Free speech is a fine principle and I’m all in favour of it … but it must be exercised responsibly. It’s not a license to gratuitously offend people. In particular, it should not be used to insult people’s sincerely-held beliefs.
How many times have you heard someone on the radio, TV, or quoted in the press, saying something like that? I’m pretty sure there’s been at least one Guardian editorial along those lines as well.
The more sophisticated of those using that sort of argument will usually also bring up the analogy with shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre.
Well, I say that as soon as you come across someone placing provisos of that kind on their “support” for free speech, you know that you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t really support free speech at all.
Let’s be clear: the principle of free speech is indivisible, all-or-nothing. In particular, it must apply to those you disagree with (supporting free speech for people you agree with doesn’t amount to much does it?) and – in particular – it must include the right to give offence.
We may argue that there’s “a time and place” for certain potentially contentious statements, and that tactically/diplomatically, sometimes it’s better to keep schtum: but that’s nothing to do with the principle of free speech.
We may also conclude that the expression of certain views (for instance, racism) is incompatible with membership of a labour movement organisation – or, indeed, someone’s presence in your own home. Again, that’s besides the point: you’re saying “you can’t express those views here,” not “you can’t express them at all (and will face legal consequences if you do).”
Shouting “fire” in a theatre is, of course, a health and safety issue with nothing fundamentally to do with freedom of speech at all. Just as stopping fascists from holding meetings is pre-emptive action for the protection of the labour movement and minorities, not because we find their views “offensive” (an unfortunately widely-held misconception on sections of the left).
I do accept that the distinction between giving offence and incitement to violence (which is, rightly, illegal) is not always clear-cut. But in the vast majority of situations, common sense tells us which side of the line a particular offensive article or statement falls on.
I remember, when the hysteria about the Satanic Verses first blew up, following Khomenie’s murderous fatwa, a colleague argued that we should defend Rushdie because it was a good piece of literature. I disagreed: we should defend both Rushdie and his right to publish, even if our view was that the book was rubbish. That was, as I recall, one of the few arguments I won against that particular colleague.
Which brings us, inevitably, to the Innocence of Muslims. And as they say, “hard cases make bad law.”
I could spend a long time discussing this, but thankfully Nick Cohen in yesterday’s Observer has said just about everything I wanted to, especially this:
“Innocence of Muslims is one of the hardest cases for liberals I’ve come across. But even this tawdry piece of work raises problems for the proponents of censorship. The first is a problem with language. Mount a critique of Islamist religious fanaticism, and it is only a matter of time before you find that defenders of religious reaction have hijacked liberal language. You are an “orientalist”, they say, an “Islamophobe”, “neo-colonialist” or “neocon”. (The prefix “neo-” has become a synonym for “evil”. The reader need only see a “neo-” to know that no good will follow.)
“The joke of it is that defenders of censorship represent “orientalism” at its most patronising. They see the world’s Muslims as an undifferentiated and infantile mass. The smallest provocation – a cartoon in a Jutland newspaper, a trailer for a nasty but obscure film – is enough to turn them into a raging mass of bearded men who bellow curses as they fire their Kalashnikovs. They take no account of those in Libya, Egypt and Iran who want nothing to do with clerical violence. As seriously, they do not understand that ‘offences against Islam‘ are manufactured by extremists, who must keep their supporters in a state of violent rage or see their power wane.”
The issue of religious censorship and the demand from bigots for special protection and privilege, will not go away and will not be appeased by concessions: it must be constantly fought and no quarter can be given. Perhaps even more pernicious, is the creeping self-censorship and sheer cowardice of ‘liberal’ media people like Channel 4. That’s why, even at this perhaps ‘inopportune’ moment, these brave people and their campaign (below) must be supported by all socialists, democrats and, indeed, principled liberals:
Urgent Action: Islam – The Untold Story must not be cancelled
The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain would like to make public its support for Tom Holland’s Channel 4 documentary ‘Islam: The Untold Story’. We are indignant to learn that due to threats made on Holland, Channel 4 has cancelled a repeat screening of the historical inquiry into the origins of Islam similar to the kind of inquiry that has been applied to other religions and histories in Britain for many years.
The threats and concerted attempt to stigmatise the documentary and its producers by attacking its credibility and even legitimacy as a field of inquiry is nothing less than an attempt to impose a blasphemy taboo by stealth and coercion against programming that scrutinises Islam.
Caving in to the coercive pressure of Islamists will have catastrophic effects on free inquiry and expression where it pertains to Islam. It would not only further silence academic, historical and theological scrutiny of Islam but would also have the chilling effect of exerting added pressure on Muslims and ex-Muslims who wish to dissent from and question Islam.
CEMB spokesperson Maryam Namazie says:
“Here’s my question to Channel 4: what about the threats on our lives for being apostates, ex-Muslims, atheists, freethinkers, secularists, 21st century human beings?
“What part of our thoughts, lives, and bodies do you recommend we cancel to appease the Islamists?
“If only there was such an ‘easy’ ‘solution’ for those who are languishing under Islam’s rules.
“You may accept censorship and cowardly silence in the face of Islamist threats and intimidation but we cannot afford to do so. And we never will.”
We look forward to your support.
1. If you’d like to donate to our work, please send a cheque made payable to CEMB to BM Box 1919, London WC1N 3XX, UK or give via Worldpay or Paypal.
2. If you’d like to join a new coffee morning for ex-Muslim women, please email the CEMB at email@example.com.
5. Addresses for Channel 4 and Ofcom:
Lord Burns, Channel 4 Chairperson Channel 4 Television Corporation 124 Horseferry Road London SW1P 2TX
Avi Grewal, Programme Coordinator, Arts & Religion firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Raphael, Emma Cooper, Lina Prestwood, Anna Miralis, Commissioning Editors, Documentaries KHall@channel4.co.uk
Ed Richards, Chief Executive of Ofcom Riverside House 2a Southwark Bridge Road London SE1 9HA email@example.com
6. For further information contact: