Thursday, January 08, 2015

Defending free speech when it is under attack

Following on from Peter Cresswell's excellent piece outlining the recent events in Paris, come two more fundamental questions.

1. What does a free society do about those who want to destroy its freedoms?
2. Why are we, yes we, threatened by those who want to censor us?

The Islamist threat to free speech is not new.  Indeed the battle for the right to offend those who hold certain beliefs, whether religious, political, philosophical or even aesthetic, is continuous.  Laws against blasphemy were often enforced in many Western countries, to not offend Christian faiths.  It is no accident that every authoritarian regime clamps down on free speech as a first move.

There are plenty of opponents of free speech in our midsts.  So in fact my second question can be answered first.  The majority have censored us already, the Islamofascists simply want the courtesy extended to them.

The much too obvious ones are the small numbers of ardent fascists, nationalists, communists and other sympathisers of politics that would explicitly censor media, art and speech.  It is extremely rare for any of them to do anything other than rabble rouse or disseminate their views, and the contradiction between their use of free speech to oppose it is clear, and so they have few followers.

Similarly, we are familiar with the religious conservatives who are keen on blasphemy laws, or who want to censor material involving nudity, sex or vulgar language.  Of course we still have laws restricting this, and the state will prosecute you for writing about or drawing all sorts of matters which it prohibits (including completely legal acts), but that's another story.  There are those who want more of such laws, some from a religious perspective, others from a radical feminist perspective.

More insidiously restrictions on free speech have come from the self-styled "liberal" left in the form of "hate speech" laws.  Whilst few would disagree with how unpleasant and vile such speech can be (i.e. explicit racism, sexism, denigration and debasing of people based on their inherent characteristics rather than behaviour), it is another story to make such speech illegal.  It has become increasingly normalised for some to say how "offended" they are by a portrayal of someone because of his or her race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, etc.  In recent years laws have been enforced to prohibit such speech.  This has been widely supported by most on the left, with the Police in the UK now arresting people for making offensive jokes.  

You will struggle to find many politicians who will argue for the unfettered legal right to offend (which is distinct from whether it is morally right or clever to do so).  Yet that is what this is about.

Indeed in the UK, a report into systematical sexual abuse in Rotherham indicated that child protection officials were dissuaded from questioning or addressing gangs of predominantly Muslim men targeting young girls, because it would "cause offence" in their communities.

Freedom of speech has been as much under attack from those who live amongst us who are "do-gooders" as it has been by those willing to wield violence directly.  The difference is the matter of degree.

The killers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and employees were offended by the cartoons published by that magazine.  The law didn't protect them from offence, but it protects others from offence in other areas.

Don't make an offensive joke about a crime or an accident, for the law may come visit you.  Don't think about writing a sexually explicit fictional short story that involves violence and what is deemed to be the degradation of a fictional person, for the law may come visit you.  

The men who murder because they are offended are extending the logic of existing laws, and taking the law into their own hands.  At least it remains legal to parody religion, right?

So how should this be addressed?
It must remain a right for those who oppose free speech to express that view, in peace.  The wannabe censors must always be exposed for what they are, enemies of our free society and be free to do so. The contradiction and absurdity of their position must be open to scrutiny, and demonstrate both why free speech scares them and why it is such a powerful tool to weaken them.  What's more silly than grown men demanding that others not make a drawing because it upsets them?  That debate doesn't happen in almost all of the Middle East or the rest of the Muslim dominated world.  It must happen in our semi-free societies.

Beyond that, those who seek to murder, vandalise and threaten peaceful citizens going about their lives should be treated for the criminals they are.  Their crimes may have political motives, but that doesn't change the essential nature of what they are - initiating acts of force against those who offend them.

The events in Paris raise a wider question, around immigration, albeit that the attackers appear to have born in France (although are of Algerian descent).

For the UK, and dare I say France, and the entire Western world, offers people religious freedom. The right to practice their faith and proselytise it openly, and indeed to change or reject faith altogether.  It includes the right to have no faith, and to promote this openly.

What the West offers all its citizens, whether born there or immigrants, is this freedom to do so without the state harassing your choice of faith, your choice to change or reject faith, or your choice.

The other end of the deal is that you treat your fellow citizens the same way, and they and you have the right to make fun of the beliefs of others.  That includes yours.  That includes offending you. 

Enjoy the freedom of the West to practice your beliefs and to spread them.  However, when you seek to curtail the same freedoms in others, and use violence to do so, you're no longer welcome.

Unfortunately, the law as it stands has set precedents for censorship for causing offence (rather than cases of defamation, or as accessories to real crimes such as child pornography, or inciting violence). 

So, in parallel to the message that no religion, no philosophy and no political beliefs can be exempt from ridicule, insults or offence, should be that no individual should have legal protection from being offended.  Laws that restrict free speech should only exist when they are protecting individual rights - the right to your reputation protected from damaging lies, the right to not have recordings of the violent or sex crime committed against you or your children distributed to others, the right to have your intellectual property protected and the right to not be threatened.

Does it mean that people should go around and seek to offend others? No.

Does it mean we should unashamedly defend the right to do so? Absolutely.

Ed West paraphrasing Douglas Murray in the Catholic Herald of all places, said:

Once we can freely make fun of Islam then people should stop doing so, because it would just be unpleasant and rude. Until then, we have a moral duty to do so.

I disagree, I think it is appropriate to make fun of religion because it exposes its contradictions and absurdity.  We should keep doing so because it remains an evasion of reason and so often, an evasion of morality as a result.

However, is there a moral duty to make fun of Islam? Yes.  Muslims need to learn to live with the ridicule of their beliefs that the rest of us have long become used to.

Moreover, if we surrender to the fear of upsetting some people who might attack us, they will have won.

We will only win against Islamist terrorists if we are not afraid, if we are willing to publish that which offends them.

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