Last month, members of the British parliament debated whether or not U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump should be banned from entering the UK. The debate was the result of a petition launched by UK citizens that had garnered over 575,000 signatures. The petition urged a ban in light of Trump’s incredibly racist comments throughout his campaign – one of the most alarming being his suggestion to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S.. His campaign has also included bigoted claims that Chinese people are “cheats” and Mexicans are “rapists,” which is one of his reasons for wanting to build a “great, great wall” between the U.S. and Mexico.
In many countries, such as the UK and Canada, much of the rhetoric demonstrated by Trump could be classified as hate speech, and would not be tolerated. In the UK, the Public Order Act of 1986 specifically states that “a person who uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” is guilty of an offence if that person “intends thereby to stir up racial hatred, or, having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby.” By those standards, Trump’s comments likely would have gotten him in trouble as a UK citizen.
And so the debate began, lasting three hours. It is clear that members of parliament (MPs) agreed that Trump’s comments were disgraceful, branding him everything from a “buffoon” to a “racist demagogue,” to a “wazzock.” But that was not the main issue of the debate. Despite agreement on the value of the UK’s hate speech laws as well as the abhorrent, racist nature of Trump’s comments, the question at hand was whether this type of dangerous rhetoric was enough to legally bar him from the UK.
In the end, most MPs argued that it was not, in fact, enough. The importance of engaging with the presidential candidates of an ally as important as the U.S., as well as the risk of giving Trump even more attention, were among the many reasons given against the ban. So, the debate ended without a vote, leaving Donald Trump at liberty to enter the UK if he so desires.
Many of the petitioners were upset by this result. The question I have for them is: do you believe a ban would have actually done anything to change the current situation in the U.S.? Granted, it would have exhibited a very strong message, but considering how Trump has reacted to his critics, it would be very unlikely that it would have changed his stance. Ultimately, it would only have served him further media attention, which he craves and thrives on.
It is clear that the real problem does not lie with Trump alone. Let’s not forget that Trump did not invent Islamophobia, nor is he the only one blurting out racist statements. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, for example, suggested that Syrian refugees should be screened, as if they were “rabid dogs.” Others, such as Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, think that Christian refugees from Syria should be prioritized.
Rather, the core of the problem lies with the fact that the U.S. allows and even enables this kind of speech in most contexts. Americans have long prided themselves for living in “the land of the free,” with the first amendment to the Constitution, which protects freedom of speech, their most prized possession. It is this kind of allegiance and thoughtless dedication to old legislation that make it impossible for Americans to consider that maybe the Constitution can, and should, be altered to prevent the bigotry demonstrated by people like Trump from gaining such traction and attention, especially during a presidential campaign.
The American way of dealing with hate crimes has been largely limited to the discouraging of behaviour associated with or caused by hate speech, namely prosecution for physical intimidation or assault on the basis of one’s identity. The problem with that, however, is that the words themselves can in fact be damaging, by shaping social attitudes and inspiring actions such as hate crimes. The tension of this balance is highlighted by the fact that the same amendment that gives one the liberty to say disrespectful and hateful things about, for example, Muslim people, is the same amendment that guarantees freedom of religion.
This is not an easy issue to fix. There is obviously a delicate balance to maintain between a person’s right to voice an opinion on one hand, and the protection of people’s safety and the deterrence of hate crimes on the other. But one thing is certain: we cannot allow for one person’s bigoted opinion to transform into a serious threat to another person’s way of life or life itself.
There will always be reactionary, hateful people in the world. Systems of deterrence to prevent individual opinions from causing harm, however, could go a long way in mitigating their impact. In that sense, those who were petitioning for the UK ban shouldn’t be asking themselves how Trump should be punished, but rather should criticize why and how such racist comments were able to get out and gain so much traction and support in the first place.
Noémie Gagnon-Bergeron is a recent International Development Studies graduate from McGill and a current law student at the University of Edinburgh. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.