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Artillery Row

How far is too far when it comes to protest?

Against the notion of competing rights

Mass protests that have followed Israeli attacks on Gaza — a response to Hamas attacks on Israel — have raised the question of the extent to which protests should be tolerated. Some Western nations, like France, have attempted to prohibit them. How far is too far when it comes to protest?

I think there is a sense in which this is a trick question. We only really know when something has gone too far when “too far” has already happened — when we are staggering back wide-eyed, breathless and bloody-nosed from the thing.

We may always be doomed not to know how far too far might be, until it has already passed us by. The best we can make of this bad situation is to point out when we think “too far” may be on the horizon.

To the second question then: who gets to decides what is acceptable or not? Who gets to define “too far”?

To some extent, I do not think this is our choice to make. Most people are able to recognise “too far” when they see it. I want to invoke that often touted phrase “common sense” with one caveat: I do not believe “common sense” is the “common consensus”.

As we know, propaganda can be sophisticated, AI convincing and journalists comically wrong. A consensus is by no means a hard and fast way of ascertaining what is right and what is wrong.

When I invoke common sense, I mean to say I believe in the truth of that which is commonly sensed. I believe in the tangibleness — and what’s more, the benevolence — of those patterns that have given life to each of us and will, in the end, take that life away again. I believe in our shared ability to recognise those patterns, extract the same meaning from them and, above that, experience the same emotion — be it delight or disgust, contentment or contempt, awe or agony, when looking at those patterns.

The fact each of us feels pain on losing someone we love is not an illusion. Neither is the existence of right and wrong. Morality is not a social construct. Whilst the two are related, it is more than a question of good or poor taste.

This brings me the third question: should the UK follow France in banning pro-Palestine protests? My answer to this is no — not just because I believe in free speech even in the most trying of conditions, though I do, but because Britain should never follow the example of France under any circumstance.

The potency of a right would be dependent upon fashion

It might be argued that we are in an emergency situation. Does an honest belief that we live in an “emergency” situation justify widespread disruption, though? The mediaeval Europeans were obsessed with the representation of mental peculiarities and spiritual ailments in their depictions of the physical body. One recurring image was that headless man, often seen kicking his own head down the road in the attempt to pick it up. These characters represented a type of person in society who was prone to being possessed by the spirit of devotional fanaticism. These people existed then, and they exist today.

If you’ve got a worm in your conscience or a conviction in your heart, attest to it. If that conviction is good, and it is true, then others will see it for what it is. Take courage that history, as well as being a long line of “going too far”, is also a long line of people seeing what is good and true.

Nonetheless, the question is not just “should these people be allowed to protest” but “does their right to protest trump my right to move about with being harassed and harangued?”

The solution to this conundrum is not to construct a hierarchy of rights. For one, to have a hierarchy of rights undermines the principle that these rights are fundamental and inviolable. “All people have rights, but some people have more rights than others” is reminiscent of a well-known Orwell phrase.

More than this, even if we could agree on a hierarchy of rights (which we couldn’t), within five minutes that list would be musty and outdated (and probably racist) because within that time, new priorities would have emerged and some new form of suffering invented. The potency of a right would be dependent upon what social issues are fashionable.

What is the solution, then, to the issue of competing rights? I propose we do something radical. Do away with them!

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