Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has some interesting thoughts on free expression in this morning’s paper.
Inspired by a discussion at Oxford Literary Festival with Index chief executive John Kampfner, Times writer David Aaronovitch and Guido Fawkes blogger Paul Staines, Albhai-Brown questions whether free speech should be seen as an absolute right.
She starts well enough:
Too many states use brute force to quell and gag their people. In our western democracies, governments withhold information, stop legitimate protest, control speech and even thought. All wrong, must be resisted, agreed.
And then comes the “but” that will forever plague arguments for and about restrictions on speech:
Most of us, though, will not speak with one voice on the burning of the Koran by Sion Owens, a BNP candidate for the Welsh assembly. And what about the website that sells cheeky Jihadi, al-Qa’ida baby T-shirts and maternity clothes? Tory MP Robert Halfon is apoplectic and wants the site closed down. Are you with or against him? Do we teach children that words can wound or that their entitlement to speak trumps everything else?
That last sentence is a false dichotomy. Words are powerful: words are important. Otherwise there would be little point in defending free expression. As soon as one feels comfortable placing proscriptions on speech, one leads inevitably to a position where certain speech is favoured. Moreover, there is no contradiction between free speech being a right and free speech being used responsibly.
Some in the real world, too, are enviable absolutists who believe the slightest tremor of concern is a concession and invitation to authoritarianism. Their God is Voltaire, who decreed that even when one hates what is being said by somebody, one must “fight to the death” for the right of that person to hold forth.
Voltaire never said that. It comes from a 1906 book entitled “Friends of Voltaire”. Minor point, but something one should know if you’re writing about free expression. But lets go on.
We come to Manchester United footballer Wayne Rooney, banned for two matches for swearing at a Sky Sports camera (exacts words “What? Fucking what? What? Fucking Hell!”) after scoring a hat trick against West Ham.
The FA is deciding what to do with Wayne Rooney, who swore horridly on TV. The footballer – who has apologised – must be crying into his champagne. I hope he gets his comeuppance.
See? He’s rich, therefore all other arguments about his rights and liberties are obscured.
Rooney had just scored a hat trick. As The Streets’ Mike Skinner once put it, “geezers need excitement”. Moreover, Rooney’s job is not to be presentable on TV, or (shudder) to be a “role model”. His job is to score goals for Manchester United, and he was having a very, very good day at the office.
In 1919, the US Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes decreed that the only limits to freedom of speech were words that activate immediate danger, like a man shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre. But what about when individuals set out calculatedly to provoke unrest and anger, which then happens? Like the burning of the Koran. Of course the offended should not rage and die for it – but that was the intention. The inciters are surely as culpable as the man in the theatre. They raise hatred, which eventually leads to violence.
The “eventually” is key here. Who is responsible for the incitement that lead to the murders of UN workers in Afghanistan? The Floridan pastors who burned the holy book? Or the imams who preached to the faithful about this insult to Islam? Alibhai-Brown does not seem to count these as the inciters. But they were the ones with the power to incite the mob in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Another thing to consider is that most of us are biased. We want some words to be free, and others not. Will the Koran burner be backed by libertarians, atheists and Muslim bashers? Or will he face the same opprobrium as those Muslims who burnt Salman Rushdie’s book? I await Fay Weldon and Ian McEwan’s beautifully expressed outrage
Two problems here: Earlier we were asked to criticise absolutists. Now we must condemn relativism.
More insidiously, there is the implication that Fay Weldon and Ian McEwan are being hypocritical and possibly even Islamophobic. But Weldon and McEwan and others, in their stand in support of Rushdie, did not attack the right of Muslims to protest against the Satanic Verses, or even to burn it. They defended a fellow novelist against a death sentence from a foreign tyrant. Not the same thing, is it?