Middle-class conspiracy theories, hypocrisy and the difficult question of where the right to free speech should end.
It’s not always easy being a free speech absolutist. It’s not just constantly having to defend the rights of some pretty abhorrent people who are silenced and restricted, while all the time having to explain to their equally abhorrent opponents that no, believing that they have a right to express their beliefs does not mean that you share those beliefs. That’s possibly the easy part. The tough bit is not being able to make exceptions, even though you might actually think that the world might well a better place if some people were made to sling their collective hooks.
Where the right to free speech ends, I suppose, is the old ‘shouting fire in a crowded theatre’ idea – where expressing an idea crosses the line from opinion to being unequivocally harmful. The problem is deciding where that moment occurs – and it is certainly not at the point when someone’s feelings are hurt or they feel as though you are violating their safe spaces with your nasty ideas. But I rather suspect that anti-vaxxers are dancing on the line at the very least. This is a group of people who base their entire belief system on ideas that science has entirely disproven – though as we’re constantly told these days, what does science know compared to the feels, eh?
And that’s fine, in and of itself. I’m happy for anyone to be paranoid about the idea that the government is using flu vaccines to implant mind control drugs into your body. Hell, I’m sure that some governments would do that if it were actually possible. But such anti-vaxx claims are up there with chemtrails, Flat Earthery and the belief that we are secretly ruled by lizards – which of course are all evidence-free ideas that many anti-vaxxers also share, you’ll be unsurprised to hear. In and of themselves, these wacky beliefs are generally pretty harmless, even if the whole ‘lizard’ thing is probably a code for ‘Jew’. But anti-vaxxers rather step over the line of merely expressing wacky and vaguely racist opinion by opening children – and not just their own children – to infections that are, at the very least, rather unpleasant and, at worse, fatal. The diseases dealt with by the MMR vaccine are not on the level of polio, perhaps, but the world is a better place without them.
The anti-vaxx movement is a particularly irritating one, made up of the worst parts of the conspiracy-driven Right and the middle class Left – in the case of the latter, people just about educated enough to think that they know everything, but easily swayed by a struck-off doctor and the towering intellects of Jenny McCarthy, Alicia Silverstone (the star of the aptly titled Clueless, who also believes that tampons cause infertility and veganism helps reduce the risk of miscarriage) and Toni Braxton (who seems unsure if her son’s autism was caused by MMR of was a punishment from God for her previous abortion, or possibly a bit of both). It’s a world dominated less by the usual conspiracy theorists than by middle-class mothers who chat about the dangers of vaccination at frightfully Woke dinner parties and believe themselves to be in possession of ‘the facts’ because they’ve ‘done the research’, which basically means a Google search to find out what Gwyneth Paltrow has to say on the subject and ignoring all the facts, put out by those untrustworthy scientists, that don’t feel convenient.
A collective of these middle-class idiots have arranged and bought tickets for a showing of Vaxxed II: The People’s Truth (as opposed to the actual truth, obviously), which is being showing this month in Notting Hill, at The Tabernacle, a council-run property that is also home to the Notting Hill Carnival and all manner of worthy organisations. There’s some consistency here, at least – the same venue showed the first Vaxxed film in 2017. Asked by the BBC why they were playing host to a film that encourages beliefs that will inevitably lead to childhood disease and death, the Tabernacle replied that it was an outside booking and that they didn’t agree with the content of the film. Which might seem like an admirable and rare bit of support for free speech – ‘even if the message of this film is dangerous, we think that people should be allowed to hear it and make up their own minds and we won’t prevent that’. Ahh, if only that were the case. It would at least be admirable consistency. But I suspect that the free speech credentials of the Tabernacle are as changeable as the wind. I rather doubt that they would be as accommodating to people labelled – rightly or wrongly – as racist, or sexist or transphobic or otherwise ‘hateful’. I might be wrong – perhaps even now, speakers cancelled elsewhere are making bookings to present firebrand speeches and the venue is just cool with that. But I rather doubt it. I suspect the film is being shown because the Tabernacle’s core customer base of self-important middle-class mothers hold sway over the venue, and their crazy beliefs are more tolerated than other people’s might be.
In the end, people are free to believe what they want. Venues are free to play as fast and loose with free speech as they want to (though we might want more consistency from council-financed organisations). I’m not for a moment suggesting that the screening be pulled. But we can certainly scoff at their ideas and point out the hypocrisy at play. And if you have young kids, it might be sensible to keep them away from The Tabernacle, a venue that it would seem is at risk of being an incubator for disease, populated by a new generation of yummy mummies and their hyperactive Typhoid Mary offspring.