I took part this week in a debate at London’s Queen Mary College on the motion ‘This House believes in the right to offend’. Speaking with me for the motion was Pater Tatchell. Oposing the motion was Brian Klug and Anshuman Mondal. (I debated Mondal on this issue online last year.) Here are my introductory comments. Oh, and we won the debate.
One of the ironies of debating free speech is that no one is actually against it. Anshuman Mondal believes in free speech. But… Brian Klug believes in free speech. But… Everyone believes in free speech. But…
You can say what you like. But don’t offend. Don’t provoke. Don’t be irresponsible.
I want to get rid of the ‘but’. The freedom to offend is not merely an add-on to freedom of expression. It is at its core. Without the freedom to offend, freedom of speech becomes meaningless. Not only does the ‘I believe in free speech but…’ argument eviscerate freedom of expression, it also compromises the struggle against bigotry and injustice. Why? Let’s look at some of the ‘buts’. Perhaps the most common one is:
‘I believe in free speech. But in a plural society we have to be more constrained in what we say.’
For diverse societies to function and to be fair, so the argument runs, we need to show respect not just for individuals but also for the cultures and beliefs in which those individuals are embedded and which helps give them a sense of identity and being. This requires that we police public discourse about those cultures and beliefs, both to minimise social friction and to protect the dignity of people from different backgrounds.
In fact, the opposite is the case. It is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In a plural society the giving of offence is both inevitable and important. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Almost by definition such clashes express what it is to live in a diverse society. Such clashes are better resolved openly than suppressed in the name of ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’. And important because any kind of social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged, whether that be of the state or of religious institutions.
Perhaps, say the would-be censors, ‘But we need to ensure that minorities are not denigrated.’
It is, in my view, morally incumbent on advocates of free speech also to challenge bigotry. Part of the reason for free speech is to be able to create the conditions for open, robust debate, conditions necessary to allow us challenge obnoxious views. I defend free speech because I want to challenge bigotry.
The argument that we should censor speech to prevent bigotry raises two questions. Who decides what should be censored? And who most suffers from censorship?
A few years ago, shortly after the publication of the Danish cartoons, Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain made some derogatory comments about homosexuality on Radio 4’s Today programme. He saw himself as merely expressing the Islamic view. Many gay groups saw his comments as offensive. The Metropolitan police launched an investigation into Sacranie’s supposed ‘hate speech’. In response, 22 Muslim leaders wrote to the Times demanding the right to be able to ‘freely express their views in an atmosphere free of intimidation or bullying’. Those same leaders denied such a right, of course, to newspapers publishing cartoons mocking Mohammed.
So, do Anshuman and Brian believe that we should stop religious leaders from expressing offensive views about gays? If not, why not? Why is it wrong to offend Muslims, but right to offend gays? If they do believe that believers should be prevented from expressing offensive views about gays, what about religious freedom? Are believers not allowed to say anything that might offend other people?
In a plural society much of what we say, others will find offensive. If we reject the right to give offence, we effectively reject the right to speak. We also reject religious freedom. For without the right to offend there can be no religious freedom.
And who is it that most benefits from censorship? The notion of giving offence suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. That is why free speech is essential to minority communities, and to those without power. Once we constrain the right to offend, we constrain also the ability to challenge power, and hence to challenge injustice.
People often talk about ‘offence to a community’. More often than not what they actually mean is ‘debate within a community’. Some Muslims found The Satanic Verses offensive. Others did not. Some Sikhs found Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti offensive, and so closed it down with threats of violence. Others did not – Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti is, after all, herself Sikh. It is because what is often called ‘offence to a community’ is in reality a ‘debate within a community’ that so many of the flashpoints over offensiveness have been over works produced by minority artists – not just Salman Rushdie and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, but Hanif Kuresihi, Monica Ali, Sooreh Hera, Taslima Nasrin, MF Hussain, and so on. Those who oppose the right to offend are not defending minorities from being denigrated. They are defending the conservative voices in minority communities against the more progressive ones.
There are today hundreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the West, and within Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and institutions; writers, cartoonists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms. People like Avijit Roy, the atheist Bangladeshi blogger hacked to death last month by Islamists, or the Iranian blogger Soheil Arabi, sentenced to death last year for ‘insulting the Prophet’. What is really racist is the idea that only nice white liberals want to challenge religion or can handle satire. Those who claim that it is ‘racist’ to mock the Prophet Mohammad, appear to imagine, with the racists, that all Muslims are reactionaries. Leftwing ‘anti-racism’ here joins hands with rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry.
But now comes the next ‘but’: ‘I believe in free speech. But with free speech comes responsibility’.
In one sense, this is a truism with which nobody could disagree. After all, there is almost nothing we do that doesn’t come with responsibility.
But what does it actually mean to speak ‘responsibly’? That depends on who defines ’responsibility’. For the Russian government it means not mocking President Putin. For the US government, not revealing NSA secrets. For many gay groups, not talking of homosexuality as a sin. For many Muslim groups, not depicting the Prophet.
‘Use speech responsibly’, in other words, means ‘Speak in a way that does not challenge certain forms of power, or certain kinds of beliefs’. To accede to that is actually what is irresponsible.
Some suggest that ‘acting responsibly’ means not saying anything that you know will provoke other people into acting violently. Salman Rushdie was irresponsible because he knew The Satanic Verses would provoke riots. Charlie Hebdo was irresponsible because it knew its cartoons would cause trouble.
Think of the logic of this argument: that those most willing to be provoked, or to threaten, should be the ones who effectively decide what can and cannot be said. Rather than fingering the perpetrators of violence for being irresponsible, it puts the onus on the victims to act responsibly. Was Avijit Roy irresponsible because he knew his writing was provocative? It is an argument that encourages the reactionaries, and encourages them to be violent.
It is also an argument that turns the notion of tolerance on its head. Tolerance used to mean the willingness to accept things being said with which one did not agree. Now, it is the insistence that one should keep silent about things with which others disagree. Tolerance, in other words, is no longer about opening up society. It’s about closing it down.
If you want an open, plural society, if you want to challenge bigotry, if you want to defend freedom of religion, if you want to question power, you need to defend the right to give offence. Full stop. No buts.