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10:34am on Friday, 14th July, 2006:



According to today's Independent, a branch of HSBC has been found guilty of racism following an incident in which a senior member of staff told a colleague that she'd be voting for Robert Kilroy-Silk at the last general election on the grounds that he promised to "get rid of the foreigners". She added, "I hate foreigners". This was duly overheard by a foreigner, one Ruby Schembri from Malta, who was sufficiently offended to take her to court over it.

I'm not condoning the opinions of HSBC person Debbie Jones, who made the remarks, but we're heading into dangerous territory here. When people make comments that they believe are private, they should be allowed to say whatever they want, no matter how odious their words may be. The person to whom Ms Jones confided her unfortunate opinions, Rosemary Johnstone, while not concurring with them, nevertheless wasn't disposed to return immediately to her desk in tears (unlike Ms Schembri). If Ms Jones had (or should reasonably expected to have) known that Ms Schembri was in earshot yet still made her remarks, OK, fair enough; there's also the whole issue as to whether anything ever said at a place of work could properly be considered "private" anyway. Assuming she did have a reasonable expectation that her conversation was private, though, why should she be hauled over the coals for upsetting someone who happened to overhear? People should always be allowed to say things in private that may be illegal in public, because otherwise iniquitous laws and corrupt governments would never be opposed. I'm not saying that Debbie Jones's words fall into this category, but I am saying that she's entitled to her opinion. My own opinion about assorted religious groups is not characterised by a high degree of tolerance: would I be liable to arrest if I expressed these to a like-thinking friend while being bugged by a police officer stupid enough to subscribe to one of these joke philosophies?

The law isn't quite as dumb as it seems here — at least, not yet. Apparently, Ms Jones had a minor history of expressing anti-foreigner opinion, so it was reasonable on Ms Schembri's part to assume that when Ms Jones said she hated foreigners, she meant it. What's really worrying here is that Ms Schembri's lawyer has argued that the law be changed: "The intention or aim of the maker is irrelevant, it is sufficient that it caused offence.".

That can't be right. Let's imagine a private conversation:

Person 1: It's not wrong to hate foreigners: what's wrong is to hate foreigners simply because they're foreign. Hating a jerk who happens to be foreign is not wrong.
Person 2: That's right. I hate plenty of people, but they're not all English. I don't only hate English people.
(Person 3 enters, unseen by Person 1 or Person 2)
Person 1: Yes, I certainly hate foreigners.
(Person 3 leaves in a flood of tears)

In this future world, every time you make a remark, you have to consider:

  1. Whether it may be heard by an unknown third party.
  2. Whether it may be recorded such that it may, at some future point in time, be heard by an unknown third party.
  3. Whether it may offend this unknown third party, regardless of whatever strange life view they may have.

I'm going to have to learn to speak in code.

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).