This is a transcript of my TB Davie Memorial lecture that I gave at the University of Cape Town on Thursday 13 August.
It is truly an honour and pleasure to be able to deliver this lecture, and to be able to follow the speakers who have gone before me, speakers such as Walter Sisulu, Wole Soyinke, Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. It is an honour, too, to be the fiftieth speaker in this great series. But being the fiftieth speaker raises an interesting question: Is there anything left to say about academic freedom that the 49 before me have not already said?
To appreciate why the debate about academic freedom is not yet exhausted, and probably never will be exhausted, we need to understand two points. First, that while there is something special about the academy that requires freedom of speech, there is nothing that should make us privilege academic freedom above other forms of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is a right, not a privilege. We need to defend academic freedom. But we need to recognize, too, that freedom of expression in the academy is intimately related to freedom of expression more widely in society. Our ability to defend academic freedom is intimately linked to our ability and willingness to defend freedom of expression more widely. So, I will talk today about the academy and academic freedom. But I will talk much more about the wider social context of free speech and the assault upon it.
And second, to defend free speech, whether in the academy or in society more widely, we need to know not simply why freedom of expression is important but also in what ways that freedom is being threatened. The importance of freedom of expression is broadly same now as it was when Albert van de Sandt Centlivres, the first TB Davie Memorial lecturer, took to the podium in 1959; indeed it is broadly the same as when John Milton in 1644 wrote Areopagitica, his famous ‘speech for the liberty of unlicenc’d printing’, and one of the great polemical tracts in defence of free speech.
But if the significance of free speech is much the same, the ways in which freedom of expression is threatened are very different now from the ways they were 50 years ago, even more from the ways they were 400 years ago. In different times, in different places, there exist different kinds of threats to free speech, needing different kinds of responses.
This is particularly important to appreciate today. One of the key points I want to make this afternoon is that not only are threats to free speech very different today, but we often do not recognize threats as threats. Contemporary hazards to free speech are often signposted as defences of freedom.
When people think of menaces to free speech, they think mostly of government censors or of journalists being locked up or of violent responses such as the murderous attack earlier this year on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
These kinds of threats are, of course, hugely important, and it is imperative that we stand up to them. Especially as all too often we fail to do so, whether those threats emanate from Islamist groups or the censorious state. But at least we usually recognize such threats as threats. There has developed over the past few decades, however, a new, more insidious kind of censorship. Insidious because it is not often recognized as censorship. A kind of censorship that progressives often embrace as a good.
I have spent much of the past twenty years discussing, debating and defending free speech. And one of the ironies I’ve found in doing so is that few people are willing to say ‘I’m against free speech’ or ‘I think censorship is a good’. What most opponents of free speech say, instead, is ‘I’m for free speech. But…’ You can say what you like, they insist. Just don’t say anything that is offensive. Or hateful. Or might make people feel uncomfortable. Or provoke them. Or is irresponsible.
So over the past few years we have seen the growth of regulations and prohibitions against offensive speech. The spread of trigger warnings in universities. Campaigns against so-called ‘microaggression’, defined by the University of California as ‘brief, subtle verbal or nonverbal exchanges that send denigrating messages to the recipient because of his or her group membership’.
The predicament runs far deeper, however, than formal regulations or prohibitions. The real problem is that we have internalized those prohibitions. We have come to accept censorship not just because of external proscriptions, but also because of internal ones, because of a moral horror at the thought of offending others.
Self-censorship is, of course, something that we all practice to a degree. Most of us do not simply blurt out every thought that comes into our heads, and most of seek to keep debates civil and polite. Without constant editing, neither coherent thought nor rational conversation would be possible. What I talking about here, however, is not such forms of self-editing that makes thinking and talking possible. It is rather political censorship that we have come to view as if it were a form of the essential self-editing necessary for thought and conversation. It may be a small word – ‘but’ – but it carries a heavy burden when someone says ‘I’m for free speech but…’. For what the ‘but’ expresses is a major transformation in attitudes to free speech.
For much of the past half millennium, from the days of Milton’s Areopagitica or John Locke’s Letter on Toleration, freedom of expression was seen as not just as an important liberty, but as the very foundation of liberty. ‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties’, wrote Milton, adding that ‘He who destroys a good book destroys reason itself’.
Or as the black leader, and former slave, Frederick Douglass put it in his ‘Plea for Free speech in Boston’, a speech he delivered in 1860:
Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason of righteousness, temperance, and of a judgment to come in their presence. Slavery cannot tolerate free speech.
All progressive political strands that emerged through this period were wedded to the principle of free speech. All accepted that speech was an inherent good, the fullest extension of which was a necessary condition for the elucidation of truth, the expression of moral autonomy, the maintenance of social progress and the development of other liberties.
What the ‘I’m for free speech but…’ argument expresses is a challenge to this idea of free speech as an intrinsic good. For many progressives today, free speech is as likely to be seen as a threat to liberty as its shield. By its very nature, they argue, speech damages basic freedoms. Hate speech undermines the freedom to live free from fear. The giving of offence diminishes the freedom to have one’s beliefs and values recognized and respected. Speech, therefore, has to be restrained by custom, especially in a diverse society with a variety of deeply held views and beliefs, and censorship (and self-censorship) has to become the norm.
In fact, censorship has come to be seen as more than the norm. For many, censorship has come to be a progressive act, a means of protecting people, challenging power. Restrictions on hate speech, they argue, protect those facing racism or homophobia or misogyny. Restrictions on offensive speech protect the dignity of powerless groups. The use of trigger warnings protect the emotionally vulnerable. And so on.
Traditional advocates of free speech also, of course, drew the line at various points and rarely pursued a principled attitude to free speech. Freedom of expression may have been seen as the foundation of liberty, but those advanced the idea also often restricted its scope. Such restrictions usually fell into two categories. Some related to the question of harm. Most advocates of free speech accepted that in certain circumstances speech could cause harm and so had to be restricted. The most celebrated expression of such a view came in a judgment given by the American Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes who in 1919 pointed out that ‘The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.’
What actually constitutes the political equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theatre has been the matter of fierce debate. Politicians and policy makers have, over the years, cited a whole host of harms as reasons to curtail speech – threat to national security, incitement to violence, promotion of blasphemy, the undermining of morality or the spread of slander or libel. However thin may have been some of the reasons given for such censorship, there was nevertheless a broad acceptance that speech was an inherent good; and restrictions, however specious they might have seemed, were regarded as exceptions rather than the norm.
The second category of restrictions might be labeled simple hypocrisy: restrictions defended by advocates of free speech that flew in the face of their reasoned arguments for the importance of freedom of expression. Milton, for instance, may have insisted that ‘the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience’ was more important than all other liberties. But it was not a liberty he was willing to extend to Catholics on the grounds that the Catholic Church was the biggest obstacle to the extension of freedom and liberty.
Similar views were held by John Locke. Locke is often seen as providing the philosophical foundations of liberalism and his Letter Concerning Toleration is a key text in the development of modern liberal ideas about freedom of expression and worship. Yet, Locke, like Milton, refused to extend toleration to either Catholics or atheists. Catholics, Locke wrote, ‘ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince’; their opinions therefore run contrary to ‘the preservation of civil society’ and cannot be tolerated (an argument that was also made about Jews and Muslims). Locke was even harsher about atheists. Those ‘who deny the being of a God’, Locke insisted, are ‘not at all to be tolerated’. ‘The taking away of God, though but even in thought’, he wrote, ‘dissolves all’.
Hypocrisy has historically always been a central strand of liberal views on free speech. And it remains so today. Today, though, the notions both of harm and of hypocrisy have been radically transformed. Harm has come to be seen, not as it was in the past, as the occasional damage that might be done by ‘dangerous’ speech but as the everyday, constant effect of almost any kind of speech. This normalization of the idea of ‘harm’ can be seen in particular in universities.
Consider the growth of ‘trigger warnings’. The concept of ‘trigger warnings’ began in the 1970s in the treatment of people suffering from great trauma, initially Vietnam vets. Through such treatment emerged, too, the concept of the ‘post traumatic stress disorder’, or PTSD, which embodied the idea that for certain people the memory of a trauma always exists, lying just below the surface of consciousness, ready to be triggered. A ‘trauma trigger’ was an experience that was not in itself frightening or traumatic, but which helped unleash that underlying traumatic memory.
This idea was subsequently taken up by feminists. Feminist bloggers, in particular, would often preface a discussion about rape or sexual assault with a warning that the material discussed may trigger a post-traumatic stress reaction in women who had faced such experiences.
Whether trigger warnings are useful even for those who have suffered great trauma is a matter of much debate among psychiatrists. Today, though, such warnings have been vastly extended to cover not just great trauma but any material that might be upsetting or might make someone feel uncomfortable. Among content for which trigger warnings have been demanded, according to one list, are references to ‘misogyny, the death penalty, terrorism, drunk driving, how much a person weighs, racism, gun violence, drones, homophobia, PTSD, slavery, victim-blaming, abuse, swearing, child abuse, self-injury, suicide, descriptions of medical procedures, corpses, needles, discussion of ‘isms’, slurs (including ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’), kidnapping, dental trauma, discussions of sex, spiders, insects, snakes, vomit, pregnancy, childbirth, blood, slimy things and holes.’
After which all one can say is, ‘Wouldn’t it be easier just to put a trigger warning on life itself?’
Trigger warnings are not forms of censorship per se. But the extension of the notion of ‘harm’, and the idea that almost any form of words or thoughts or ideas can be harmful, and that one must be routinely protected against the harm caused by words, have all helped undergird the culture of censorship.
Such an extension of the notion of harm has become almost routine in universities.The list of books or ideas that come with a health warning is quite extraordinary. For instance Oberlin College in America puts a trigger warning on Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart because ‘it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.’ Other books for which trigger warnings been imposed, or demanded, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.
To extend the meaning of harm in this fashion is to eviscerate the meaning of the university. The university is a space for would-be adults to explore new ideas, to expand their knowledge, to interrogate power, to learn how to make an argument. A space within which students can be challenged, even upset or shocked or made angry. It is, as the writer Jill Fillipovic has put it, ‘a place where the student’s world expands and pushes them to reach the outer edges – not a place that contracts to meet the student exactly where they are.’
To be at a university is to accept the challenge of exploring one’s own beliefs and responding to disagreement. Trigger warnings, on the other hand, have become a way of short-circuiting uncomfortable, unpopular or unpalatable arguments. The reason that novelists or academics deal with issues such as racism or colonialism or misogyny is that these are real issues in the real world. One may be able to protect students from such experiences in the seminar room. One cannot protect them in the world outside, where such issues confront all of us without any warning signs attached. In the real world, all of us are forced, indeed in my view, morally obliged, to confront issues such as those of racism and homophobia and misogyny.
At the same time, trigger warnings, like regulations against the giving of offence, reinforces the idea that women or those from minority communities are inherently vulnerable, weak and ‘Other’. They help, in other words reinforce the very stereotypes that underlie much of the worldview of bigots.
If the idea of harm has been vastly expanded, the concept of hypocrisy has been greatly reduced. It is not because hypocrisy has disappeared. But the argument for censorship that flows from the ‘I’m for free speech but…’ view proceeds not from hypocrisy, as did, say, Locke’s argument for not tolerating Catholics, but from a sense that censorship is a good.
For the proponents of the ‘I’m for free speech but…’ view, censorship is not something that cuts against the grain of their basic principles. It is rather something that is nurtured by those principles, something intimately linked to the way in which many of today’s ‘progressives’ look upon free speech. Censorship is, for them, an essential tool in the struggle against injustice.
How did this transformation in attitudes to free speech come about? The answer lies in a number of different developments, perhaps the most important being the rise, on the one hand, of identity politics, and, on the other, of what many call the ‘therapeutic society’.
In one sense ‘identity’ has always been an intimate part of political discourse. It is difficult to imagine politics without some reference to identity. Nationalism is a form of identity politics. Racial identities and class identities have clearly deeply shaped political debate. But contemporary identity politics refers to something very different from old-fashioned politics of race or class or nation. However significant national or racial or class identities may have been, politics, in the past was shaped largely by attachment to particular ideologies. What shapes politics today is, to the contrary, the breakdown of old fashioned ideological politics.
Over the past three decades the very character of politics has transformed. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the left, the tarnishing of many liberation movements in the Global South, the demise of social movements in the West – all have helped transform political consciousness. The broad ideological divides that characterised politics in the past two hundred years have been all but erased.
In the global South, from Algeria to India, from Bangladesh to Turkey, from Egypt to South Africa, the organizations that led struggles for freedom from colonialism, or the ideologies that claimed to represent the identity of the free nation, have become senile or corrupted. People are becoming, or have become, disaffected with the old order. The new opposition movements that have emerged to give voice to that disaffection are often rooted in religious or ethnic identity, often sectarian or separatist in form.
In the old nations of Europe, too, we can see this combination of popular estrangement from the old political order and the fragmentation of opposition to it. There, disaffection has found home in populist anti-immigration movements, or in regional and separatist groups.
Once the left embodied a universalist vision. From well before the Enlightenment, radicals challenging inequality and oppression did so in the name of universal rights. Radicals insisted that equal rights belonged to all and the there existed a set of values and institutions, under which all humans best flourished. It was a universalism that fuelled the great radical movements that have shaped the modern world – from the almost-forgotten but hugely important Haitian Revolution of 1791, to the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles of the twentieth century to the movement for women’s suffrage to the battles for gay rights, indeed to the struggle against apartheid.
Today, the relationship between radicalism and universalism is very different. Radicals often decry universalism as a ‘Eurocentric’ project, a viewpoint that is itself imbricated with the poison of racism, chauvinism and particularism.
There are a number of reasons for this transformation. The Europe of the Enlightenment was also the Europe of imperialism. If Europe was responsible for the enslavement of more than half the world, many asked, what worth could there be in its political and moral ideas, which at best had had failed to prevent that enslavement, at worst had provided its intellectual grounding? Did not those challenging European imperialism also need to challenge European ideas? These were questions that became ever more urgent as the peoples of Africa and Asia, and migrants and descendants of slaves, too, started developing their own voices through literary and political movements from the Harlem Renaissance to the African National Congress.
Over time, opposition to European rule came increasingly to mean opposition to European ideas, too. European ideas, many insisted, were tainted because they were a means of effecting European power. The ideals that flowed out of the Enlightenment, however progressive they might seem, could not, the critics insisted, be wielded by those challenging European rule. They grew out of a particular culture, history, and tradition, they spoke to a particular set of needs, desires and dispositions. Non-Europeans, many argued, had to develop their own ideas, beliefs and values that grew out of their own distinct cultures, traditions, histories, psychological needs and dispositions. Out of these claims came a host of separatist movements that set out to hew political, cultural and moral traditions distinct from those of Europeans, movements that ranged from Garveyism to Negritude to Black Power.
The struggle for black rights in America in the 1960s was highly influential in developing ideas both of black self-organization and black identity, and of promoting, in the words of black power activist Julius Lester, ‘the recognition of those things uniquely ours which separate ourselves from the white man.’
It was highly influential, too, in nurturing these ideas in a host of other communities. Using the template established by black power activists, many other groups, from Native Americans to women, from gays to Muslims, insisted on their own particular cultures, identities and ways of thinking. ‘The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of ‘universal humankind’ on the basis of shared human attributes’, as the feminist and sociologist Sonia Krups put it; ‘nor is it for respect “in spite of one’s differences”. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.’
Whereas in the past, identity had been directly linked to the project of social transformation, now the politics of identity demanded recognition as an end in itself. ‘Stripped of a radical idiom’, as the American critic Russell Jacoby has put it, ‘robbed of a utopian hope, liberals and leftists retreat in the name of progress to celebrate diversity.’ Difference, Jacoby concludes, ‘has become… the ideology of an era without ideology.’
The result of all this is that solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions we want to establish, than by the group or tribe to which we imagine we belong. People have come to understand values less in terms of ideals than in terms of identity.
What has all this to do with free speech? The argument for free speech, as it developed from the seventeenth century on, was, as we have seen, as the very foundation of liberty. And it was regarded as the foundation of liberty because of the acceptance of a universalist vision of political norms and moral values. The acceptance that rights are universally held and that all humans best flourish under the same kinds of values, institutions, forms of governance.
From this perspective, the importance of free speech is that it creates the conditions necessary to think through problems, whether political, social, moral or personal. The conditions necessary to expand one’s own horizons, to understand the viewpoint of others, to open up our own viewpoint for challenge, to be able to engage in the kind of political and social dialogue that can help create a more universal language of citizenship.
What identity politics expresses is the breakdown of the universalist vision. The acceptance instead of the idea that every group has its own culture, values and ways of being. And that universalism is the imposition of an alien, indeed racist, viewpoint. From this perspective, free speech, the ability to expand and universalise experience, to question that which is seen as unquestionable, can often appear as a threat. And censorship can provide a means to shore up the broken barriers, and to exclude unwanted, unacceptable or threatening views and values.
In the past, progressive politics was rooted in the notion that every human being was capable of deploying his or her practical reason or moral sense to live an authentic live as an individual. It was a belief that helped anchor in the modern world the idea of moral autonomy. The politics of identity has appropriated the language of authenticity to describe ways of living that are true to the supposed characteristics of distinct social groups. This in turn has led to the demand that one must respect different beliefs and cultures as authentic ways of being for different people. It is a demand that turns on its head notions of respect and autonomy.
In its traditional (Kantian) sense, respect requires us to treat every human being equally as a moral, autonomous being. Every individual possesses the capacity to express political and moral views and to act upon them. And every individual is responsible for their views and actions and is capable of being judged by them. Freedom of expression is an expression of individual moral autonomy, of the capacity of people to engage in a robust debate about their beliefs and their actions, and to bear the consequences.
The demand from identity is that we should respect not just the person qua person but also his or her beliefs. It’s a demand that undermines individual autonomy, both by constraining the right of people to criticise others’ beliefs and by insisting that individuals who hold those beliefs are too weak or vulnerable to stand up to criticism, satire or abuse. Far from according them respect, the politics of identity treats people less as autonomous beings than as vulnerable victims needing special protection.
This tendency has been exacerbated by another key development of recent years: the rise of what has been called the ‘therapeutic society’ or ‘therapeutic culture’. These phrases have come to describe a society in which social problems are increasingly regarded as psychological ones, and social change viewed more through the medium of individual therapy than of collective action.
In the 1960s the American sociologist and cultural critic Philip Rieff coined the phrase ‘the triumph of the therapeutic’ to describe the way that psychiatric ideas had become part of the common coin of everyday life. Since then a series of very different thinkers on both left and right, from Thomas Szaz to Christopher Lasch to Russell Jacoby to Frank Furedi, have explored the ways in which a therapeutic sensibility has come to be the means through which people mediate their social relations.
For Rieff, therapy had taken the place of religious faith. For many of the more recent thinkers the therapeutic sensibility has come to fill the place created by the erosion of the social. In recent years many of the mediating institutions of social life – from trade unions, to religious organization to political parties – have crumbled. The informal social networks, whether of family or of friends, that used to provide individuals with both meaning and support have often eroded too. People experience society in a far more atomized fashion. At the same time the old barriers between the public sphere and the private sphere have become highly porous.
Theorists of therapeutic society suggest that today people find meaning and affirmation in settings that are both more individualized and more public, from self-help groups to self-disclosure TV, from professional therapy to social media. One of the consequences of these shifts, they argue, is to exacerbate the sense of the individual as weak and vulnerable, of the world as a dangerous place and of other people as potential threats.
The relationship between therapeutic society and identity politics is highly complex and beyond what I can address in this talk. But there are a number of points worth making.
First, the same kind of social changes have given rise to both, in particular the breakdown of ideological politics and the erosion of broader social identities. Second, the therapeutic idea of the individual as weak and vulnerable has reinforced the tendency to normalize harm, to perceive all words as threatening, and to insist that people need protecting from offence, which has come to be regarded as an existential thereat to one’s identity and self.
And third, we can see how in the marriage of identity politics and the therapeutic society, the very character of free speech has become transformed. In a world in which many reject the possibility – indeed the desirability – of common values and goals; in which the prospects of fundamental social transformation seem to have ebbed away; in which societies have become more fragmented and identities more parochial; in which words can appear not as a means through which to find our common humanity but as constant threats to our self-identity; in which there is a tendency to deprecate the idea of moral autonomy and to view the human individual as vulnerable and damaged and in need of protection – in such a world, it is not difficult to see how censorship, the means through which to restrain the power of words, can become transformed into a good.
At the roots of the contemporary transformation of attitudes to free speech lies, then, a transformation in the ways in which we view ourselves as human beings, our relationships to each other, and our vision of what it is to live in a society. To defend free speech, and to oppose censorship, is at heart to defend an essential vision of what it is to be human.
Let me finish, then, by remaking the case for free speech as a universal good.
At the heart of the argument for censorship as progressive, and of the giving of offence as a cultural and moral wrong, is, as I have suggested, the belief that a plural society places particular demands on speech, and that speech must necessarily be less free in such a society. 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 friction between antagonistic cultures and beliefs and to protect the dignity of those individuals embedded in them. As the British sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, that ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’
It’s an argument that seems to me fundamentally to misunderstand both the nature of diversity and the relationship between pluralism and free speech. When we say that we live in a diverse society, what we mean is that it is a messy world out there, full of clashes and conflict. And that is all for the good, for it is out of such clashes and conflicts that cultural and political engagement emerges. Or to put it another way, diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to break out of our culture-bound boxes, by engaging in dialogue and debate and by putting different values, beliefs and lifestyles to the test.
But the very thing that is valuable about diversity – the cultural and ideological clashes that it brings about – is precisely what so many people fear. Diversity may be a good, they argue, but it has to be policed to minimise the clashes and conflicts and frictions that it brings in its wake. The imposition of moral and legal restraints on being offensive is one form of such policing.
I take the opposite view. It is precisely because we do live in plural societies that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In plural societies, it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. 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. And so they should be openly resolved than suppressed in the name of ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’.
And important because any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. Or to put it another way: ‘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. Human beings, as Salman Rushdie has put it, ‘shape their futures by arguing and challenging and saying the unsayable; not by bowing their knee whether to gods or to men.’
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. 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. The right to ‘subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’ is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. Once we give up such a right in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.
At the heart of this argument is the insistence that any form of progressive politics requires us to overcome, rather than embrace, the barriers of identity. That it requires us to work towards a more universalist vision of society. And that only free speech makes this possible. Free speech – proper, full-blooded free speech – is the lifeblood of any progressive politics and of any progressive transformation of society. If we treasure the one, we must treasure the other.
The first seven images are posters about freedom expression, mostly from Posters4tomorrow competitions; they are, from top down, by Christopher Scott, Candy Chang, Beetroot, Grzegorz Drobny, Pei-Ling Ou, artist unknown and Agnes Szucz. The final two images are in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings by Mazen Kerbaj and Lucille Clerk.
Superb piece covering the important points regarding free speech and touching on tolerance and respect in particular the point regarding having respect for the person in and of themselves but possibly none whatsoever for their opinions and their consequences.
Could i please ask for some clarification regarding free speech, i think it’s important and not pedantic, but should we not for all the reasons outlined be absolute in our defence of free speech, no exceptions , no reduction due to imminent threats or harm within any time frame (except physical which is the defining movement from speech to action) . To have an opposite position is to leave the door ajar not only in legal terms but in the logic pursued by the hypocrites and identity charlatans who will continually nibble away at the definitions to pursue their own agenda’s while restricting all our freedoms and the possibility of universalist solutions. The prolongued and frequent attacks on the first amendment from all angles is a clear action that this is what will happen if we are not absolute.
I also enjoyed the piece, but remain unclear as to just where Kenan draws the line as to whether or where free speech should be limited. He’s critical of the “I’m in favour of free speech, but…” attitude, but seems to concede with Oliver Wendell Holmes that falsely calling ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre should be prohibited. John Stuart Mill believed that criticism of corn-dealers as “starvers of the poor” should be suppressed only when the excited mob were actually assembled outside the corn-dealers house, but this may have been too late to save the corn-dealer. Should the criticism not have been suppressed when the mob was still half a mile away and marching upon the house. In other words, is it possible to find a principled answer to the question of limiting free speech, or do we have to just accept ad hoc examples.
Is it possible to have a principled answer ? Well that depends on whether we mean in the purely abstract/academic/ philosophical or perhaps in the legal sense of precedents etc or indeed in the real world.
I think Kenan touched on this when he spoke of a low level of self censorship in everyday life, perhaps as we would say in the U.K. been two faced , showing one face in public , so we can work and socialise with one another while privately not particularly liking or agreeing with certain persons.
However this has little or no connection with the vastly more important political position of free speech as Kenan explains, i think it alludes to the fact that we are not a mass of seething potential bigots awaiting the time when we are free to speak our minds ,on the contrary more the case we are much more considerate and caring in everyday life but on the important questions just the opposite.
None of this for me alters the fact in the real world free speech and all that implies is under direct attack and hence to create a culture that the exceptions really are exceptions we should be absolute in our defence of free speech, the other grey areas we as mature adults in the appropriate cultural setting can reasonably deal with but not glibly give then away
Steve, Chris, my view is that the line should be drawn at the point of direct incitement to physical harm, and in the context of ‘imminent danger’. I set out some my arguments in this interview on ‘Why hate speech should not be banned’: https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/why-hate-speech-should-not-be-banned/
Kenan, my relatively simple point is that, under pressure from the redoubtable political correctness lobby, an important historical distinction has been completely lost, a distinction that you are also unwilling to make. Procuring little boys for pederasts, on the one hand, and having anal sex with little boys on the other, are activities of an equal moral repugnance, but they are different activities, and if there were no procurers of little boys for sex then the incidence of sex with little boys would be much reduced. It is semantically necessary to differentiate the activities, and there are utilitarian and moral consequences for making the distinction. Enslavement and slave ownership are equally repugnant (where is the evidence for your allegation that I am making a moral distinction between the two activities?) but different, and one of the consequences of the elision of the two is that there is a complete lacuna in the historiography of enslavement. That is my main assertion, it seems to me a claim of a self-evident and non-contentious sort, and I don’t know why it gets to be so hotly disputed. And no, I have nothing against metaphorical language, only I think it inappropriate to use the word “enslavement” in the context of the deliberate obfuscation of issues related to slavery in all of its manifestations, particularly in a high level academic address of the sort you made.
That is my main assertion, but I would like to add a few other observations. I guess we do not need to re-assure each other of our congruent views that slavery was an abomination. But I do think the moral outrage it gives rise to obscures and simplifies our more general understanding of tyranny and man’s propensity for inhumanity towards his fellow man, and at worst it degenerates into a simplistic blame game designed for the alternate purposes of vilification and exculpation. We are entitled to note that the slaves in the Cape hardly endured deprivation crueller than the conditions endured in much of 19th Century Europe, nor punishments different from the cruel and unusual judicial; punishments that existed in Europe at the time, and – as repugnant as the term sounds to modern sensitivities – their value as assets ensured a level of protection denied the poor, the cold and the wretched of Europe. If you haven’t already done so, read Les Miserables or Hard Times. And you will no doubt be aware of the conditions of an incomprehensible level of cruelty that prevailed in the British and the French penal colonies.
Slavery on an “industrial scale”…? While industrialisation was a phenomenon of, say, the mid 18th Century and onwards, and therefore, yes, it would be true to describe it as “slavery on an industrial scale”, the extent of slavery in many other parts of the world before (and after) the mid 18th Century was surely on no different a scale in respect of numbers, and we are entitled to reserve some of our sense of moral outrage for the Arabic slave trade based at Zimbabwe (Vide: Wilfred Mallows). To call for a degree of historical perspective so signally missing from current discussion of slavery is not a manifestation of heartlessness.
Finally, in respect of your broadsides against “colonialism and imperialism”: I think I have in a previous post made a counter claim, which does not represent an attempt to “whitewash” anything. Neither colonialism nor imperialism arrived at peaceful, fair and prosperous societies basking in various states of golden ages before the arrival of wicked Europeans. Caste systems, suttee, foot binding and genital mutilation were, if anything, palliated by “colonialism and imperialism”. But maybe that’s an argument for another time.
Since this is a contribution to your website, and perhaps I am boring your other correspondents, I will happily now leave you to have the last words on this matter if you like, with good wishes for your continuing defence of our absolute rights to free speech.
Colin, I’m not sure whether you are inserting your comments at the wrong places or whether the problem has been created by WordPress, but your responses seem to pop up at odd locations. I will reply to you here, but if anyone wants to catch the thread of which these two comments are continuations, it lies further down.
It is true that there is a distinction between capturing slaves and purchasing them. But it is disingenuous to suggest that you are making merely a ‘semantic’ point.
You began by insisting that European nations had not been ‘enslavers’ since before the Middle Ages and that the only enslavers in the centuries during which Europeans and Americans transported some 11 to 19 million slaves to the Americas and the Caribbean alone were ‘African, Indian, Asiatic and Muslim’. You use the case of the Dutch East India Company not enslaving the local population in South Africa as an indication of the moral scruples of Europeans against enslavement – failing to mention that local conditions led to this policy and that the Company had no scruples about shipping in tens of thousands of slaves from elsewhere in Africa and from Dutch colonies in Asia. You suggest that ‘slaves in the Cape hardly endured deprivation crueller than the conditions endured in much of 19th Century Europe’, which is tendentiously untrue. Yes, the European working class was treated with great brutality and inhumanity. I have written on this, and on the ways in which the working class and the rural poor were regarded as racially distinct. But to suggest that slaves were treated no differently is to suggest that you don’t know much about the conditions in which slaves were kept and worked. It’s telling that you should spend so much effort in arguing against the metaphorical use of the word ‘enslavement’ but think nothing of making literal comparisons that are false.
You don’t like the use of the term ‘industrial scale’ to describe the magnitude of European slavery. I can’t think of a better phrase to describe the transportation and enslavement of between 11 and 19 million Africans to the New World. If you really imagine that ‘the extent of slavery in many other parts of the world… was surely on no different a scale [to the transatlantic trade] in respect of numbers’, perhaps you need to re-read all the works on slavery that you claim to have read. New World slavery was on a scale unseen before, and one that transformed that whole process of enslavement.
You talk of Britain ‘abolishing the slave trade as far back as 1807’. Yes, Britain did take a stand against the slave trade in 1807 – but not against slavery itself. Abolition of slavery in the British colonies did not happen until 1834. In 1807 Britain was willing to ‘commit a great deal of resources’ to undermining a trade that was more lucrative to its European rivals that to itself. But it was reluctant to end a practice that was very profitable for Britain.
You think it ‘tendentious’ for me to suggest that ‘colonialism and imperialism deprived more than half the people of the world of their freedom and sovereignty’ because I don’t also mention ‘ Chaka Zulu, the conquering leaders of the ancient Muslim world, the old Soviet Union, the Japanese conquerors of China and Genghis Khan’. As far as ‘whataboutery’ goes, that’s as egregious as it gets.
And so it goes on. Throughout your various comments you are attempting to make not a semantic but a moral distinction, constantly trying to minimize the scale of European immorality when it comes to slavery. Yes, we should be morally outraged about the ‘Arabic slave trade’. But that does not require us also to whitewash the actions of Europeans.
I don’t know if you’ve seen this yet, but it goes into much the same points as you make: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/
What this is could be called an over-feminization of universities, also. The focus on personal emotions, “women’s intuition”, and what can only be described as mass hysteria over small events. The focus on personal emotions and coddling is upper-class behavior as well too. Masculinity corresponds to low-class and adult behavior, which is a focus on dealing with tough things instead of demanding protection from anything uncomfortable. (Femininity being basically upper-class behavior is also reflected in purposefully-restrictive and delicate clothing, long hair and nails, etc. Upper-class men also have always looked and dressed more feminine, whereas low-class women take on more masculine roles and tasks.)
In the past when gender roles were necessary, feminine behavior was limited to the private sphere, but now women (almost entirely middle/upper-class women) want both femininity and to be in the public sphere. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t expect to be a public figure and not expect to be hated by some people (“misogyny”). You can’t both expect to be educated like a man, so to speak, and have your feelings prioritized over all. Women need to adopt more masculine behaviors and responsibilities, and if they’re not willing to do so…well, tough, you can have your feelings tended to, but at home.
One can only applaud Kenan Malik’s eloquent and lucid defense of free speech, subject to erosion by the multiple forces he sketches so well. Without taking exception to anything he said, I would add reference to so called “political correctness” as a kind of ideological vehicle through which the new intolerance/censorship is being propagated and implemented. I would also point to the role government policy and judicial activism has played in making it profitable for individuals to define themselves through their groups rather than their personhood. And finally, I would note that the trend of defining oneself not as an individual but as a member of a distinct collective amounts to a retreat into tribalism.
“If Europe was responsible for the enslavement of more than half the world, many asked, what worth could there be in its political and moral ideas, which at best had had failed to prevent that enslavement, at worst had provided its intellectual grounding?”
Could the author explain this astonishing comment. No European country was an enslaving nation since the Middle Ages, or indeed, before. Enslaving nations until well into the 19th Century and even later were African, Indian, Asiatic and Muslim.
But if by “enslavement” the author means colonialism, then he is abusing the meaning of words. Colonialism was not slavery.
Perhaps you are just been pedantic over “enslaving” but i suspect your statement
“No European country was an enslaving nation since the Middle Ages, or indeed, before. Enslaving nations until well into the 19th Century and even later were African, Indian, Asiatic and Muslim”
indicates you have an issue with Kenan’s assessment. It is usually important to not isolate words from their context but if you really are concerned about what he means about enslavement my view is that the clue is in the previous sentence
“The Europe of the Enlightenment was also the Europe of imperialism”
Is it that statement you have an issue with ?
@Steve: I realise that my point comes at something of a tangent to the main thrust of an article I largely agree with, but putting that aside, no, I’m not being a pedantic. “Enslavement” is a word that has meaning. What other response would be responsible or accurate than a response to the meaning of the word the author uses? Implicit in my response was the significance of the damaging misconception that Europeans were enslavers of people. People were indeed of course enslaved, but we gain a more balanced and certainly a more judicious view of past wrongs by correctly identifying who the enslavers were, and this is not a tactic to deflect moral opprobium from those responsible for the slave trade.. Finally, yes, I do have a problem with the statement your quote from the article. There is no meaningful relationship between the Enlightenment – and why it remains important to us to this day (all of us, including all the people who were once colonised) – and imperialism. If there is a relationship between the Enlightenment and imperialism, what is it? I don’t know what your answer would be to that question, but at the risk f being a bit pre-emptive, it makes as much sense to me as saying “the age of penecillin was also the age of the Second World War.”
First, my apologies for taking a while to respond. I am away and have only intermittent access to the internet.
Colin Bower, your claim that ‘No European country was an enslaving nation since the Middle Ages, or indeed, before’ is, to use your own language, ‘astonishing’. Is it your view that the slave plantations of the Caribbean and of America were run by ‘African, Indian, Asiatic and Muslim’ owners? Or that the owners of slaves in Britain, France and elsewhere in Europe were ‘African, Indian, Asiatic and Muslim’?
As it happens, I was using the word ‘enslavement’ metaphorically, not literally, referring to the fact that colonialism and imperialism deprived more than half the people of the world of their freedom and sovereignty. The context makes clear that this was a metaphorical, not literal, use of the word. I agree that one should be carefully in how one uses words. But I also think that I should respect my readers and have faith in their ability (mostly) to distinguish between the literal and the metaphorical and to be able to read arguments in their context.
As for the relationship between the Enlightenment and imperialism, there is, of course, a longstanding debate about this. But I find it difficult to see how anyone could read my piece and not understand that I was criticising the claim that the fact of European imperialism meant that one had to reject Enlightenment ideas. I’m not sure that even a literal reading with little nuance could lead one to a different conclusion.
Slavery in Britain was ended by William Rufus in the late 11th century. I am under the impression he was extending the French practice to his backward English lands. Slavery popped up again when European countries obtained western hemisphere possessions in the waning 15th century; while it lasted another third of a millennium it never re-entered Europe proper. In addition, the European slave traders didn’t actually enslave anyone; they purchased already enslaved people brought to them at select entrepots. They may well have wanted to enslave people directly and cut out the middlemen, but the locals wouldn’t let ’em off their reservations. Glad we got that cleared up!
Personally I cringe whenever someone uses the term “slavery” metaphorically for any group that’s been roundly abused. It doesn’t elevate the abused people and denigrates the experience of actual slaves, people being legally relegated to the status of farm animals.
Plus, the Enlightenment can easily be seen as a reaction against the tradition-sodden culture of the ruling class, a culture that saw nothing wrong with classifying out-groups as farm animals. You can at least make a credible argument that the Enlightenment was a (possibly indirect) revolt against the thick-skulled superstitions of the imperializing, enslaving ruling culture.
The current attacks on freedom of speech are really the middle classes trying to regain control of the cultural narrative after the break up of the traditional media. The educated middle-class used to own and produce the newspapers, magazines, television, and radio. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s essentially true. Then the internet came along and blew it all up. People who don’t belong to that middle class strata run blogs with millions of readers, expressing views that were previously unheard of in the national conversation. The middle class can’t control the conversation any more so they’re trying to control what people say within it through shaming and bullying.
You are either illustrating the author’s point with extreme clarity or else making a very sly joke. “Of course we need free speech, BUT the ‘middle classes’ are using it to advance their cause (via ‘bullying’ and ‘shaming’) and attack ours. This attack on our free speech requires censorship.”
I am glad you made this statement. Unlike the author I am not willing to let Progressive censorship advocates off the hypocrisy hook. I see Progressives as realizing that they are now in the position of control, in the position of the Tyrants that Douglass attacked, and they realize that they need the same ugly tools to preserve their power.
I have to say, I’m missing the part in this comment where he calls for censorship. He just seems to be describing a phenomenon – one where I think there could be a lot of truth.
I don’t see him calling for The Guardian Comment Is Free to be shut down, just pointing out it is stupid.
@Steve Roberts, Kenan Malik, yandoodan
Thank you for responding Kenan, but I am far from being impressed by your defence of the ill-chosen word “enslavement”. A more disinterested response than the claim that it was used “metaphorically” would simply be to admit that it an ill-advised and misleading word, and allow us all to move on. The issue of slavery remains far too crucial to contemporary human relationships to allow the use a word having so powerful a valency in so loose and unstudied a way. The conditions of the child workers in 19th Century industrial Britain (for instance – my example not yours) were as brutal, unkind and fatal as the conditions suffered by slaves in the Cape at much the same period, but it would be plainly untrue to call workers in 19TH Century industrial Britain slaves, because they were not slaves and they were not enslaved.
There is a crucial distinction to be made between “enslaving” and slave owning or slave trading, and making such a distinction is not “absurd”, as you allege. It is a matter of absolute historical fact that the slave-labour based Caribbean plantations that you cite would not have existed had there not been a massive enslavement in place in Africa for much of the 17th Century, before European explorers or would-be colonisers had got much beyond the beaches of West Africa. Slave ownership occurred only because it was preceded by enslavement, and to repeat myself, the enslaving nations of the Earth were the nations of Africa, India, Asia and Arabia . Furthermore, I am not sure I would want to concede the point that demand for slaves created the supply of slaves (enslavement). Certainly in South Africa the ready availability of slaves from the East preceded demand. You probably know that, by order of the Dutch East India Company, no indigenous member of the South African population was ever enslaved.
I have searched South African historiography far and wide, and although there are copious historical accounts of the evil of slave ownership in the Cape – and rightly so – I have yet to find a single historical or academic account of the circumstances and conditions of the enslavement of people that facilitated slave labour here. I wonder why this should be so. It is right to hold Britain and the European and North American nations accountable for the abomination of the slave trade, but few if any public intellectuals (exception: Thomas Sowell, the black American academic) seems willing to nurture moral outrage for the iniquities of enslavement, and I might point out that Britain, forever in the firing line for the slave trade, abolished it as far back as 1807, and committed a great deal of resources, not to say a fair number of lives of British sailors to obstructing slavery that continued to get practised by the same enslaving nations as I have mentioned for decades after 1807.
None of these observations should be regarded as an attempt to rationalise or defend the repugnant practices of slave ownership and the slave trade.
You write: “ … colonialism and imperialism deprived more than half the people of the world of their freedom and sovereignty.” One does not need to be a defender of colonialism or imperialism to find this statement tendentious. But it would be somewhat redeemed if you were to agree that you are including Chaka Zulu, the conquering leaders of the ancient Muslim world, the old Soviet Union, the Japanese conquerors of China and Genghis Khan in the category of colonisers and imperialists, and if you excluded from your category of sovereign peoples all of those who had been enslaved, or hurt, damaged, disenfranchised, tortured or killed by their own indigenous tyrants, without the help of any colonisers and imperialists And if you do you may as well hold the human population at large accountable.
You write: “I find it difficult to see how anyone could read my piece and not understand that I was criticising the claim that the fact of European imperialism meant that one had to reject Enlightenment ideas …” (emphasis added). I did understand that.
Kenan, I have taken exception to a single but an important word in your long piece. Let me re-iterate that I full endorse and applaud your defence of free speech.
@Joe, I start with the assumption that @AJ’s “current attack[er]s on freedom of speech” is an Orwellian description of the current *defenders* of freedom of speech, people such as Prof. Malik. I see this as a claim that Prof. Malik and his ilk are bourgeois trying to retain their power over oppressed groups through “shaming and bullying”. The oppressed classes are attempting to re-seize control of the narrative, and the oppressors are trying to stop them, by insisting that the oppressors be allowed to exercise freedom of speech.
So how did I get this from AJ’s statement? [S]he repeatedly describes the bad guys as “middle class”, a Marxian trope when used derogatorily (as here). In practice, nearly all of the on-campus people attacking freedom of speech are doing so from a Marxist perspective, and nearly all self-identify as members of an oppressed class. Calling such people “middle class” would at the least take some explanation; AJ makes none. So I infer that AJ is merely accepting the commonplace Marxian narrative that “middle classes” oppose “oppressed classes”, and is not questioning the class membership of (say) a black female Yale professor with a six figure income. I could be wrong in this; I just doubt it.
But let us stipulate my interpretation. Under this interpretation AJ starts by claiming that contemporary free speech advocates (those trying to stop oppressed peoples from limiting the speech of oppressor class members) “…are really the middle classes trying to regain control of the cultural narrative…”. He ends with the claim that their current arguments in favor of free speech are attempts to “…control what people say within [the conversation] through shaming and bullying,” a rationale for discarding their arguments unexamined. Censorship, of course, is the *forced* discarding of unexamined arguments. Admittedly a step, but a baby step.
Colin Bower, the idea that people who purchase slaves and keep them in slavery, often in much worse circumstances, are not enslavers is an argument without foundation. The only function of such an argument seems to be to suggest that European slaveholders were somehow less morally abhorrent than ‘African, Indian, Asiatic and Muslim’ slaveholders. It’s an argument that is as historically false and morally repugnant as, say, the claim of some Muslims that slavery under Islam was not real slavery at all.
From the seventeenth century on, European nations created slavery on an industrial scale never seen before in history. That almost-insatiable demand for slaves certainly changed both the character of enslavement and its scope. It is true that the Dutch East India Company did not enslave local Africans in South Africa. Instead they shipped in slaves from the rest of Africa, in particular Madagascar, East Africa and West Africa, and from Indonesia, India and Ceylon (as it was then). The conditions, first in the Slave Lodge in Cape Town, and then in the plantations and mines, were truly abominable. The Dutch East India Company had no moral scruples about enslaving people, or treating them worse than animals. It was not moral scruples but complex set of political factors that constrained them from from enslaving the local population.
You say that you are not attempting ‘to rationalise or defend the repugnant practices of slave ownership and the slave trade’. Perhaps not. But you are certainly trying to minimise the moral culpability of European slaveholders and trying, too, to whitewash the history of European slavery, colonialism and imperialism.
Finally, you continue to make much of my use of the word ‘enslavement’ – and then chide me for not ‘moving on’. If thought I was ill-advised in using the word, I would have said so. But I am perfectly happy with it. You obviously live in a world in which people refrain from using words metaphorically. I don’t. If that causes you a problem, I’m afraid it’s not one that I can solve.
I was hoping this article would touch on what seems to me a far more important point, whether it is right for people to try to limit speech through economic means. When someone is fired or threatened with ostracism for expressing something offensive, is that a violation of their right to free speech or not? People say that you have a right to express your opinion, but they have a right to respond as they see fit (within the limits of the law). I guess the point is, freedom of speech guarantees individuals some sort of platform to express their views — but how large is it and what protections does it bring with it? That’s a topic I would like to see discussed.
I’m curious about the sources for the images you have posted.
Having been away, I have not had the chance to put in the all the links and references. Will do so over the next couple of days.
Two words are missing in this article: capitalism and consummerism. They are a large part of the explanation of this mindset.
Free speech in an age of political instability. Politics is the one thing philosophers don’t want to face.
How do you separate the whining self-pity of the coddled middle class from the fury of the disenfranchised?
Are suburban-born white college girls really just like working class blacks?
What do you say to the citizens of a democratic state who demand the right to offend while being paid in gold to support suppression elsewhere? France is pushing to be -if it isn’t already- the largest arms are dealer to Saudi.
“It is imprudent to mock the people whose blood your country is sucking, even if you yourself claim to oppose vampirism.”
I’m quoting myself, but I like the line.
I’m almost a free speech absolutist; Incitement is a grey area. Hate speech laws are obscene. I shouldn’t be able to have someone arrested for yelling at me and calling me a kike on the subway. If the Nazi party had been allowed to run candidates in the German elections in 1949 the German far right would be smaller than it is today.
The people who printed the Mohammed cartoons were bigots and idiots, but somehow no one defends them as bigots; they defend them as liberal. Europe has hate speech laws. Hate speech laws make it easy to be a hypocrite. If you defend freedom of speech you’re willing to recognize bigotry.
Defenders of free speech defend the rule of law over the rule of “reason”. Philosophers defend the rule of reason as liberal.
The rule of law is conservative. I’m a conservative.
Excellent Article. It saddens me to see the how the West in the name of diversity and multiculturalism is adopting more and more norms of the oppressive cultures of the East. While we eastern liberals struggle to speak sometimes at the cost of our lives against theocratic Islamic nations, dictators and majoritarian democracies, the west is willingly surrendering freedom of speech. The same people who revel in the victim narrative in the west are more than happy to persecute homosexuals,women and atheists like me back home.
Western nations and the ‘white race’ has to get over their guilt and return to universalism. It is such a sad day in our discourse that i will be called a racist if i don’t reveal my ‘privileges’ after the last line. My nation; India was colonized by Britain for 200 years and before that was largely ruled by Turko/Mughal Dynasty for about 600 years. Both of these powers did horrible acts by modern standards but also created advancements in social reform, technology and culture. We can’t judge people of past centuries by the Human rights standards of 21st century. We can not keep living in the past and try to rectify real or imagined hurts to every race or region.
Freedom of Speech is as important to a human spirit as food is to the body. Religion,politics,LGBT rights and even race at a level are ‘expressions’ and should be discussed, dissected and ridiculed like any other. I never imagined a day when comedy,satire, academic and Social discourse would be self censured or imposed by institutions in the western nations.