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.
The top and bottom images are from Rich White’s ‘Censored books’ series, the middle image is one of Helio Oiticica‘s Metaesquema series.
Thank you, Kenan! As always you express most clearly and and unambiguously. As you well know, the space for free and independent expression in South Asia is getting smaller. Even leaving aside those in power who have a vested interest in not being mocked or critiqued, even ‘liberals’ have bought into the idea that genuine free speech is irresponsible and oppressive (to the vulnerable and the weak).
I believe in free speech, but I also believe that in order to protect human rights (including freedom of expression), incitement to violence, or to the persecution of minorities, or to the suppression of dissent, needs to be a crime.
No-one has won a rational (and free) debate on free speech without that “but” since John Adams identified the potential for a tyranny of the majority to Americans in 1788. The right to free speech requires such caveat in order to exist… It is never absolute, and societies will always seek to discourage offensive behaviour, whether it’s farting at the dinner table, denying the holocaust or promoting the repatriation of ethic minorities. As little state or judicial intervention as is required to sustain a civil society is the answer. It’s not that contentious, intellectually at least.
Your assertions elsewhere implying that a civil society cannot also be multicultural are however far more troubling, if rendered “not quite offensive”( to me at least), by the caveat of your carefully nuanced acceptance of cultural diversity. I am neither a fan nor a troll. I don’t like your argument because I fear it ultimately extends to a somewhat Malthusian conclusion. I like that you make it, because if humanity is to survive on an overcrowded planet in any meaningful “pursuit of happiness” it identifies clearly some of the problems we have yet to overcome.
“No-one has won a rational (and free) debate on free speech without that “but” since John Adams identified the potential for a tyranny of the majority to Americans in 1788.”
John Adams said that during a time when only a few percentage of Americans had the right to vote or hold public office. He was defending the tyranny of a minority. Of course, he would fear-monger about an imaginary tyranny of the majority. John Adams was the same guy who later on passed the unconstitutional Alien and Seditions Act. He wasn’t the wisest and most principled of our founders.
I’d rather listen to a founder who was willing to risk his life for the principle of freedom of speech, Thomas Paine.
“If, to expose the fraud and imposition of monarchy … to promote universal peace, civilization, and commerce, and to break the chains of political superstition, and raise degraded man to his proper rank; if these things be libellous … let the name of libeller be engraved on my tomb.”
[Letter Addressed To The Addressers On The Late Proclamation, 1792 (Paine’s response to the charge of “seditious libel” brought against him after the publication of The Rights of Man)]
We today too easily forget that the defense of freedom of speech against those who would limit is always a revolutionary act. By its very nature, free speech challenges the status quo of authority and power. There is no way getting around it. To try to tame free speech is to neuter it of its significance and force.
Steve, thanks for your response, but I’m not sure I understand your argument, nor am I sure you understand mine. You write
These are all very different categories, and none, as far as I can see, relates to the question of whether it is right to give offence. Incitement to violence? Yes, it should be a criminal offence. Persecution of minorities? What do your mean by that? Do you mean physical attacks on minorities? I am opposed to that, but that is not an issue of speech. Do you mean incitement to physical attacks on minorities? As I said, I am opposed to incitement to violence. Do you mean laws that discriminate against minorities? I am opposed to such laws, but it is not an issue of speech. Do you mean advocacy of such laws? While I am opposed to such laws, I think people should be perfectly free to argue for them. Equality is a political concept, and one to which I subscribe. But many people don’t. It would be absurd to suggest that only people who hold my kind of views should be able to advocate them. I am absolutely opposed to repatriation, and think that those who deny the Holocaust are cranks, anti-Semites or fascists. But I certainly would not deny people the right to express such a claims.
Incidentally many people might find offensive your comparison of Holocaust denial and the promotion of repatriation with ‘farting at the dinner table’. Should you therefore be banned from making such a comparison?
As for ‘suppression of dissent’ – are you talking here of laws, regulations and state actions? Clearly I am opposed to such laws, regulations and actions, but I’m not sure why you imagine that I would defend them in defending free speech. Do you mean advocacy of such laws, regulations or actions? In which case I would defend the right of people to express such views. To suppress such arguments would be itself to suppress dissent.
Your claim that
I am not sure where I made such a claim. I have certainly argued that we need to distinguish between diversity as lived experience and multiculturalism as a set of political policies I am for the former (and for all that goes with it, including mass immigration) but opposed to the latter because, as I have explained many times, such policies are attempts to ‘institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes… and defining their needs and rights accordingly.’ In so doing, such policies undermine much of what is good about diversity. What all this has to do with Malthus, I have no idea.
Thank you for the thoughtful and thought provoking discussion. What I have difficulty with is the idea that any sane person could consider themselves free to speak their mind at all times in all places or social contexts. One can hold an opinion without being obliged, or entitled, to express it regardless of consequence. The deliberate provocation or incitement (of an otherwise reasonable person) to an unlawful act, is perhaps where I could best define the legal limit on people’s freedom. Certainly the test would be stronger than simply “causing offence” and even then there would be exceptions for the like of Tom Paine. Whilst we all (on this page at least) wish for freedom, life is not lived in the debating chamber and we sometimes have a duty to consider what people will hear, as well as what we want to say. Complete freedom of expression would be insanity, and some who believe most fervently in their freedom have access to horrendously powerful weapons. The Free World has consistently proved itself ready to kill in huge numbers to protect it’s own right to say and do as it pleases anywhere it likes. That particular kind of freedom is indeed offensive, and provocative, and illegal.
Free speech doesn’t mean an uncontrollable obligation and obsessive-compulsive urge to speak at all times, in all places, and on every issue. You say complete freedom of expression would be insanity because you define it according to insanity. I’m not sure why one would want to make insanity the defining feature of freedom of expression. To me, that way of defining it seems insane, to the point of absurdity.
Free speech is a right, not an entitlement. One can hold a right without being obligated. Anyway, who obligates a free person to speak? They are also free not to speak. If they were obligated, then they wouldnt be free. And no one in the article or in the coments claimed that anyone is free from consequences or should ignore consequences.
Something occurred to me after I wrote my last comment. I couldn’t quite grasp where you were coming from,, but I think I get one aspect. You seem to be implying that people lack responsible free will. That if there weren’t rules to limit people, then people would be unable to limit themselves. That responsibility and control has to be forced onto people.
At times like these, I get the suspicion that someone like you is speaking from personal experience and assuming everyone else is like you. My guess is that you are a person who likes rules. They make you feel comfortable. They give you clear guidelines. Without them, maybe you wouldn’t know how to act and you fear that you could say anything.
Maybe I’m wrong, but that is the only way I can make sense of your comment.
I realize people have different notions of human nature. But I wonder what some people base their beliefs upon.
You seem to think that if people were given full freedom that they would act unruly and uncontrolled, that chaos and insanity would ensue, that maybe all of civilized society would collapse or at least become severely dysfunctional. I just don’t see any evidence of this belief of yours.
We have seen many examples of social problems and even collapse throughout history. There have been many causes involved: famine, drought, plague, war, climate change, etc. But I’ve never heard of any society in all of history that collapsed because its citizens were given full freedom.
This makes me curious. Why do you feel so certain of a hypothetical result for which there is no evidence?
The basis of my belief is that humans are social animals who’ve developed a capacity for semi-rational abstract thought. The materialist conceptualisation of individual freedom is however every bit as much a construct of that phenomenon as the omnipotent god believed in by those scholars who gifted us the doctrine of free will. We are constrained by a biology which obliges us to society. There will be norms, there will be rules. If we are smart and kind then they will be rules that allow us (and our neighbours) to live happily as we can. We internalise rules instinctively because whether we rationalise them or not, they are exactly what allow us to live together without constant violent confrontation. I acknowledge the need for rules, just as much as I acknowledge the need for some people to break them occasionally, and perhaps that’s where we differ. The law does not limit human behaviour. It limits what society is prepared to accept without sanction and any limit not being tested is probably one that you don’t actually need to legislate for in the first place. I committed my first act of civil disobedience almost 30 years ago, and my most recent was a few months back, not because I suffer some kind of Tourette’s or OCD, but because if you never challenge the orthodoxy it won’t change. I also accept the consequences, and I weigh them against why a particular law needs breaking. Mostly I campaign for the environment and social justice, sometimes it involves trespass or causing obstruction. I do not however deny the need for laws that govern public behaviour, including, and here is precisely the point where we differ – What we say to each other. This is of course subject to reasonableness and proportionality of the sanction to the context. There are indeed some things you say that I do not agree with but would nonetheless defend to the death your right to say. But not “anything” and not “always” and not “anywhere”. You are not free. I – we – society, get to choose and you get to choose how far you want to push our tolerance (or imagination). The German prohibition on expressing certain opinions is unfortunate only in so far as it remains necessary. Other nations have other atrocities they daren’t defend. Case in point – The frat guys from Oklahoma – who I believe had absolutely no right to say what they said. This particular commentary focusses on the psychological and societal damage caused by tolerating hate speech. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/12/opinion/charles-m-blow-university-of-oklahoma-fraternity-chant-rigidity-of-racism.html?_r=0
“The basis of my belief is that humans are social animals who’ve developed a capacity for semi-rational abstract thought.”
That is the basis of my belief as well. It is probably the basis of most people’s beliefs.
“The materialist conceptualisation of individual freedom is however every bit as much a construct of that phenomenon as the omnipotent god believed in by those scholars who gifted us the doctrine of free will.”
Neither Malik nor I have argued for a materialist conceptualization of individual freedom, whatever that might mean.
“We are constrained by a biology which obliges us to society.”
We are social animals. That can’t be doubted. We are social animals, no matter what laws are in place or what inalienable rights are posited in a constitution.
Freedom is inseparable from our social reality for freedom is an expression of a certain kind of society and a particular cultural tradition. The etymology of ‘freedom’ goes back To German. It is related to the word ‘friend’. To be free means to be in a society and community of fellow free people.
“There will be norms, there will be rules.”
That is true even outside of laws. We don’t need laws to prevent people from acting wrongly. Constraints on moral behavior more come from social norms and a culture of trust. Laws are meaningless if no one cares about them, takes them seriously, obeys them, and enforces them. The laws have no power in and of themselves. It is people who have power, which is true with or without laws.
“If we are smart and kind then they will be rules that allow us (and our neighbours) to live happily as we can.”
That is why focusing on the laws themselves misses the point. Laws are more results than causes.
“We internalise rules instinctively because whether we rationalise them or not, they are exactly what allow us to live together without constant violent confrontation.”
If they allow us to live together without constant violent confrontation, then we have already rationalized them. Laws are just the final endpoint of that rationalization, but internalization of rules precedes laws.
“I acknowledge the need for rules, just as much as I acknowledge the need for some people to break them occasionally, and perhaps that’s where we differ.”
Why would you think we differ on this? Most people probably acknowledge the need for some people to break laws on occasion.
“The law does not limit human behaviour.”
That is the core of my entire argument. Making laws against free speech doesn’t directly limit behavior. It simply punishes that behavior after the fact. Theoretically, what is supposed to stop someone from committing a crime is the fear of later punishment, but human psychology and social behavior is obviously more complex than that, as research shows.
“I do not however deny the need for laws that govern public behaviour, including, and here is precisely the point where we differ – What we say to each other.”
I’m more of a student of social sciences than of law and politics.
As I see it, laws are only necessary to the degree a culture of trust is lacking. In societies that rate higher on culture of trust measures, deals can be made and kept on a handshake. But in societies that rate lower, lots of laws and legal paperwork have to be in place. Laws are the result of societies and communities failing to enforce social norms.
A weak culture of trust creates more problems than any law can deal with. And obviously a free society could only exist in a strong culture of trust. There is an inverse relationship between a free society and a legalistic society.
“You are not free. I – we – society, get to choose and you get to choose how far you want to push our tolerance (or imagination).”
But such social norms aren’t necessarily laws. I’m not arguing against social norms when I’m arguing against law to constrict freedom. In fact, I’m arguing for social norms for the very reason that in an actual functioning free society social norms would be more important than laws.
“The German prohibition on expressing certain opinions is unfortunate only in so far as it remains necessary.”
I agree. The failure is in the society itself. Nazis didn’t come to power and kill Jews because there weren’t enough laws in place restricting freedom.
“Other nations have other atrocities they daren’t defend. Case in point – The frat guys from Oklahoma – who I believe had absolutely no right to say what they said. This particular commentary focusses on the psychological and societal damage caused by tolerating hate speech.”
We don’t need a law telling those frat guys to not make racist statements or songs. That is what social norms are for. Those frat guys have been punished already by having their frat house closed down and the stigma that will follow them, maybe for the rest of their lives. Yet no laws were involved. That is a case in point for the argument I’m making.
I am always struck by how “but” works. People who say “I’m not a racist, but…” go on to expose their racism. People who say, “I believe in free speech, but…” go on to expose their opposition to free speech. Free speech is not the right to say what you want to sayj—the worst tyrants support their right to say what they want to say. Free speech is the right for others to say what you do not want to hear.
I give your comment the prize for most insightful comment of the lot. You went straight to the heart of the issue. Thanks for clarifying that simple and most central point.
There’s a saying I taught others when I was a therapist, taught to me by another therapist, who in turn had it taught to him: “Everything before the ‘but’ is bullshit.”
Amazing how many buts you encounter in the world.
I’ll share that. Thanks!
This is an excellent explication of free speech, I can see why you prevailed in the debate!
I was taught, that free speech did in fact have limits: you couldn’t cry fire in a crowded theater especially when there wasn’t one, and the US Constitution forbade organizing (and speaking) to overthrow the government. This is one of the very few times I find myself in disagreement with you. Perhaps these limits on speech in the US were ingrained in me at such a young, formative age that I can’t see past them. I don’t think so. I think we do need shades of gray. Not laws against free speech but some restraint that the speaker sees as important. For instance, while it may be fine for me as an individual to say what every I want whenever I want, if you know that running into a crowd and screaming something bound to provoke the crowd to rage will indeed provoke rage, why would you choose that way to protest? In the US these days, it has become impossible to overcome the terrible divides because people with a guarranteed audience feel free to say anything they want to keep their followers stirred up. I don’t think that laws per se are what would be good, but some sense of, yes, responsibility.
I would distinguish between laws about free speech and the consequences of free speech. Someone should be held accountable for falsely inciting people to panic or violence, no matter the means. But this should be limited to real rather than imaginary consequences, which is to say they should be objectively measurable.
Still, even in those rare cases, it isn’t free speech that is being punished. It’s the difference between legally owning a gun (for protection or for hobby target practice) and using a gun to commit a crime (robbery, murder, etc). It’s also the difference between people assembling to peacefully protest and leading a lynch mob. It’s how something (speech, gun, assembly, etc) is used and for what purpose, not the thing itself.
Just because we have freedoms as rights, it doesn’t follow that we are free from the responsibility for the consequences of our actions in using those rights. There is an extremely important distinction that needs to be made and kept in mind.
Thank you for this very good and thoughtful reply.
So if the unarmed leader of a bank robbery instructs an armed minion to shoot a teller then that speech should be legally irrelevant if the minion refuses?
Well, even before he spoke a word, they had broken a crime by entering a bank with guns and with an intent to rob it. Their actions already are evidence of guilt, as far as the law is concerned.
Anyway, conspiring to murder someone with concrete actions in place to accomplish it is by itself illegal. But just hypothetically talking about murder in a general way isn’t illegal. It’s the actual planning of murder and the taking of actions toward that end that is the illegal part.
Buddenbooks, you raise two different issues here. The first is the question of limits of free speech, the second the difference between legal and moral opposition to certain forms of speech.
Actually you shouldn’t cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre only when there isn’t one. If there is a fire, I would imagine that it would be your moral duty to warn people of it. But shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre where there isn’t a fire is a form of incitement to violence – an attempt to induce people to act in a way that is likely to lead to injury or death. I have always argued that incitement to violence should be a criminal offence. The trouble is, the ‘you shouldn’t cry fire in a crowded theatre’ argument is pulled out whenever people wish to make any kind of restrictions on free speech, as if pointing that out magically provides a defence for all kinds of censorship.
‘Speaking to overthrow the government’ is an entirely different matter. That is a political stance, and I am opposed to any attempts to suppress such speech.
The second issue you raise is whether it is wise to use certain forms of speech in certain ways. It is often the case that people use speech very unwisely, and in ways I would not advocate. To defend the right of X to speak as he or she wishes is not the same as defending the wisdom of X using speech in a particular fashion, still less the same as defending the content of his or her speech, any more than defending the right to divorce requires one to insist that everyone should get divorced or that all divorces are a good.
What is your opinion about libel laws? They are tougher in the UK than they are in the US, by the way.
British liberal libel laws (even in their reformed version) are an abomination. I am much more sympathetic to the US approach.
There was recently a case in the German press where muslim children in a primary school in Neu-Ulm, after the Charlie-Hebdo-attack, threatened christians and demanded them to die. According to the reports, they had been exposed to anti-christian and anti-jewish preachings in particular mosque. What do you think about the issue of children being exposed to such indoctrination. I have no problem with all kinds of free speech, as long as adults are addressed, but what about children? So far, I have not made up my opinion here. What do you think? http://www.spiegel.de/schulspiegel/islamismus-in-neu-ulm-grundschueler-beschimpfen-christen-a-1022194.html (in German).
And what should be done if people incite others to violence. Would you see that covered by free speech?
I live in Germany. I am a German. You know what happened here in the 1940s. Should it be allowed if people try to convince others that it is OK to kill certain people belonging to other groups? Well, that would be instigation to murder. But if people just tell others that certain people are subhuman, without telling them what to do. Should that be allowed or not? Up to which point should that be covered by free speech? Is there a point where it is no longer just an opinion but a crime. What do you thinkg?
First of all, sorry for my English.
My primary objection to supporters of absolute free speech is they generally claim that a society with absolute free speech would be a better society for everyone when that clearly is not true. Surely it would not be the case for gay people. Episodes like this come to mind: http://www.katu.com/news/local/Students-protest-Day-of-Silence-with-anti-gay-T-shirts-254977171.html
Gay kids kill themselves for the excess of free speech.
I don’t agree with supporters of absolute free speech but I wold respect their argument better if so many of them would stop to pretend absolute free speech is better for all. It is not. It might be good for many, but it also makes life much harder for some.
LGBT people have always been among those who suffered most from restrictions on free speech. Putin’s Russia is the most recent example, but even the United States 60 years ago was a far more restrictive society. Absolute free speech allows gays to defend themselves, call out bigots, and build movements to foster solidarity. LGBT suicides were even more prevalent when gays were forced to live in the closet and could be socially ruined by outing. Hate speech doesn’t go away by being outlawed–France’s laws are evidence of that. It goes away when a society is able to freely examine itself.
The example you’ve given is proof of that–there are over 2,000 students at Oregon City High and only three or four chose to wear those shirts. No one committed suicide over them. Instead it inspired other students to reaffirm their commitment to tolerance–most of the students spoken to disapproved of the shirts. Allowing bigots to make fools of themselves and repel others is more effective than jailing them.
Reblogged this on maxichimaximind and commented:
Great piece. Thank you.
Reblogged this on The Condition of the Left in England and commented:
Kenan, agree with almost all your points in the article, now the infamous, but, how do you rationalise the point that “speech” that incites violence should be illegal, while not wanting to condone violence as a means to further ones opinion how does speech become an action, yes it may be inviting others to violence in a very delicate difficult moment but surely there is in this instance the question of the responsibility and autonomy of those taking the action not the speaker. In this scenario surely we cross from one category defending the right to free speech into another of violent action, yes there is a direct correlation probably between the two but is that the absolute even imminent cause of the action to the point that it is opening a door for an exemption to free speech ,admittedly a rare example but one nonetheless that those always pushing against the door will take with glee and no doubt press to find legal precedents and other subjective reasons to find further exceptions similar to the shouting fire in a public area one you are i am sure familiar with, in these cases context and responsibility are completely lost to the detriment of free speech.
That is the central issue that concerns me.
It isn’t the free speech that is the problem. Yelling fire while in a crowded swimming pool isn’t particularly problematic. A mentally disturbed homeless guy screaming that he’ll blow up a bomb will at worst get him arrested for disturbing the peace, not for speaking freely about a bomb he doesn’t have. It’s not the free speech of what you say, but the larger context.
My saying that I feel like killing someone is just words. Now, if I said that while pointing a knife at your chest, it is the action that matters since it shows real intent. Or if a popular and respected radio host told his listeners to commit genocide, the problem isn’t the words but the fact that he has the authority that others will follow with action.
It’s a slippery slope, once an act of speech get treated identical with physical actions. A word by itself can’t directly harm anyone. That is an important distinction to maintain, especially in terms of possible legal constraints of civil rights. Obviously, when someone is involved in the harming of others, they should be held responsible. But that is a separate issue from free speech.
I’m not saying there aren’t subtleties and nuances in making such a distinction. The problem I have with many who fear unrestrained free speech is that they tend to lack an appreciation for any subtleties and nuances. Limiting free speech will too often lead to more limitations, once precedents are set. it’s easier to destroy freedom than to protect it.
Of prime importance here is the defence of free speech, not trying to write guidelines for prosecuting legal teams or judges to able to interpret any exemptions to speech that will set precedents and nullify free speech. The subtleties and nuances you mention are exactly the problem ,they can only be subjective and limiting determined by those that have the authority to do so, this is why the first amendment in the U.S. is constantly open to attack.
Whilst the U.S. position is still more liberal than what we have in the U.K. it is insufficient.
To be blunt ,if the concern is one of preventing harm to person(s) there are more than sufficient other relevant laws on staute books that could and are invoked, we should resolutely defend free speech and not be dragged into defending every single potential harm issue that can and will occur in society, for us defence of free speech must come first the other issues should be debated and dealt with elsewhere.
One further point regarding exemptions or imminent threats etc, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility that a legal case could be made to prevent someone or group of people from communicating ideas that though not stated openly by there logic would form a threat to the status quo of society in general or a government in particular, and though not imminent one interpretation could be that the communication was lighting a fire that could engulf society and government at some time so could still be considered a threat perhaps imminent though not counted in minutes or hours, i hope the point i am making helps clarify the problem of interpretation of threats etc etc.
It seems you misunderstood my argument, assuming I understand your argument correclty. I thought I was agreeing with you and I still think I’m agreeing with your view. I wasn’t saying free speech should be limited because of the examples I pointed to. I saw those as entirely separate issues from free speech. My point is that, if actual harm is caused, then that would be dealt with by other laws that have nothing to do with free speech. I’m not seeking exceptions to free speech whatsoever.
Understood, perhaps i misinterpreted your “subtlelties and nuances ” on the fundamental issue of free speech without which it sems impossible to change anything, my reaction to any possibility of its denial is to defend it, some would call this fundamentalism or dogmatic i think it is a stern defence.
By “subtleties and nuances”, I just meant that it is a complicated set of issues. We maybe don’t have a clear enough way of speaking about such things. I notice how people conflate different issues, and maybe that is because our language is based on such conflations or leaves itself open to ambiguity.
I see a clear distinction between a speech act and a physical act. Both can indicate a person’s intention, and so both can be linked by that intention. But the intention isn’t the problem.
For example, a bank robber points a gun at a bank teller and says to give him all the money. His intention is to rob the bank, as expressed through his speech and his overt action. But an intention by itself isn’t illegal. Nor is speaking about an intention or a hypothetical intention illegal. What is wrong (morally and legally) is in the bank robbers actions, i.e. his actually robbing a bank, not his speaking freely. His spoken words, of course, would be used in a court of law as part of the presented evidence of his intentions of bank robbery, but the spoken words themselves aren’t the crime.
Are those who are for limiting free speech suggesting we should arrest anyone who even talks about bank robberies? Are they suggesting that anyone who is perceived as having a stated intention of committing a crime should be arrested as if they had already committed the crime? Are we prepared to go down the path of limiting free speech by the standard of thought crimes? Who gets to be the judge to determine the intentions behind words without any evidence of physical actions? Is a writer or an artist who portrays a crime guilty of criminal intentions?
That is a dark path to go down as a society.
The society you already live in much worse than the “dark” path to the hypothetical one that you so fear. For you a gang chanting racial abuse is something for peer pressure to deal with, not even a misdemeanour. Compare that with the sensible legislation that insists if you park blocking a fire route, the judiciary have due cause to get involved in your life – and trust me on this – Pleading “ But there was no fire” will not have the traffic cop or the judge apologising as he tears up the ticket.
You see nothing awry here because to you, speaking, however recklessly or maliciously, is morally distinct from acting, whether thoughtlessly parking a car, or provocatively and intentionally, burning a flag. To me this ethical distinction is strange as a box of frogs.
You seem to agree it’s reasonable for Germany to have laws preventing people verbally abusing Jews or displaying certain emblems or regalia, but after 400 years of slavery and all the institutionalised and embedded racism that still survives it, you remain supportive of US racists doing the same thing to black citizens without any fear of legal intervention.
In the darkness that you are afraid of, using a particular racial insult against a police officer and questioning what morality allows someone of his colour to write someone of your colour a ticket, might become grounds for another ticket and an additional fine.
Uncodified as a crime, and with any pursuance of “justice” left to the insulted officers discretion, the present reality delivers outcomes to that situation, which are often of little benefit to civil rights democracy or free speech. Angry and aggrieved citizens do make such slurs, and it can happen in the presence of a superior number of like minded peers, perhaps under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. If the law
Making the same insult to police via megaphone in the presence of an armed and angry crowd, defending the proposition of racial superiority as true and just on talk radio, or calling on twitter for citizens to join your ad hoc militia in what may have developed from a difference of opinion to a riot or rebellion, all might reasonably and proportionately escalate the penalties if actual harm occurs. They will almost certainly involve separate indictments. That racial hatred is acknowledged in law as an aggravating or motivating factor or an individual be led accountable for their role in provoking the confrontation is perfectly reasonable, and that is also where what you call “subtlety” or “nuance” can be applied in sentencing. There should however be no concession to the fact that there are victims of hate speech, and such speech is criminal.
Why insist on protecting tribalist bigots and racists, when it’s their presence and polarising influence in society that actually makes open rational debate on diversity and reconciliation even more difficult to have without it becoming inflammatory, emotional and violent ?
You really believe making heist movies will become illegal if you condemn racists or homophobes ? Really?
And I mean genuine condemnation – with codified penalties properly limited by statute. Not just that you say what you consider socially or politically expedient whilst defending ( by force of arms if necessary) the right of racists, bigots or pedophiles to proselytise ideas or promote practises that just society wants to protect itself and it’s children from.
Out of curiosity, would you give judges freedom to decide what was offensive? If so, you’re laying the groundwork for new Salem witch trials. If the judges had to follow guidelines, who would create the lists of officially forbidden words? And how often would you update the lists when racists can create new racist insults faster than the law can forbid the new names?
Free speech is one thing. Being an asshole is another. Thank you for sharing!