There’s a lot to dislike in Éoin Clarke’s tirade against the likeable if not always congenial former MP and Renaissance woman Ann Widdecombe. So outraged was its author by one of her columns that he battered out a response that called her “Anne” – understandable – named the paper she was writing in “The Epxress” – sloppy – and insisted that she “think[s] [gays] have an illness that needs cured” – er, what? I’m not a member of the Gestypo but if someone writes such a denunciatory piece that’s so characterised by errors it leads me to feel that they either haven’t cared – in which case I suspect it’s not a matter of as much importance as their adjectives imply – or that they’re so consumed by rage that their critical faculties have left them – in which case I’m mightily sceptical about their claims.

With good reason. Widdecombe’s Express column argued that gays should have the right to seek treatment to change their sexual inclinations if they’re unhappy with the ones they’re experiencing. The idea that gays might feel so miserable in their sexuality as to look to change it is unpleasant to me, and I doubt that “treating” it would do them any good, but perhaps it is their choice to make. It’s not something I’ve thought about. The author, though, feels the very idea is…

…a breach of the ethical standards of journalism [and] an incitement to anti-gay verbal and physical attacks.

In his view it…

…feeds into a worrying rise in a Tea Party style movement in the UK, and it is crucial our national leaders seek to defuse it.

He thinks…

David Cameron should show leadership by taking steps to expel Widdecombe from the Conservative Party.

To conclude…

…we live in a democratic state where the majority are overwhelmingly supportive of protecting gay rights, and that includes protecting them from the prejudice of Tory MPs who think they have an illness that needs cured.

It’s not my place to speak for Britain’s gays but, still, I think it’s pretty condescending to assume they’re so fragile, so sensitive that they need “protecting” from the words of a person who was neither advocating treatment for them nor passing judgement against themselves and their behaviour and, besides, whose ideas are as fashionable as the mullet. They’re big boys and girls. They can cope.

What I find disturbing is Clarke’s assertion that the words of Widdecombe represent “incitement to anti-gay verbal and physical attacks” because in that case they’d be illegal. Well, they don’t – and the elision of disapproving and threatening sentiments is a danger to our freedom of expression; rendering ideas the people find unpleasant as illegitimate. “Incitement”, to me, is when you actually promote a course of action in the hope that people take it. Are there cases of unspoken and even unconscious incitement? I guess. But it depends. Self-appointed wardens of our discourse cleave to the idea that if your words criticism of or disapproval towards people they can be defined as “incitement” simply because they might contribute towards a broader social phenomenon of disapproval towards people that could lead to insults, physical attacks and so on. (Did you get all that?) This, to me, depends on the nature of your disapproval and the context in which it’s expressed. If you declared your loathing for the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994  you’d be hard pressed to argue that you were merely stating a personal preference. You’d be contributing towards a genocidal mindset. If you say you disapprove of homosexuality in England in 2012 – which, to be clear, Widdecombe didn’t even do – the only thing you’re likely to “incite” is a liberal’s bile ducts. The English are, in the main, a placid enough people to read somebody’s opinions without turning into psychopaths. Long may that endure.

I don’t believe that anyone becomes so energised merely on reading an opinion they disapprove of. (Thinking back to days when I’d shower the columns of Hitchens, Phillips, McKinstry et al with hot invective I suspect I was pleased to encounter writing I disliked – it gave me material.) These blustering condemnations aren’t just one of the most unpleasant features of our discourse because they’re overreactions, then, but because they’re so artificial – the rhetorical equivalent of the footballers who’ll mob the referee, wailing in anxiety, at the slightest trangression from the opposing players. People do say unpleasant and even dangerous things but let’s talk about it like adults. Adults who aren’t footballers.

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