Friday 15 March 2024

The exercise of forgiveness


As Michael Gove demonstrated yesterday, defining ‘extremism’ isn’t as easy as some might think. He, presumably, thinks he’s got it right, although the range of views and arguments deployed against him suggests otherwise. But there was also another aspect to what he said yesterday when challenged about extremism coming from the direction of his own party’s supporters. Sir Paul Marshall, the man behind the increasingly misnamed GB ‘News’ which gives a platform to the swivel-eyed entryist tendency in the Tory Party, has something of a record when it comes to making or supporting extreme statements about Islam, LBGQT+ issues and migration. Gove attempted to defend him by referring to his record of ‘educational philanthropy’. The underlying issue here is whether, and to what extent, ‘doing good’ in one field is enough to get a free pass to support and promote hate speech in another.

It's not the only recent example. The Leader of the House of Commons defended the Science Secretary over her rash and unwise decision to accuse an academic of Islamism, which led to a law suit for libel, by referring to an entirely unrelated matter as an indicator of her ‘character’, as though that could somehow excuse using public funds to ruin someone’s reputation and pay the associated legal costs. And then, of course, we had Gove himself calling for ‘Christian forgiveness’ for a man who donated £10 million (plus a currently unconfirmed extra £5 million) because he’d apologised. (The idea that ‘forgiveness’ is a ‘Christian’ trait and therefore implicitly not shared with those of a different persuasion is a pretty telling remark and might even be regarded an ‘extremist belief’ in itself.) They haven’t (not yet at least) gone as far as Trump who told his chief of staff that “Hitler did a lot of good things”, although he apparently didn’t spell out what they were. (Things like locking up or even executing political opponents, invading neighbouring countries which didn’t spend enough on defence, and taking what some might see as a ‘hard line’ on people that he didn’t really think were German would all fit the Trump playbook, but all that’s off the point here.)

Maybe it’s true that there are very few people who never did a good thing in their lives, and that we should consider the whole rather than just a part, but the question is one of balance. Which people should be shown forgiveness (whether Christian or not), and which should not? And for which sins? The very cynical might think that the de facto deciding factor is just how much help someone has given to the government or governing party in terms of cash donations or merely a platform to spout their ideas. The more common or garden cynic might see it as more generalised – those who promote the governing party’s ideas are allowed to get away with more than those who don’t. It doesn’t take a lot of observing to note that apologies by Tories seem to be assumed to carry more weight than apologies by members of other parties. Genuine atonement and contrition are – or should be – about more than a mumbled half-apology and a donation to Tory coffers. But there – I’m just showing the extent to which I’ve fallen for the extremist idea that people should, as a general rule, avoid hate speech in the first place rather than atone for it after the event.

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