The British rap artist Wiley – apparently known as ‘the godfather of grime’ and awarded the MBE in 2018 - has been dropped by his management and had his Twitter account temporarily suspended because of a series of alleged anti-Semitic tweets and Instagram posts.
He has posted descriptions of Jewish people as ‘cowards and snakes’, compared Jews to the Ku Klux Klan and in a bizarre claim, wrote: “Israel is ours…” (referring to the ‘black community’) “Listen to me Jewish community Israel is not your country I’m sorry … The Star of David that’s our ting … Some people have gotten too comfortable on lands that don’t belong to them.”
As a ‘classical liberal’ who is prepared to defend freedom of speech as a fundamental value, I have increasingly found myself defending the right of people to say things that are offensive, insulting and even abhorrent as long they do not cross the line of abuse, threats and incitement to violence – which is illegal.
In recent years, in my view, too many people have confused the giving and taking of offence with abuse, threats and incitement and have conflated causing offence with causing harm. They are not the same thing.
Being offensive, even insulting someone, is not necessarily abusing them (though it can come very close to it, very quickly). Shouting at someone is not necessarily threatening them (though it can soon become very intimidating). A call to action – which is incitement – is not necessarily a call to agree.
Let’s get back to Wiley and examine some of his remarks – just the ones I have cited above (there are too many and I haven’t got the time for all the others, which are many).
1. Jewish people are ‘cowards and snakes’. Is that abusive, threatening, inciting violence? What do you think?
In my view, using the word coward to describe a person or a group is not abusive – it would be absurd if we disallowed the use of that word as an expression of hate; but it’s difficult to see how using the word snake doesn’t come close to being abusive. Context is all. I’ll leave you to judge the context. I know what my judgment is.
2. ‘The Jews are like the Ku Klux Klan’? Is that abusive, threatening, inciting violence? What do you think?
I would have to give him the benefit of the doubt - legally - as to whether that claim was abusive, threatening or inciting. It's certainly insulting. I’ve heard some of my Jewish friends make jokes about what they perceive to be the nature and characteristics of the Jewish community that was less than complimentary, to say the least! Again - context is everything. But for Wiley to say that in the context of other such defamatory tweets and posts? Mmm… I think I’m beginning to build up a picture of the character of Wiley…
3. “Israel is ours…Listen to me Jewish community Israel is not your country I’m sorry … The Star of David that’s our ting … Some people have gotten too comfortable on lands that don’t belong to them.” Abusive, threatening, inciting violence? What do you think?
None of that crosses the legal threshold in my view, though the last part of it might sound quite threatening if you are an Israeli. To me this phrase just displays Wiley's ignorance and foolishness and, as a classical liberal, I’m in the rather uncomfortable position of defending the right of a fool to utter his foolishness.
We must defend the fundamental values of free speech – along with the fundamental values of mutual respect and tolerance - if we want to live in a liberal, democratic society where we can speak freely to challenge ideas. We must be able to offend even if that means occasionally saying things that deeply offend.
That doesn’t stop me respectfully challenging Wiley to justify his unjustifiable moral standards nor does it stop me making a judgment about the man's character.
I’ve made my judgment. Have you made yours?