The Observer view: Michael Gove’s definition of extremism will shut down vital debate | Observer editorial

How do you define extremism? That depends on whether you want a definition with which most people can agree, or one that is meaningful. A definition acceptable to most people must necessarily be broad and bland. One that has more meaning will inevitably be controversial and contested.

And therein lies one of Michael Gove’s problems in his new definition of extremism. Such a definition is either unnecessary or it creates the very problems it is supposed to solve.

There are certain issues that most people would accept are extreme: the advocacy of Nazism, for example, or a demand for the imposition of sharia law. But it is easy to see why such views are unacceptable without having a government definition of what is “extreme”.

In most cases, though, whether or not certain views are extreme is a matter of fierce debate. Some argue that mass demonstrations in support of Palestinian people intimidate Jews and so are “extremist”. Others insist that supporting a state that has devastated Gaza, killed more than 30,000 people and displaced almost the entire population constitutes extremism. This is a political debate that cannot be resolved by labelling one or other view as “extreme”.

Or take another contemporary hot topic. Not so long ago, support for the forcible deportation of anyone who arrived without proper papers to Rwanda, a country to which none had ever been, or wanted to go, and dismissing out of hand, without considering any facts, their claim for asylum in this country, would have been relegated to the margins of politics. Today, it is a view adopted by many mainstream commentators. What might have been regarded as “extreme” a decade ago has come to occupy the centre ground. No definition can encompass this.

Gove defines extremism as “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance that aims to negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve [this]”.

This suggests that racism is “extremism”. After all, it is, by definition, “intolerance that aims to negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”. So, does Gove consider Frank Hester’s alleged comments that Diane Abbott made him “want to hate all black women” extremist? Or think that his belief that “she should be shot” helps “undermine… parliamentary democracy”? Should Hester be on the list of people barred from contact with the government? If not, why not?

Similarly, does Gove believe religious opposition to gay marriage (“intolerance that aims to negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”) is extremist? Should the archbishop of Canterbury and the pope be on the government’s proscribed list?

No serious politician or commentator would suggest that they should be. But the very suggestion exposes the problem of politics by labelling. Labelling something “extremist” does not bring anything extra to the table. Whether something is racist or homophobic, or threatens parliamentary democracy, is something that should be obvious without government labelling. And if it’s not, then it reveals the necessity for political debate, not a formal definition. The real danger of Gove’s proposal is not that it may proscribe the archbishop of Canterbury but that it may curtail the free speech rights of those without high office or celebrity status who may be engaging in debates about, for instance, the relationship between trans rights and women’s rights, or the question of whether Israel’s actions in Gaza constitute “genocide”. These are crucial debates, which many already try to shut down. There is a danger that we give would-be censors a new weapon with an irresponsibly broad definition of “extremism”. To label an argument “extremist” suggests that it lies beyond the boundaries of accepted reasonable debate. But it is precisely that debate we often need to have to clarify our moral attitudes.

When she was home secretary, Suella Braverman raised the possibility of banning Palestine solidarity marches, which she called “hate marches”. Gove has made similar comments, and in the context of a discussion about the definition of extremism. How long before that definition becomes a means of banning, or restricting, such demonstrations? There is a danger that Gove’s proposals may lead to restricting basic rights by labelling speeches or protests as “extremist”.

According to Gove, the new definition would help the government “choose our friends wisely”. Choosing our friends wisely is, however, a matter of judgment, not labelling. Governments and councils already use their discretion when deciding with what groups or individuals they should engage. No official should need a list to know not to engage with, or fund, the British National Socialist Movement. On the other hand, a Muslim group that uses the phrase “from the river to the sea”, or a Jewish group that republishes cartoons about Muhammad, but both doing valuable community work – whether or not a government department or a council should engage with them depends on context and judgment. No list can provide the answer.

Both antisemitism and Islamophobia have grown alarmingly in recent months. There is unquestionably a need to challenge both. What the government should not do is engage in a phony debate about definitions. Neither should it put forward proposals that may “promote intolerance” or help “negate fundamental rights and freedoms” themselves.


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