Taking liberties

Pubs in London seem to be full of people taking offence at each other. A few weeks ago, two young men were turfed out of the cholera-grim John Snow in Soho for kissing each other. Outrage and kiss-ins ensued. And the following week a woman was ejected from the William IV (co-incidentally – or at least I think co-incidentally – a gay pub) in Hampstead for breast-feeding. Again, outrage was expressed, spokespeople spoke, and a feed-in is planned.

My first instinct was that throwing people out of pubs for this sort of behaviour was a disgrace. A gay kiss should hardly shock anyone in Soho, and I would have thought public breast-feeding was almost de rigeur in Hampstead. As a liberal, it\’s not my place to object to anything legal that anyone wants to do in a pub – or anywhere else.

But I found the shrill spirals of denuciation and protest almost equally irritating: nobody was attacked; no violence was committed; have we nothing better to protest about? Also, I can hear my inner Kingsley Amis harrumphing, and looking wistfully back at the days of smokey drinking dens with herodian attitudes to children: shouldn\’t pubs being places for adults to drink alcohol and talk, not facilities for making-out and nursing?

More seriously, public behaviour is about manners as well as rights: just because you legally can do something, doesn\’t mean that you should. Almost any behaviour can be appropriate or inappropriate depending on context – an axiom that dogmatic assertions of rights overlook. Writing on my favourite mad libertarian website, Spiked, Frank Furedi has argued against those who reject a basic level of liberal tolerance, which permits but does not approve or disapprove, in favour of \’celebrating\’ and \’respecting\’ other people\’s beliefs, lifestyles, etc.

Perhaps, as I glide into middle age, I should adopt a posture of grouchy liberalism – defending absolutely the rights of people to act as they will, but grumbling intermittently when they do so.

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