Free speech, the bedrock of a free intellectual society which questions all authority and power in all its guises. It is quite possibly the most difficult of all the ‘rights’ which we claim to possess and hold dear. This is because speech challenges us in our most sacred views, the beliefs we’ve held since before we can remember and surely those cannot be scorned upon, or even satirized. What free speech does though is that it not only gives us a right, but is a search for wisdom, truth, and knowledge. The reason why I’m writing this particular column is the response that Mehdi Hassan seems to give about the ‘fart in the lift’ when asked about his opinion on free speech rights. I found it to be particularly unhelpful, and was very surprised that a journalist could use such a concept for such a wide and complicated topic.
What does Mehdi mean by a fart in a lift? He means that just because he has that freedom doesn’t mean he exercises it, indeed farting in a lift will cause other people a great deal of discomfort. It doesn’t enlighten anyone, and it only commits harm. Indeed, I can understand that comparison when you consider the knuckle draggers of the EDL, and other such nefarious organisations which are leading the future of the racism movement. However what Mehdi fails to realise is that a fart in a lift will eventually go away if suppressed by deodorant, however these organisations and views will not disappear because of legislation alone. The only way racism goes away is if we tackle it head on using our right to expression. The BBC putting Nick Griffin on Question Time did more to discredit him, and his virulent organisation than putting him in court. Stopping an idea from being mentioned doesn’t defeat it, only public debate with vigour and passion can destroy horrible concepts such as racism, and homophobia.
Freedom of speech also helps us clarify why we think what we do. My most enlightening conversations are always those who hold the opposite opinion, and those who actively criticise me for thinking what i think. It helps me clarify my thought process and it can lead me to being better able to defend my own position. I think the idea that we have a civic duty not to offend should be rarely applied, offence is sadly the by-product of a society which endorses the main principles behind freedom of speech.Of course there are exceptions, as there are with every rule.
There is a common strawman assumption that many people who believe in free speech, want a complete festival of speech with nothing policing it. This is not the case, even J.S. Mill in On Liberty argued that speech that incited violence e.g. speech that caused a mob to descend on someone’s home and hurt them. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s phrase that one cannot shout fire in the middle of a theatre is also a common example, although this paraphrase has a far more troubled history than Mill’s argument. However, proponents of free speech also recognise that if there are too many limits on free speech whether social or in the law then that creates a credulous society which is less tolerant, less inquisitive, and more frightened. Limits such as not being able to criticise a religion, an idea, a text, or a social policy must fall under the ‘too many limits’ rule. These are all a necessity for the functionality and freedom of a society.
While it is true Muslims as a whole are marginalised in this country, and are facing a new form of racism by the far right, it is not true to say every Muslim is disempowered in every situation. Power especially in a social context is a relative term. Is the British leader of Hizb Ut-Tahrir not in a position of power when he talks about the segregation of women in an audience? Or when he talks about how women cannot be in the position of the Caliph if such a system did exist? Surely the leader of Hizb Ut-Tahrir is powerful within that movement. Furthermore people i know don’t get pissed off about people being offended like Mehdi claims, people like me get annoyed when people claim their offense is enough to shut down a form of speech. No-one is claiming you don’t have a right to be offended, we just claim you don’t have a right not to be offended. That does also include mocking. Plenty of people mock things which are central to my identity. These include my politics, my football club, even in the past my lack of a religion which they assume must mean i cannot be an ethical man. My offence wasn’t a good enough ground to stop them, especially when these include speeches and written works rather than a personal conversation.
If Mehdi’s solution was imposed one of two things would need to happen. The laws of the land would need to be changed with regards to hate speech, and create a new ‘civil speech law’, or we would need to start policing ourselves in a far more sinister way stopping ourselves from making points which we think are valid, because others may object. I think the latter self policing is far more dangerous and sinister, than a new law to restrict controversial speech which may cross the boundaries of taste. A law can be seen, fought against and eventually repealed, however a societal shift is far harder to define and even harder to defeat. We are already built with a self censoring monitor, our ability to empathise and feel compassion. This is good, however almost all societies which become authoritarian require excessive self censorship. This is surely a warning to us all.
The problem with Mehdi’s argument is who decides what is tasteful and what isn’t? The government? People? a court? It all gets horribly difficult. I tend to think Christopher Hitchens said it best when he argued on this topic“My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.”
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