Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, has praised “the enduring power of the written word” - both “for good or ill” - while criticising government for “threatening human rights” in a lecture for The Reading Agency.
Chakrabarti, a former lawyer whose title On Liberty (Allen Lane) was published last autumn, spoke of the enduring power of story-telling – whether factual or non-factual – and its role in expressing “vital peaceful dissent and the defence of our hard-won fundamental liberties”.
Reading is the “most important” life skill, Chakrabarti said, crediting her late mother - who she dedicated her talk to - for teaching her to read. Chakrabarti called reading “a means of knowledge, power, insight, empathy, entertainment and solace”, and, when reading is collective, it has potential for “a wind of change”.
However, Charkrabarti contrasted the power of language with “the abuse of language” which can lead to the "contortion of truth" and ultimately, "the abuse of people themselves”. Referencing the Paris attacks on 13th November, Chakrabarti pointed out how rhetoric could also be manipulated as “hideous propaganda”. She spoke of the dehumanisation of victims by Islamic State as "'crusaders’ or ‘pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice’ rather than the easy innocent civilian targets that they plainly were”.
Looking inwards, Chakrabarti criticised the "misjudged misnamed 'War on Terror'", for using "the language trap that both dignifies the enemy and undermines our own democratic doctrine".
“So for good or ill, language is powerful and to share or democratise that power we all need to own it and explore it with the skill of scholars and the confidence of kings,” she said.
Touching on issues in her book, Chakrabarti also spoke of her sadness that some of her pre-general election predictions had come true – notably the arrival of a new Conservative government and its “intention to scrap our Human Rights Act”. She said: “Even the possibility of Britain's withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, alongside the in-out referendum on the European Union, is now firmly on the table, and the two issues are now commonly and deliberately confused.”
Speaking of the plight of refugees she said were “left to drown, not in some faraway ocean, but close to home in the Mediterranean Sea,” she sumised: “From (W H) Auden's Refugee Blues to (Benjamin) Zephaniah's Refugee Boy, our modern politics has never quite delivered the empathy to these most vulnerable of people that great creative writing has.”
The government’s response to terrorism was also criticised, for denying platforms to extremist people when “open engagement and fierce debate” was needed. Chakrabarti said: “My overloaded in-box is as weary from invitations to 'no platform' the disagreeable, objectionable and just plain wrong people with whom I disagree, as with (apparently not ironic) invitations to Magna Carta celebrations from those who destroyed legal aid and would scrap our Human Rights Act.
“To be clear, just as libraries should be free and open and books must be saved from the fire every time, debates however shocking, difficult and painful, must be had. There is no such thing as no platform in the internet age, merely closed and narrow platforms where hate goes unedited and unchallenged by humanity and reason.
“If only our leaders would listen. They use human rights abuses as reason for military intervention over there but threaten human rights protection here at home. We stand in solidarity with the people of France and other democracies whilst threatening to pull out of the Human Rights Conventions that bind us together. Access to justice by way of free or affordable legal advice and representation has all but been obliterated, secret courts have been instituted and judicial review curtailed," Chakrabarti said.
Sue Wilkinson, c.e.o of The Reading Agency, said it was "fascinating" to hear Chakrabarti's thoughts.
"Her passionate and thought provoking speech showed just how important it is to get everyone involved in reading - young and old," Wilkinson. "She demonstrated with examples from her own life and work our belief at The Reading Agency that everything changes when we read.”