to cause offence, there is a big danger that we shut down free and open debate upon which an open society depends and on which social progress relies. My only limit on free speech would be instances where someone makes damaging, false allegations against another person, such as accusing them of tax fraud, or paedophilia, for example. Another instance would be words or behaviour that are threatening, menacing or harassing, or incite violence. But those exceptions aside, in a free society we have to allow objectionable, disagreeable opinions. It doesn’t mean we agree with them, but it does mean that we don’t criminalise them. 

I will always protest against racists, and homophobic bigots such as the Christian street preacher Harry Hammond – but I would never agree with him being prosecuted and convicted for merely saying that homosexuality is immoral. That was an excessive use of the law to stifle an offensive opinion, but an opinion that did not cross any of the thresholds that I think should limit free speech. So I offered to testify in Harry Hammond’s defence when he was facing trial. Sadly, he was so homophobic that he didn’t want me as a witness.

B: Would have probably helped him, as well…

PT: It might have, it might have. I’m not saying people should be offensive, or that being offensive is a good thing. I’m simply saying that almost anything anyone says can potentially be offensive to someone. 

Being offensive is not, in my view, a sufficient reason to criminalise words and behaviour.

B: With that in mind, what is your view on the ‘no-platforming’ going on at British universities?

PT: I don’t support no-platforming unless a person has a history of making damaging false allegations, menaces, threats, harassments or incitements to violence. Unless someone crosses those red lines, I don’t think they should be denied a platform. If someone makes anti- human rights opinions, they should certainly be protested against. The best way to deal with bigots is by shining the light of publicity upon them and countering their arguments. Bans and no-platforms are a very bureaucratic way of dealing with issues that revolve around ideas and ethics. The best way to defeat bad ideas is with better ideas. That means debate.

Of course sometimes the people we disagree with are not willing to debate, because they know their ideas are shaky and would be torn to shreds. But we can still publicise their anti- human rights agenda and protest against them.

B: What’s your view on ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’? Should students be ‘protected’ or exposed to ideas that might upset them?

PT: There is no human right to be spared upset or offence. That’s not a human right in any convention or law either in Britain or in international statutes. The idea that university students are weak, vulnerable, sensitive and gullible to the point where they need protecting from ideas strikes me as very odd. Even if we accept that some students may be sensitive and get upset, that’s not a sufficiently good reason to deny someone free speech. It’s got to be much more extreme than that. We shouldn’t be deciding university policy or legislation based on the sensitivities of the most sensitive people in society. 

University students, like everyone else, should be exposed to a range of ideas, including ideas they may disagree with. Then they should be empowered to question and challenge them. They should also have the right to hear alternative ideas, and then to make up their own minds. It’s very dangerous to go down the road of censorship and no-platforms, without really strong, compelling reasons. I don’t think that far-right extremists should be able to espouse their bigotry unchallenged, but I think countering their ideas and protesting against them is ultimately more effective. It’s really insulting to university students to suggest that they’re not capable of hearing, analysing and rejecting intolerant, prejudiced ideas. Artificially protecting them from offensive ideas that exist in wider society doesn’t help them develop their sceptical, critical faculties.

It’s really insulting to university students to suggest that they’re not capable of hearing, analysing and rejecting intolerant, prejudiced ideas. 

B: Is something going wrong in overall left-of-centre politics, with people being afraid to speak their minds for fear of offending someone? Is the problem ‘identity politics’?

PT: There’s nothing wrong with identity politics. It came into existence because the mainstream left and right narratives too often ignored women and other minorities. Identity politics was a reaction to that neglect and to elements of prejudice that existed towards ethnic minority people, disabled people, LGBT people, and others; it was a form of self-defence against a politics that failed to address a constellation of issues.

Where some interpretations of identity politics have gone wrong are in emphasising difference, to the neglect of our common humanity. Too often nowadays the wider public interest is ignored in favour of specialist particular self-interest. I want to see a multicultural society where there is a place for identity politics but which is also grounded in principles of human rights. The drift towards cultural relativism is a huge betrayal of minority people. The idea that people from minority backgrounds are the only ones allowed to have an opinion on minority issues strikes me as regressive. I’m delighted when straight people engage with LGBT issues. I’m glad that they recognise the validity and importance of these issues even if sometimes I don’t agree with what they say. I will seek to challenge them rather than say they’re not entitled to have a point of view. So I don’t agree with people in the LGBT community who say that only LGBT people are entitled to have an opinion on LGBT issues. Everyone is entitled to have a view on LGBT issues, and if those of us who are LGBT, regardless of whether that view was expressed by an LGBT person or a straight person, we’re also entitled to question and challenge it.

The right to be different is a fundamental human right. The idea that we all have to be the same is authoritarian and would result in an incredibly boring society. The multiculturalist defence of the right to be different is spot on, provided that difference does not involve denying human rights to others. My politics is based on the principle of universal human rights. For me every person on this planet, no matter what their national, political or cultural background, is entitled to equal human rights. The rights that I demand for myself in Britain are no different than the rights being demanded by human rights defenders all over the world. They transcend difference.

For me every person on this planet, no matter what their national, political or cultural background, is entitled to equal human rights. 

B:Where did your position on human rights, and dedication to activism in its cause, come from? Was there a specific formative experience that led you into the life of an activist?

PT: How far back do you want to go?

B: To the very first time you decided to campaign about something.

PT: My first campaign was at the age of 15 in 1967. In my home town of Melbourne, Australia, a man named Ronald Ryan was due to be hanged for allegedly shooting dead a warder during a prison escape. From an autopsy report I read, which detailed the bullet’s trajectory through the victim’s body, I worked out that it would have been almost impossible for Ryan to have fired the fatal shot. He was hanged anyway. This provoked a lifetime of scepticism towards authority. I thought to myself ‘if the government, police and courts can hang a man where there is a reasonable doubt about his guilt, I can’t trust them any more’. So I began to question other things that the government was doing in my name, such as the abuse of the Aboriginal people of Australia, Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and in 1969 when I realised I was gay, the persecution of LGBT people. For many years, I did my human rights activism as an evening, weekend, spare time activity alongside thousands and thousands of other people. After the Bermondsey by-election of 1983 I began to do human rights activism full time.

B: Things seem to have changed a lot since the days of the Bermondsey by-election – you’ve gone from being vilified by the right-wing press and broader society to being something like a national treasure now. How do you feel about that? Amazed? Bemused?

It is quite extraordinary the way in which I have gone from being labelled Public Enemy Number One and quote-unquote a ‘homosexual terrorist’ to being now often accepted as a legitimate human rights campaigner. 

I guess that’s partly because of the longevity of my campaigning. A lot of people who were previously very hostile and critical now take the view that, while they don’t always agree with me, I have stuck to my principles, and done this human rights work for over 48 years. There’s a sort of grudging respect that has developed by people who were formerly very harsh critics. I think it shows the importance of standing up for what you believe in. It can be very, very tough, as it was for me for over two decades. I was vilified and demonised by the right wing press and by lots of people in politics. But in the end quite a lot of them have come to recognise that I have stuck to my beliefs and followed my conscience.

B: Did you expect the UK to change as quickly as it did, and do we still have some way to go on LGBT rights?

PT: The changes were late to come, but in the end were very swift. Up until 1999, Britain had by volume the largest number of anti-gay laws anywhere in the world – some of them dating back centuries. Nowadays we have some of the best laws. Those changes are the culmination of a half-century of campaigning by myself and many other people. Gradually, slowly, we’ve won over public opinion. We started at the margins, no we’re at the mainstream. We started as victims, now we’re the victors. The LGBT equality campaign has been one of the most successful reform campaigns in British history. I can’t think of any other issue where there has been such rapid, successful law reform in the space of just over a decade. Its unprecedented, and it’s a tribute to the tens of thousands of people, gay and straight, who supported the campaign.

B: What kind of a price have you paid for your activism?

PT: My campaigning has been very, very stressful. For 45 years I did it unpaid, without any income. I had to rely on bits of freelance journalism and research. For most of those years I lived on about 7000 pounds a year, which is very tough in London.

B: I can imagine…

PT: I went through more than two decades of outrageous vilification and demonization by red-top tabloids and political opponents. At times, it was like living through a low-level civil war, which prompted a wave of hate mail, death threats, and actual physical assaults. 

There have been over fifty violent attacks upon my flat, including bricks through the window, three arson attempts, and even a bullet through the front door. I’ve been physically beaten up over 300 times, including attacks with fists and boots, but also bricks, iron bars, bottles, knives, and baseball bats. Most of my teeth have been chipped and cracked. 

I’ve suffered for years with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder where I have recurrent night terrors. This is quite exceptional by British standards, but nothing in comparison to what happens to human rights defenders in countries like Russia, Iran, and Uganda. Many of them end up jailed, tortured, and even murdered. None of that’s happened to me – I got off lightly. I count myself lucky.

B: So no plans to slow down? Will you continue working like this indefinitely?

PT: I’ve got no plans to retire, that would be boring. Plus there’s so much work yet to be done.

I’ve got no plans to retire, that would be boring

B: Previously, you said that many people – not just LGBT but also refugees, and many others facing oppression – turn to you as a last resort. You receive hundreds of messages every day. Does it not bother you that there are few others doing what you are doing?

PT: There are lots of other people doing great work. But mostly they have serious funding and staff to support their efforts. Through my Peter Tatchell Foundation, we raise a small amount of money to fund the work we do, but this is very small by comparison to most similar human rights NGOs. Right now its just me and my assistant, Pliny Soocoormanee. We struggle to deal with the thousands of messages we receive every week. Really we need a staff of about six to cope with the volume. But we do answer and support nearly all the people who come to us. We’re inspired and motivated by their needs, and often, our success in helping them. I can see that we make a difference. We help people who have suffered hate crimes and discrimination, we help refugees seeking asylum; most of the time we succeed in helping them to win.

B: What are you working on at the moment?

PT: We’ve won same-sex marriage, but we still haven’t succeeded in overturning the ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships. To me, the ban on opposite-sex couples having a civil partnership is just as wrong as the previous ban on same-sex couples having a civil marriage. Both are discriminatory and both should be ended. In a democratic society, everyone should be equal before the law, and that includes straight people just as much as LGBT ones.

We’re supporting a campaign to make sex and relationship education mandatory in schools, and inclusive of LGBT issues. We’re also promoting the idea of equality and diversity lessons, to challenge all forms of prejudice. Not just homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, but also racism, misogyny, and prejudice against disabled people, refugees, ex-offenders, and so on.

We also do a lot of work in challenging Islamist and other far-right extremism, including campaigns against the BNP and EDL, as well as those who promote Islamist clerical fascism.

B: Do either of those crowds threaten you?

PT: Sometimes, yes.

B: If you were twenty again, or you were advising a young person wanting to be an activist, what would you suggest focusing on? What are the absolute core issues in the world today that really need tackling?

PT: One of the biggest global violations of human rights is poverty and underdevelopment. Billions of people on our planet live in poverty, without safe, clean drinking water, adequate nutritious food, shelter, education, and healthcare. These are all human rights just as much as freedom of speech and the right to protest. It is unconscionable that a thousand million people on this planet are hungry or malnourished and have no safe, clean drinking water. We live in a world of plenty, where there are people with fabulous riches, while billions are scraping not much more than a hand-to-mouth existence.

I’ve long argued in favour of a UN international convention to remedy global poverty. 

My idea is to get agreement from governments across the world to cut military spending by 10% and put that money into funding projects around the world to lift people out of poverty. 10% of world annual military spending amounts to 160,000,000,000 US dollars. With that kind of money invested each year in tackling poverty, within 20-30 years, everybody on the planet could have all the basics of life. 

It just takes willpower and commitment. When you think about it, the 85 richest individuals in the world have more wealth than the poorest 50% of the world population. That is immoral. There needs to be a greater sharing of the world’s resources to end deprivation and suffering.

B: What is your view on Austerity?

PT: The idea that there is no alternative to austerity is one of the biggest cons of all time. Sadly, the big three parties are all committed to varying forms and degrees of austerity. They claim there’s no other way to reduce the deficit. Yet there are a number of ways that the deficit can be reduced, and the economy rebooted. The government could cancel HS2, which would save around 50 billion pounds. It could scrap the Trident nuclear missile renewal programme, which would save about 100 billion pounds over the 40-year life of the programme. We could close tax avoidance loopholes, which would bring in an extra 20 billion pounds plus every year. A similar sum could be raised by ending pension tax relief for people earning more than 100,000 pounds per year. A financial transaction tax set at 0.05% would, if it was levied on currencies, shares, bonds, and commodities transactions, raise at least another 50 billion pounds every year. Another option would be to have a one-off wealth tax on assets, set at an average of 20 percent on the richest 5% of the population. This would be a one-off tax starting at one percent for those at the lowest end of the scale, and go up to 20-25 percent for those at the top, the mega-billionaires. This one-off tax would raise about 400 billion pounds.

Some of it would be on a one-off basis, and some of it would be recurring, year-on-year. The total would be 600 billion, enough to pay off the deficit more than six times over. It could also erase almost half the national debt. But one of the most useful ways to spend a large chunk of that 600 billion would be to fund a ‘Green New Deal’. This is modelled on President Roosevelt’s New Deal in the US in the 1930s, which helped end the Great Depression. Under the Green New Deal, the money would be invested to create hundreds of thousands of green jobs in sectors like energy conservation, renewable energy, and affordable homes. This would meet people’s needs and help reduce the threat of climate destruction, while also kickstarting a long term economic revitalisation. Getting people back to work and off unemployment benefit, a Green New Deal would cut the cost of social security payouts, and get more people paying tax and national insurance, which would boost government revenue and reduce the deficit. People would have more disposable income to spend on goods and services, which would encourage new businesses, leading to more jobs, with more people paying tax, to fund public services.

B: You were once a Labour candidate. How far are you from where Labour is today?

PT: There are lots of good people still in Labour, but the party as a whole has drifted far from its roots. It has jettisoned much of its social justice agenda, and its not even democratic any more. The party conference no longer has the right to determine party policy. Everything is decided centrally by the leadership at the top. Grassroots members have very little say. Labour is deeply tarnished. Its reputation has been deeply tarnished by taking us to war in Iraq, and the allied attacks upon civil liberties. Labour is committed to austerity, albeit not quite as badly as the Tories and Lib Dems. After 22 years of membership, I left Labour in 2000, and four years later decided to join the Greens. They’re not perfect, but Green Party members decide Green Party policy, and those policies are much more progressive than anything offered by Labour or any other party. They still retain their idealism and optimism. 

Main image copyright: Mattbuck 2010