Anshuman Mondal, a lecturer in English at Brunel University, recently published an article on the academic website The Conversation criticising arguments for free speech. Advocates of free speech, of which I was a key specimen, were, Mondal claimed, trying to ‘shut up’ those who disagreed with them:
By advocating blind adherence to the principle of free speech instead of accepting the ethical responsibilities attendant upon free speech, people like… Malik undermine the moral agency on which freedom rests. By dismissing other people’s right to protest, they are effectively saying that everything must be acceptable to everyone, and that anyone – especially “artists” – should be able to say whatever they like, whatever the consequences.
Not only do we have to put up with it because that is the price to be paid for free speech, we also have to shut up about it too if we don’t like it. Now that does sound like censorship to me.
The Conversation would not afford me the courtesy of an article in response because, in their words, I am ‘not an academic employed by a university’. Apparently, if you are not a bona fide academic, you can have any accusation thrown at you on The Conversation, but not the right to a proper reply. Be that as it may, I challenged Mondal in the comments section of his article to show me one instance in which I had ‘dismissed people’s right to protest’ or ‘told them they had to shut up about it’. He couldn’t, of course, because I never have, but the thread developed into a broader debate about free speech. The thread is revealing not just about the free speech debate but also about what passes for debate these days. Mondal made a series of assertions about what I believe, none of which, when challenged, could he substantiate. What is most striking is that, despite the claims he makes about my beliefs and arguments, neither in the original article nor in his three responses does Mondal once quote directly from any of my books or essays (and given that he has apparently devoted a whole research project to my book From Fatwa to Jihad, that should not have been too much trouble). That I find quite shocking.
Mondal’s original article is here. I am republishing below the full thread of our debate so far in the comments section. Despite the vacuousness of his claims about my ‘dismissing’ people’s right to protest or demanding that they ‘shut up’, Mondal does raise important issues about freedom of expression and its boundaries. Given the space restrictions of a comments thread, I could not respond to all of them (such as, for instance, the question of the moral responsibility of a writer or artist). If I have time, I will write a separate post on some of those issues. And if Mondal responds to my last comment, and the thread continues, I will update this post.
1 Kenan Malik
Apparently I am not allowed a proper right of reply to this article, despite appearing as one of the chief bogeymen in it, because I am not ‘an academic employed by a university’. Somewhat ironic, perhaps, given a debate about free speech and a site called ‘The Conversation’. So, let me just ask one question of Anshuman Mondal. He claims that my view of free speech is based on ‘dismissing other people’s right to protest’ and that I insist on objectors to a work of art having ‘to shut up about it… if we don’t like it’. So, can he point me to one instance in which I have objected to anyone’s right to protest or to express an opinion? Just one.
2 Anshuman Mondal
Hello Kenan, I am sorry you were not allowed a right of reply, which I have no say over, but thank you nevertheless for your comment/question.
The article tries to analyse what is in fact happening when people cry ‘censorship!’ in the face of protests. As I have said in response to another commenter above, when they do this they are inevitably setting up a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable forms of protest. That is fine, I don’t have a problem with that. What I am interested in is the ethics and politics at work in free speech controversies, and that in turn means that we need to allow judgement and discrimination (in the critical sense) into the picture. What I do have a problem with are rhetorical gestures (such as crying ‘censorship!’) that prevent protestors from likewise turning the tables on writers and artists and judging whether they have exercised their right to free speech acceptably or not. As I have said in the previous reply, ‘this in turn raises the question: are all “censorious” protests NECESSARILY unacceptable? I would say not. I would say that it depends on the “speech” (e.g. art) they respond to – and you can’t generalize about this, it is always specific to each encounter…[but] by using the term “censorship”, the ante is upped to the point where no protest with a purpose (as opposed to simply expressing dissent and disagreement) would ever be justified.’
This in turn attenuates the right to protest to the point where it effectively becomes a dismissal of that right. What is the point of protesting? Is it simply to register your dissent or disagreement? Or is it to try and make something happen, to change things in some way? Surely, the right to protest should encompass both? My argument is that crying ‘censorship!’ makes the second of these invalid, hence the contradiction I identify in the first half of the article: the idea that free speech is threatened by free speech itself.
The question is, can we explain such a contradiction? This is where your work comes in, because I think it is due to a particular understanding of free speech of which I think you are one of the most eloquent and powerful exponents. I therefore briefly examine what you say about responsibility in your book, which I think explains it. So, the question is not whether you have ever explicitly dismissed other people’s right to protest, even once. I am interested, rather, in the LOGICAL IMPLICATION of the rationale underpinning a certain conceptualization of free speech that you express in your book, a logic that, in my opinion, is shared by those others with whom I associate you. It is a shame you feel that such critique makes you into a ‘bogeyman’, which implies that I have made you into a kind of straw target. But I am not interested in personalizing this (I am not accusing you of hypocrisy or anything) only in rationally disputing your arguments.
3 Kenan Malik
Anshuman, thanks for the response. Two points:
First, you seem to accept, though you never say so outright, that I have in fact never objected to anyone’s right to protest or to express an opinion. You suggest that this is a logical implication of my free speech argument.
In your article, however, you do more than suggest a logical implication. You claim straightforwardly that I am ‘dismissing other people’s right to protest’ and that I insist on objectors to a work of art having ‘to shut up about it… if we don’t like it’. You are quick to accuse those with whom you disagree of indulging in ‘rhetorical flourishes’. Perhaps you should think more carefully about your own rhetorical flourishes, especially when they buttress claims that are patently false.
Second, you make an interesting leap. You suggest that in opposing censorship I am ‘inevitably setting up a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable forms of protest’. I do nothing of the sort. I am setting up a distinction between the right to protest and the content of a particular protest. I have never said of any protest calling for censorship or cancellation or withdrawal that such protest is ‘unacceptable’. What I have said is that I disagree with the call for censorship / cancellation / withdrawal. Are you suggesting that unless I agree with the content of any protest that I deem that protest ‘unacceptable’? That unless I agree with the demand for censorship or cancelation or withdrawal, I am exercising censorship? That would be an absurd position to hold. To oppose the demand of a particular protest is not deem that protest ‘unacceptable’ or to demand that the protestors be censored.
What is the point of protesting? Is it simply to register your dissent or disagreement? Or is it to try and make something happen, to change things in some way? Surely, the right to protest should encompass both?
Of, course the aim of most protests is to change things. But that doesn’t mean that I have to accept the aim of every protest, nor that if I don’t accept the aim I am calling for the protestors to be censored.
Suppose UKIP hold a protest to demand greater restrictions on immigration. I oppose such restrictions. Are you suggesting that I cannot support UKIP’s right to protest unless I also support the aim of restricting immigration? That would be bizarre position to hold, just as it is with protests on restrictions on exhibitions or films or novels.
It is a feature of our time that the claims ‘I disagree with you’, ‘I find it unacceptable’ and ‘It must be censored’ have become elided. Central to my view of free speech is the insistence that we must distinguish between these three claims. Central to your view appears to be the desire to erase such distinctions.
4 Anshuman Mondal
I agree that the latter paragraphs of my piece involve some provocative rhetorical flourishes, although I had hoped that in so doing it would provoke some lively debate (as it has) and I would have thought that given your arguments about the necessity of provocation in your book you would appreciate that. Nevertheless, we still seem to be talking at cross-purposes, so I will try to clarify what I am saying.
What I am arguing is not that you are against the right to protest but that the logic of your argument attenuates that right in effect if not in intention. Let me begin by saying that I want to move the discussion – here, with you, and in relation to free speech in general – beyond the question of rights: both you and I accept the right to free speech and the right to protest. But I am concerned with what people DO with those rights.
This distinction between having the right, and how one exercizes it is, in fact, pretty much the same distinction you make between the right and the ‘content’ of any particular protest. You have understood my drawing attention to the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable forms of protest as implying that in disagreeing with some protests – which you and I and all people clearly do – one is therefore actually and intentionally calling for them to be ‘censored’. That is, you interpret ‘unacceptable’ as ‘not allowable’. This is not what I am saying. So, let me change the language here: the distinction I am making is an ethical one not a legal one. Let’s talk, then, of ‘justifiable’ and ‘unjustifiable’ protests – given your bold anti-censorship position, surely you would agree that certain types of protests (i.e. censorious ones) protests are morally (but not legally) unjustifiable?
With that in mind, what I am arguing is that the rhetorical effect of characterizing ‘censorious’ protests as a form of ‘censorship’ undermines the moral grounds of ANY such protest by erasing the distinction between ‘censorship’ and ‘censure’. So why do I say, then, that you and others who hold this position dismiss the ‘rights’ of others to protest in this manner? Well, partly, as you point out, it is a rhetorical exaggeration, which I admit. But there is also a serious point underlying it.
In disagreeing with a ‘censorious’ protest, one could simply say ‘I disagree with you’, and leave it at that. But if one says that such protests amount to a form of censorship then one is also doing something else other than simply disagreeing. One is making a moral judgment (just as the protestors are also making a moral judgment the other way) to the effect that such actions are unjustifiable, but one is doing so in a particular way that displaces the disagreement from the realm of ethics to the realm of law, rights and state power. This then moves the disagreement onto terrain that has a long and distinguished history within liberalism – keeping power in check – and allows the critics of such protest to claim the moral high ground.
But since most protestors do not have the power to enforce their judgments, the only way they can effect the change they seek is through the force of their expression of moral censure and the mobilization of public opinion in the hope that the powerful will then accede. This, to me, is part of the ethics and politics of controversy and some protests of this sort can be morally justifiable whilst others are not – which is why I make the point that each case needs to be seen in its specificity and cannot be generalized.
If the aim of censorious protest is to make some forms of expression socially unacceptable through moral censure (let’s leave aside those who try to do so through verbal and physical intimidation, which abuses the right to protest) then this may lead to de jure or de facto ‘censorship’. But to call such protests themselves a form of censorship is to conflate the aim with the act. In so doing, one erases the possibility that the aims of some protests may be justifiable whilst those of others are not, because the act of protesting would then contain within it the act of censorship. This, in turn, implies that ALL such forms of protest are unjustifiable.
The dismissal then is not so much of the ‘right’ but any possibility that it might be right, ethically. But without that moral core, the ‘right’ is drained of its force and reduced to a formality. That is precisely the aim of those critics who call the protests themselves a form of censorship.
5 Kenan Malik
Anshuman, as far as I can understand it, your argument rests on the claim that I ‘call the protests themselves a form of censorship’, a point you repeat more than once. According to you,
to call such protests themselves a form of censorship is to conflate the aim with the act. In so doing, one erases the possibility that the aims of some protests may be justifiable whilst those of others are not, because the act of protesting would then contain within it the act of censorship. This, in turn, implies that ALL such forms of protest are unjustifiable.
In your original article you claimed that I was ‘dismissing other people’s right to protest’ and insisting on objectors to a work of art having ‘to shut up about it… if we don’t like it’. When I challenged you to give examples of my writing to back up your claims, you couldn’t, but suggested that you were merely being ‘provocative’ and indulging in ‘rhetorical exaggeration’. So, let me ask the same question again: can you show me where I have ‘called such protests themselves a form of censorship’? Or is this also a ‘provocation’ or another ‘rhetorical exaggeration’?
You claim that, given my ‘bold anti-censorship position’, I must agree that certain types of protests, such as those against Exhibit B, are ‘morally unjustifiable’. You then use that claim to insist that the implication of my argument is that ‘ALL such forms of protest are unjustifiable’.
The trouble is, all this is pure invention on your part. I have never suggested, or even implied, that a particular protest, still less all such forms of protest, are ‘morally unjustifiable’. What I have said is that insofar as the aim of protestors is to close down, cancel, or ban works of art, then that is a call for censorship and politically wrong. It is not I but you, who ‘conflates the aim with the act’, by insisting that to critique the aim of a protest is actually to critique the act of protest. It is striking that neither in your article nor in your two responses so far have you actually quoted me to back up your claims, perhaps because were you to do so, your argument would collapse.
Since you won’t quote what I have actually written, let me do so myself. You raise the issue of Exhibit B, and use my views of the protests against the show as evidence of my ‘censoriousness’. This is actually what I wrote about it:
Brett Bailey has every right to explore the issues as he sees fit, the Barbican has every to stage that exploration, and critics have every right to protest about it. What the critics don’t have is the right to shut the show down because they feel offended by it… The real criticism that could be made of the Barbican is in having cancelled Exhibit B when there was probably no need to have done so. Yes, there was a vociferous protest outside the exhibition, but that protest was not violent, there were no arrests, and there appeared to be no real threat to the show. The Barbican simply took fright. It is not in staging Exhibit B but in shutting the show down that the Barbican truly failed in its duty to allow the debate to proceed.
Can you explain where in my article I call ‘such protests themselves a form of censorship’, or suggest that they are ‘unacceptable’ or ‘morally unjustified’? In fact, as you can read, I don’t even blame the protestors, but rather the Barbican, for actually closing down the show.
Do I, as you claim, ‘erase the possibility that the aims of some protests may be justifiable whilst those of others are not’, or ‘imply that ALL such forms of protest are unjustifiable’? Well, let’s read what I wrote:
Exhibit B is clearly controversial, provocative, unnerving and, for some, offensive and racist. There is a debate to be had about the show, about racism, and about the role of art and art institutions in exploring such issues. But this debate is distinct from the debate about free speech. Or, more to the point, one cannot have the one without the other. If we want to have a proper debate about racism, art and institutions we need also resolutely to defend freedom of expression.
What I argue, in other words, is that there is a vital debate to be had, that the critics raise important points, and that the reason we need free speech is precisely to be able to air these issues. Equally importantly, as I have long argued, it is not free speech but the attempt to shackle it that is fatal for protest and for those who want to challenge authority and power. I show in From Fatwa to Jihad, for instance, how many of the same arguments used by those who demanded a ban on The Satanic Verses are now used by the state to silence radical Muslim critics.
‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. The importance of the principle of free speech is that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. This is why free speech is essential not simply to the practice of democracy, but to the aspirations of those groups who may have been failed by the formal democratic processes; to those whose voices may have been silenced by racism, for instance. The real value of free speech, in other words, is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them. And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged.
In the end, what most disappoints me about your argument is your refusal to debate what I actually say rather what you would have liked me to have said because it would fit with your fantasy about free speech advocates as the real censors.
6 Anshuman Mondal
Kenan, it’s good that you have never said that censorious protests are themselves a form of censorship – others have not been so scrupulous. I did not reference your analysis of Exhibit B because I was not aware of it, so I feel it is unfair of you to accuse me of not engaging with it. I did reference Fatwa to Jihad, so I will try to explain once more why I did.
My article begins by noting that people like Ralph Lee have characterized such protests as a form of censorship. I then note that in so doing they seem to suggest that the expression of free speech is a threat to free speech. This is clearly contradictory, so I try to explain how they might have arrived at such a position. This is where you come in, because my view is that they display the same assumptions about artistic responsibility as can be found powerfully expressed in your book, and that this is the heart of the matter. I then try to draw out some of the implications of that, ending, as you point out, with the rhetorical flourish to which you took such umbrage. But, as I pointed out in my previous response, beneath that rhetorical flourish is a serious underlying point to which you object, but which I think is borne out by your response itself. You take issue with my point that, given your position on censorship, you must find censorious protests morally unjustifiable. But then you say this: ‘insofar as the aim of protestors is to close down, cancel, or ban works of art, then that is a call for censorship and politically wrong’. I find it extremely significant that you find it only ‘politically wrong’. On what basis can one say that they are simply wrong on political as opposed to moral grounds? Surely political judgments are inextricably linked to ethical and moral evaluations? Otherwise, politics is reduced to mere instrumentalism or expediency.
So let me ask you this: are there any circumstances in which you could imagine yourself arguing that protestors who demand the censorship of a work are not just within their rights but also (morally) right to make that demand? What about a work that was gratuitously racist, misogynist, or homophobic, a work that explicitly called the moral worth of other human beings into question simply on the basis of their being different, in some way, to the author of the work? Would protestors be right to demand the withdrawal of such a work in order to uphold the principle that any society which values the equal moral worth of all human beings is entitled to deem such work morally, intellectually and socially as well as politically unacceptable? Or would they be wrong on the basis that they would therefore be shutting down debate about the equal worth of all human beings? In the passages you quote from your article on Exhibit B, you correctly argue that the protestors were well within their rights to protest and you rightly suggest that the responsibility for the censorship lay primarily with the Barbican – but without the protestors demanding it, the Barbican would not have done that. So the protestors do share some of the responsibility for that result. So were they right to make that demand in the first place?
Everything you have written, both in this exchange and elsewhere, leads me to think you would not think they were right because all censorship except in the case of direct incitement to physical harm is wrong. If you say it is only ‘politically wrong’ then I ask you again, in what sense is this ‘wrong’ in just a political sense? Your argument underscores the point I made in my earlier response – protestors usually don’t have the power to censor anything, only to put moral pressure on those who do, so clearly theirs wasn’t just a political argument but also a moral one: that it is not only morally wrong to represent race in this manner, but also morally wrong also to allow it to be publicly displayed. You may agree with the first part of this but surely you would not agree with the second? Ergo, you must be disagreeing with their demand for censorship both politically and morally.
Perhaps what you mean is that it is a political mistake to close down debate about, say, racism because free speech enables anti-racists to challenge racism. In order for power to be challenged, no question must be beyond contention. I acknowledge the value of free speech in the fight for equality, and its vital importance, and so I agree with you up to a point, but at that point I would make two important qualifications. First, for anyone who values equality, there are some questions that are beyond contention. ‘Is the moral worth of women equal to men?’ or ‘Do Jews deserve to be annihilated for being Jews?’ are two such questions. What’s the point of debating them? Secondly, we are not in some eternal seminar room. Racist, sexist, homophobic discourse both constitute the mental and ideological framework within which these inequalities are comprehended and their continued circulation entrenches them. As Catherine MacKinnon has put it, “In the context of social inequality, so-called speech can be an exercize of power which constructs the social reality in which people live…Words and images are how people are placed in hierarchies, how social stratification is made to seem inevitable and right.” In other words, speech acts have real consequences and are not simply a matter for debate. Sometimes they are a matter of life and death. It is because you privilege debate so much that you seem to value free speech over almost all other values, but I think it is justifiable, in certain circumstances, to privilege equality or social solidarity over freedom.
Of course, I accept that real world discourse is seldom so simplistic as my hypothetical examples, and that artistic discourse is usually so complex that I can envisage no more than a handful of circumstances in which I personally would feel that the demand for censorship would be morally justifiable (and, for the record, I don’t think Exhibit B would be one of them). But I am making a point of principle: in certain circumstances I think the demand for censorship is morally justifiable. You seem to think that the point of my article was to say that free speech advocates are the ‘real’ censors. It is not. Indeed, I think we are all ‘censors’ in one sense because we all participate in the process of defining the restraints on expression that make civilized discourse and debate possible, a point not lost on those older liberals who recognized the fundamental value of civility within the democratic process (and for Freud, such repressions are what constitute civilization in the first place). For me this is about the moral, political and legal limits of free speech and the struggle over where they should lie, which of course implies that I accept that restraints on free speech, whether moral or legal, are sometimes justifiable and necessary.
My point is that when the cry of ‘censorship!’ is raised against people who are expressing their right to free speech in order to make a moral and political case for drawing the line at any given point then such questions about where, when, how and why censorship might be acceptable are, ironically, closed off. Far better for people to say, ‘I disagree with you, people should be able to see this because…’ and then give their reasons, and not just blindly invoke the principle of free speech. You may never have done this, but others have and do. Likewise, protestors need to give their reasons why people shouldn’t be able to see a work beyond the fact that they find it offensive, and I accept they often don’t. That is a debate I want to see happen more often.
7 Kenan Malik
So, let me get this straight. First you accuse me of ‘dismissing other people’s right to protest’ and of insisting that protestors ‘have to shut up about it… if we don’t like it’. When I challenged you to back up your claims, you couldn’t. You suggested that you were merely being ‘provocative’. You then blithely made another claim: that I ‘call the protests themselves a form of censorship’. Again, I challenged you to provide evidence; again you are unable to do so. Your excuse this time is that ‘others have not been so scrupulous’ in their arguments as I have. But I am not ‘others’; so what bearing does this have on claims that you make about my views?
Your method of argumentation appears to be: ‘Throw out an accusation, and if I can’t show it to be true, never mind, I’ll just move on to the next accusation.’ You are keen to discuss morality. All I can say is that yours does not seem a particularly ethical way of pursuing an argument. I am happy to continue with this debate if you wish to engage with the issues. But if your aim is simply continually to throw out accusations without foundation, then I’m sorry I cannot see this as a useful pursuit.
In the hope that that you will engage with what I actually say, rather than with what you’d like to pretend that I have said, let me respond to two of the key issues that you raise. The first is the suggestion that I am unjustified in describing protestors who want a work of art to be cancelled or withdrawn or banned as demanding ‘censorship’; the second is the insistence that certain questions are ‘beyond contention’.
It is wrong to say of protestors that they demand censorship because, you argue, ‘we are all “censors” in one sense because we all participate in the process of defining the restraints on expression that make civilized discourse and debate possible’. The protestors are only acting as people do all the time anyway.
It is true that we all self-censor in the sense that we all abide by certain social rules, and most try to shape our behaviours to fit in with certain norms of politeness and manners. It is true also that as political conceptions change, so we change the ways in which we treat each other, and the kind of language that we use towards each other.
What you are describing, though, are different forms of social processes. Some are customs that have emerged through centuries of social life. Some are forms of behaviours imposed by particular institutions, often to maintain power, often to discriminate. Some are changes brought about by political activism. And so on. I don’t see it as particularly helpful to lump all these different forms of behaviours into a single category of ‘participation in the process of defining the restraints on expression that make civilized discourse and debate possible’ or to describe them all glibly as forms of ‘censorship’.
Be that as it may, let us ask another question pertinent to our debate. Is the kind of censorship in which the protestors against Exhibit B were engaged the kind of ‘censorship’ in which we are all normally engaged?
Most people do not take to the streets, hold protests outside arts institutions, or demand that shows be shut down. Perhaps you mean that the protests were like those of black or gay rights activists against racism, homophobia and discrimination? These are not the kinds of movements in which everyone normally participates; but are they, nevertheless, similar to the protests against Exhibit B? The protestors would like us to think they are, of course, but the comparison is false.
Exhibit B did not set out to deny people rights or to discriminate. It set out to explore the issues of racism, colonialism and slavery. Whether it was successful in doing so, or whether it perpetuated racist stereotypes, I cannot say, since the show was shut down before I able to see it. What I can say is that the debate about whether or not Exhibit B was an appropriate way to tackle these issues is very different from the debate about whether, say, it is appropriate to use ‘Paki’ to refer to someone like me. The Exhibit B debate is not a debate ‘defining the restraints on expression that make civilized discourse and debate possible’ but about the acceptable ways in which to think about and explore the issue of racism. Those who wished to close down the show were not setting out to define norms of politeness or ‘civilized discourse’. They were insisting, rather, that there could only be certain ways in which one could explore these issues, and that only they could define what those ways could be.
It seems to me as fatuous to suggest that the protestors were not calling for censorship because ‘we are all censors’ as it is to suggest that they were not protesting because we are all ‘protestors’, always complaining about the weather or our grocery bill or the neighbours. What seems particularly bizarre is your claim that it is unjustifiable to describe those who want to shut down a show or ban a book as demanding ‘censorship’, but justifiable to say of those who defend the right of protestors to hold such protests and to express such views, but label them as demands for censorship, that they are being ‘censorious’, ‘dismissing people’s right to protest’ and ‘closing off’ debate. (Incidentally, you seem inordinately fond of the phrase ‘Cry censorship!’ I must, one of these days, try to ‘Cry censorship’.)
What of the second issue – your claim that some questions are ‘beyond contention’? You write:
For anyone who values equality, there are some questions that are beyond contention. ‘Is the moral worth of women equal to men?’ or ‘Do Jews deserve to be annihilated for being Jews?’ are two such questions. What’s the point of debating them?
Such questions may be ‘beyond contention’ for you and me, in the sense that we unquestioningly accept certain propositions about equal worth, propositions that form the framework through which we view the world and organize our political and moral lives. But clearly for many people they are not beyond contention. When you say that ‘Racist, sexist, homophobic discourse both constitute the mental and ideological framework within which these inequalities are comprehended and their continued circulation entrenches them’ what you mean is that issues of equality and equal worth are contested in the real world.
So, the question that we have to address is not ‘Are there certain questions beyond contention?’ but ‘How do we challenge the fact that in the real world certain moral claims that you and I might accept as self-evident are not beyond contention?’ Many critics of free speech appear to believe that if we ban particular ideas, or their depiction, then those ideas themselves will magically disappear. That might work in the seminar room. It doesn’t in the real world. In practice, you cannot suppress or eliminate bigotry by banning it. You simply let the sentiments fester away from where it is policed, resulting in what the social geographer Gill Valentine recently called, in a study of the impact of formal proscriptions, the ‘privatisation of prejudice’.
The point of free speech is, in my view, to create the conditions in which we can challenge bigotry and build progressive social movements. It is morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to stand up to racism and bigotry. To argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge odious and hateful views seems to me immoral. Equally, to try to challenge bigotry by restricting free speech is to continue sitting in what you condescendingly call the ‘eternal seminar room’.
I am not suggesting that we ‘debate’ all claims; that we hold cosy chats with Nazis or civilized discussions with those who believe that ‘Jews deserve to be annihilated’. But much of what is called ‘hate speech’, or of what people wish to ban, consists of claims that may be bigoted or contemptible but are accepted by many as morally defensible. In challenging such claims, we are not simply challenging those who spout such views; we are also challenging the potential audience for such views. That is what getting out of the eternal seminar room means in practice.
There is another issue, too, that arises from the claim that ‘some questions are beyond contention’. Who decides which questions are beyond contention? That is, who decides what should be banned and for what reasons?
Take, for instance, Behzti, the play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, the furore around which was an early echo of that around Exhibit B. The play was set in a Gurdwara, in which rape and abuse occurred. When the Birmingham Rep staged the play in 2004, protests by Sikh activists forced the theatre to close the production within two days.
For Kaur Bhatti, her play was a means of challenging the treatment of women within Sikh communities. For the critics of the play, Behzti was an unconscionable attack on their communities, one that challenged issues ‘beyond contention’, trampled over ‘civilized discourse and debate’ and so had to be closed down, a necessary ‘restraint on expression’. Who is to decide who is right in this debate?
Exactly the same question has arisen in every such debate from The Satanic Verses to Exhibit B. What is ‘beyond contention’ depends upon your starting perspective. Should every question that everyone decides is ‘beyond contention’ be deemed to be so? In which case we effectively create a silent society. Or should only certain people decide what is beyond contention? And if so who?
Finally, I want to reiterate the point I made in an earlier comment: that those who gain most from restrictions on free speech, from placing certain questions ‘beyond contention’, are those with power, whether within minority communities or over minority communities. Those that suffer most are those without power. It is precisely because ‘speech acts have real consequences’ that free speech is, for me, so vital to struggle for equality and a more progressive society.
The top photo is Alexander Rodchenko’s Lily Brik (for more of Rodchenko’s photography, see my post From An Unexpected Perspective); the other images are, from top down, an image from Exhibit B (courtesy of the BBC); Garry Clarkson’s photo of the burning of The Satanic Verses on a demonstration in Bradford, 1989 (© Garry Clarkson); MF Husain’s triptych from a series on ‘Indian Civilisations’ (Husain’s work faced much censorship from Hindu nationalists who opposed the idea of a Muslim painter depicting Hindu deities); Diane Ducruet’s photo ‘Mother and Daughter II’, which was removed from a Paris exhibition earlier this month because it caused offence; the Danish cartoons; a poster for Jerry Springer: The Opera; and an image from Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behud, which explored the controversy around her earlier play, Behzhti.