There’s a famous quote, variously and erroneously attibuted to Evelyn Beatrice Hall and Voltaire amongst others, although it’s proving notoriously tricky to work out who actually said it (it’s probably a composite of a range of similar statements). That’s a shame, because it’s one of the most profound statements on the inherently flawed nature of democracy I’ve ever come across, and it roughly goes:
“I may detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The ability to separate the nature of an individual’s opinions from the individual’s inherent right to hold them is the cornerstone of intellectual debate. This aphorism, difficult to attribute though it is, teaches us the importance not of agreeing with each other but of agreeing to disagree, and also — and this is where the word “detest” is crucial — of holding each other to account for what we say.
This, incidentally, is why I say let Trump come to the U.K. Let him hear the roar of protest. Let him see the baby in the sky (although, as it turns out, he may not after all), and let him sit across the table from our national leaders and be told how his actions digress from the democratic values we are supposed to share. Better he hears all that, surely, than he stays in the Oval Office with the doors shut, listening only to sycophants and racists?
Yesterday at Pride in London, a transphobic party of protestors called ‘Get The L Out!’ forced their way to the front of the parade. They proceeded to march along the parade route, ahead of the official parade, souring what is supposed to be a day of celebration and smearing the incredible work that Pride in London do to celebrate and platform LGBTQ voices in the capital. They were rightly met with disgust and horror, which amplified the love for our trans siblings in the parade itself. Still, trans marchers should absolutely not have to share a platform with that kind of transphobia and it is important to see that Pride in London did as much as they could at the time to make sure they didn’t.
Pride in London released a statement this morning, condemning the actions of the protestors and clarifying the steps they took to mitigate the situation. Both P.I.L. and the police were powerless to remove the protestors since no clear offence was committed: peaceful protest is legal in the U.K. and the group’s demands to march behind the flag in the main parade were flatly refused. Had they forcefully trespassed on the parade despite this and walked amongst the registered marchers there would have been recourse for arrests, but they didn’t.
With no legal power to disperse them, no sense of how violent the protestors were prepared to become and 30,000 marchers to whom P.I.L. and the police have a duty of care to ensure their safety, not to mention the unbelievable administrative complexity of an event of this nature where any and all disruptions can have cumulative effects and the shortest delay might have resulted in entire registered groups not being able to march, which would clearly be unacceptable, the group were allowed to proceed along the route separate from the main parade.
Under the circumstances, I don’t think P.I.L. could have done anything different. It was a sour moment in an otherwise overwhelmingly joyful day. No-one could stand in Trafalgar Square yesterday afternoon and say that Pride in London is not a phenomenal triumph of organisation, generosity and positivity. I celebrate and thank them for that, while recognising and affirming the disappointment and anger felt by those undermined by the protestors. Still, disappointment and anger cannot be legislated for, and it feels ungrateful to condemn P.I.L. outright for the actions of an unaffiliated group.
Of course I also expect them to be better prepared next year, as they promise in their statement. It is a very different thing to respond to a challenge that presented itself a year ago as opposed to a challenge that presents itself without warning. They should now be putting measures in place to better separate and shield protestors from the main parade. They should work on more efficient PR systems to quickly clarify their position. On this occasion I don’t think it is unreasonable that a statement was not released until the following day: an organisation of Pride in London’s weight and importance owes it to all of us to make sure that any statement it makes is balanced, factually correct and accurately represents its views. It includes detailed consultation with TransPALS, its own lesbian board members and the European Pride Organisers Assocation. That kind of robust response cannot be formulated with the speed of a tweet.
But while we’re talking about tweeting, it is also a difficult call to make in terms of how much you let an oppositional agenda dominate your message. Certainly, it would have been inappropriate to drown out the overwhelming positivity of the day by drawing disproportionate attention to an isolated act of hatred. On Twitter, they profiled each registered group — including the many trans rights marchers — as the parade unfolded. ‘Get The L Out!’ were obviously not one of those groups.
Would a single brief statement — “An unregistered group has forced their way in front of the parade, they do not represent our views, full statement to follow” — have helped? Maybe. Does their omission to do so make Pride in London, a vast organisation with a decades-long track record of uplifting our community/ies, transphobic? Don’t be ridiculous. People are angry, and that anger needs a target. But to lash out at Pride in London is self-defeating and offensive.
Sadiq Khan didn’t approve the Trump balloon because he thinks it’s funny (although I reckon he probably does); he approved it because it is not within the remit of his office to decide who may and may not stage a protest, and because it would be profoundly undemocratic for the mayor to censor the nature of a protest so long as it is legal — that is to say that not dangerous, not violent and not hateful. That last one is subjective, but is nevertheless defined in law.
The same goes for ‘Get The L Out!’. As the saying goes, I detest what they say — utterly, entirely, and without reservation — but it is not for me, for Pride in London, for the LGBTQ community or even the police to say whether or not they have the right to say it. The law is the law, and it protects our right to say unpopular things. Never forget that it is that right upon which the entire Pride movement has been built, and it is the very lack of that right which suppresses Pride and LGBTQ equality in other countries.
So what if an organisation like the Westboro Baptists forced their way in front of next year’s parade, as some people have hyperbolically suggested? Well, for a start, our hate speech laws are much better than they are in America, so they’d already be gagged. But can you imagine what a million voices of dissent would sound like if a group like that tried to march past them? It would make headline news. We would join hands to drown them out. Politicians would be forced to speak out in condemnation. If they didn’t, they would be criticised in turn. It would start a national conversation about how we value LGBTQ rights. It would be the squeak of bigotry against the bellow of equality. Our universal condemnation of ‘Get The L Out!’ shows that.
It would be ugly too, of course it would, and it would de-sanctify the safe space that we are trying to claim — so it would be entirely inappropriate to interpret this as an invitation for a hate group to trespass on our day when they are not welcome. But Pride is protest and protest is how important conversations happen. Just like Trump, if the bigots and haters come then let them be held to account by our roar of protest. That doesn’t ruin Pride. That is Pride.
It’s the price we pay for being allowed to speak our views. It’s ugly, frustrating, painful at times, and fraught with ethical complications, but it’s a price worth paying when you consider the alternatives— and to conflate the defence, or at the very least and certainly in this case, a reluctant toleration of protest with the implied defence of the protestor’s opinions is lazy and deceitful.
We come to Pride to raise our voices in all their force and complexity. Sometimes we are right. Sometimes we are very wrong.
You may detest what I say, but you must defend to the death my right to say it.