Sunday, July 02, 2006

"therefore of necessity nameless"

posted by k

In Britain, all sort of people are being told not to protest - or not to protest in unseemly language. Demonstrators in London may be wise to take masking tape with them in case police object to the language on their placards; placards with "inappropriate" or "offensive" language are confiscated unless the offending words can be covered.

Language itself is under attack. Earlier this year, 18-year-old Kurt Walker was faced with a summary fine for using the phrase "fuck all" in a private conversation with friends which a policewoman happened to overhear. He objected and the case was dropped. The illegal conversation seems to have gone something like this:

Friend: What have you been up to?
Kurt: Fuck all.

I don't know anything about Kurt Walker, beyond what the BBC news stories told me. I don't know how many people are fined for saying "fuck" or whether any statistics are kept. Language can hurt and offend. That alone is no reason for making certain words illegal. Restricting language restricts thought.

Meanwhile, certain slogans are being forbidden - or banned in certain places.

After taking part in a demonstration in London some while ago, I wanted to enter the National Gallery in London. I've been in the habit of visiting the Gallery since I was a child and the combined attractions of art and a cup of tea were irresistible. Tea is quite expensive at the Gallery but I assume that some of the money goes to maintain the collection. As I was one of a group including a couple of children this seemed a particularly good idea. Brief informal tours of galleries can be a good way to introduce children to art - and to give them the idea that art galleries are welcoming places.

We were stopped at the entrance. One child was wearing a peace flag as a cloak and was advised that this was unacceptable - all political slogans and garments were banned. Just as well I wasn't wearing a political T-shirt. But the child put the flag in his pocket and we were admitted. I ascribed the initial refusal to the hot day and the exhaustion of staff rather than any deliberate policy. I could have argued about the political implications of some of the paintings in the gallery - recently they mounted an exhibition demonstrating Botticelli's support for Savonarola, for instance - but it didn't seem worth it. I wanted to see the Titians.

But all kinds of political expression and free expression seems to be under attack. I doubt I'd have much sympathy with the political views of Tony Wright of Burton Lazars, who runs a stall selling T-shirts to members of the Countryside Alliance among others. But I'm extremely worried that I live in a country where the police insist he dismantle his stall and fined him eighty pounds for selling T-shirts with the slogan "BOLLOCKS TO BLAIR".

People have been prevented from wearing the T-shirts too. A pro-hunting young woman was told to remove her T-shirt at a country fair while a Tory campaigner handing out leaflets during the election campaign was asked to remove her jacket with the same slogan or face arrest.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Steve Jago had three photocopies of an article by Henry Porter in Vanity Fair confiscated on the grounds that they constituted "politically motivated material". Steve Jago was in Whitehall, on his own, carrying a banner with a quotation from George Orwell: "In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Steve Jago's arrest under the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act, which bans even one-person demonstrations in "designated areas" seems to reinforce the slogan on his placard.

The headline in the Independent newspaper after the event, warning that it was running "the article that might get you arrested" seemed a little excessive, though an amusing response bringing the article to a wider audience.

But the delightfully-named Charity Sweet was stopped by police as she ate her sandwiches near Downing Street and read that issue of the Independent. Obviously they may have thought the anti-bullying label round her neck was dangerous or, had they known it, that her friendship with Steve Jago was subversive.

It may be that none of this is systematic. But while the police have always defended the government, the attack on language and forceful expressions of opposition is becoming more acute.

Read George Orwell to see why this matters.

Read Tom Leonard.

Language is how we think.
Language is how we communicate with one another.
Language is an important part of how we know ourselves and are known.

To ban language is to ban thought, knowledge and communication.

Language can do immense harm but it also offers a democracy the means of growth.


Blogger areopagitica said...

posted by k

an additional and relevant poem from Tom Leonard elsewhere on his web-site is "The Fair Cop" at

5:53 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems that using the word "shit" in private conversation on the underground can also result in an £80 fine. See

3:02 pm  
Anonymous Jo said...

Hi kath,

Just to let you know I've done an update over on Londonist and have linked to your piece - which I thought was excellent. Though in my current state of mind I am probably biased. :)

Jo x

5:09 pm  
Anonymous Tommy said...

wrt the 'Bollocks to Blair' shirts, the word 'bollocks' has been found by Nottingham Magistrates' Court not to be so offensive that it should be banned. Are the police not aware of this? Perhaps they need to be reminded. See's_The_Sex_Pistols

2:31 pm  

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