Whether freedom of speech or fairness to migrants, some principles are sacred

‘Why is hypocrisy so odious?” asked the political theorist Judith Shklar almost half a century ago. Hypocrisy, she argued, is a necessity, a recognition that we are human and imperfect and that we cannot but transgress. The calling out of hypocrisy, Shklar observed, can often be more socially corrosive than the hypocrisy being called out.

There is, however, a different, darker form of political hypocrisy, too: the embrace of ideals to camouflage or justify that which otherwise would be unjustifiable. It’s less a case of personal hypocrisy than of the institutionalisation of political double standards. And, as two issues last week illustrate, the flaunting of double standards is becoming a feature of our age.

First is the Home Office attempt to provide immunity for Border Force officials who kill migrants; second, the controversy over philosopher Kathleen Stock’s “gender-critical” views about trans rights.

This summer, the government’s story was that its policy of “pushback” against Channel migrants was intended to save their lives. Last week, it announced that, among the revisions to the nationality and borders bill, it will give Border Force officers immunity from prosecution if they kill migrants in the course of their work, so long as they were acting “in good faith”. The death of migrants, it seems, matters only if it happens at the hands of the wrong people.

Related: Priti Patel threatening to use X-rays to verify asylum seekers’ ages

However contemptible the new policy, it is nothing new. It is an approach common to virtually every rich nation today. From Greek border guards attempting to capsize dinghies full of people to Libyan coastguards, acting on behalf of the EU, shooting at migrants, “deterrence” at whatever the cost has long been the policy. It is what has led western nations to close off almost all legal routes to migration and then blame migrants for adopting dangerous illegal ones. It is what has driven EU nations to abandon rescue operations in the Mediterranean while criminalising rescuers as “people traffickers”. It is what has led them to accept the 30,000 people who have drowned in the Med over the past 30 years as a price worth paying for Fortress Europe. By framing the problem as primarily one of evil smugglers, and their policies as necessary to bring down such people, politicians and policymakers can scrub their conscience clean and justify policies, such as providing immunity to immigration officials, that are actually responsible for the deaths.

The issue of free speech, as much as the immigration debate, is swaddled on all sides in hypocrisy and double standards. Last week, the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, wrote an op-ed bemoaning the state of British universities. Where once “we had debate and critical argument”, she argued, now there are “physical threats and often complete intolerance of all opposing ideas”.

Donelan was writing in defence of Stock, a Sussex University philosopher, who has faced increasingly vocal protests and calls for her sacking by transgender activists denouncing her perceived “transphobia”. A leading “gender-critical” feminist, Stock argues that biological sex is immutable and that for most natal women, their female body is “central to their sense of self-identity”. She argues, too, that many same-sex spaces, from women’s refuges to sporting events, should be reserved for biological females and not open to all those who identify as women, irrespective of sex.

Trans people respond that the freedom to define themselves is vital. To question whether a trans woman is “really a woman”, as many gender-critical feminists do, is, activists insist, to threaten the individual’s identity. It does irreparable harm by subjecting trans people to mental trauma and giving succour to violent bigots. Trans people already face considerable discrimination, bigotry and violence, which is often not sufficiently recognised or acknowledged.

It’s a complex debate, with important arguments on both sides. For many trans activists, however, it’s not a debate that should be taking place. Anyone who believes that sex is more important than gender in defining what it is to be a woman – or who would exclude trans women from women-only spaces – is, they argue, “transphobic” by definition and their arguments bigoted. Yet, condemning figures such as Selina Todd, one of Britain’s most distinguished historians of working-class and women’s lives, or the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, as if they were feminist versions of Tommy Robinson, strains credulity. Trying to strangle a debate, or mislabelling one’s opponents, is no response to complexity. It also makes harassment and intimidation more acceptable. After all, many argue, if they are bigots, who want to “eliminate” trans people, why shouldn’t they be harassed? The result is to leave female academics such as Stock needing police protection from those who identify as women.

Trying to strangle a debate is no response to complexity. It also makes harassment and intimidation more acceptable

The government has in recent months made great play about free speech. It is pushing a freedom of speech bill through parliament, making it mandatory for universities to protect and promote freedom of expression. The bill is a mess – Donelan and Boris Johnson clashed over the question of whether universities would be required to provide platforms for Holocaust deniers – and many rightly object to the idea that the state, never slow to censor ideas it finds unpalatable, should possess greater powers in the name of “freedom”.

Worse is the government’s two-faced attitude to free speech. Being exposed to unpopular ideas is good for students and academics but apparently not for government officials. Days after Donelan’s defence of Stock, the Home Office disinvited the Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal. She had been booked to speak to Home Office staff about the relationship between colonial history and the Windrush scandal. The reasons for the disinvitation remain unclear but, according to the rightwing Guido Fawkes website, the academic had been “no platformed” for her “racist views”. Gopal appealed to Donelan for support but received none. It’s a government for whom the pursuit of free speech, like the saving of migrant lives, is something to be wielded instrumentally, not as a good in itself but only as a weapon with which to target opponents.

Killing migrants is bad. Except when in pursuit of Home Office policy. Free speech is good. Except when it comes to government departments. Hypocrisy may be a necessity in an imperfect world, but it is also a necessity to call out such double standards.

• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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