All 4 entries tagged Freedomofspeech

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September 17, 2007

Freedom of Speech: A common misconception

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Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s piece in today’s Independent falls into a common mistake in the debate on free expression. She writes, “If I say there is no absolute freedom of expression, that there are always limits – otherwise the BBC would run propaganda tapes made by Osama Bin Laden, and pro-Hitler views would be given air time on French broadcast channels – does that make me a “censor”?”

A right to broadcast all views does not equate to an obligation to do so. If absolute freedom of expression were legislated for today, we need not wake up to Natasha Kaplinsky introducing neo-Nazis tomorrow. What it would mean is that if BBC producers, or some crank internet channel, chose to give air time to extreme opinion, the government would have no right to stop them. In any case, to take up her specific example, are not Bin Laden’s latest videos, shown on the BBC, a form of propaganda?

Finally, one of the highlights of the morose 2005 election for me was the rare shaming of BNP leader Nick Griffin by David Dimbleby. If so many see such views as absurd, why are so many also scared of the media turning their critical eye on them?

March 06, 2007

Free To Offend

At Clare College, Cambridge, a student in hiding for his own safety, faces disciplinary proceedings for satirising religion in the student magazine; meanwhile in Paris a French magazine is in court, defending itself against a defamation charge brought by Islamic groups. The principle of free speech is once more coming under direct attack, with largely supine populations allowing superstition and hysteria to trump one of the defining principles of liberal society.

I have not seen the disputed edition of the Cambridge magazine Clareification, all copies having been recalled for destruction by the College. However, Cambridge News reports that the contents included a cropped copy of one of the cartoons depicting Mohammed, first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, along with headlines such as “Ayatollah rethinks stance on misunderstood Rushdie”. The central charge, as in the case of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which also re-published some of the cartoons, is one of ‘inciting racism.’ Race and religion are increasingly used synonymously with pernicious consequences. A clear distinction can be made between religion, a personal belief system and a matter of choice, and race, something unchanging and not chosen.

The fact that Clareification, specially renamed Crucification for that edition, also gave large space to an exploration of the inaccuracies and contradictions of Mark’s gospel would suggest that the motivation was to incite atheism, not racism. But as another Cambridge student writing for a New Statesman blog put it, ‘being anti-Christian or being accused of it…doesn’t have the stigma of being held to be hostile to Islam.’ Sacha Baron- Cohen as Borat will cloak himself in anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism for satirical and ironic purposes but you may have noticed that he won’t dare touch Islam.

Comparisons between anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic cartoons are inappropriate and muddle-headed. Anti-Semitic images target an ethnic group, regardless of the number following Judaism. Marx and Freud both defined themselves as Jewish despite being evangelical atheists. By contrast, Islam makes clear claims for universality, and as the advertisements for Islamic Awareness Week pointed out, is not defined by or restricted to any one ethnic group. It is true that a few ignorant individuals will take from the cartoons the idea that all Arabs are Islamist terrorists but this rationale, followed consistently, would leave us with an absurdly diluted and bland culture, any number of violent films could be banned for fear of inciting imitations. A charge of ‘inciting racism’ should only hold if the direct intention of the student and others can be shown to be the achievement of such ends. Needless to say, the cartoons remain pitifully simplistic and demagogic; there are far better ways to ridicule religion.

This leaves the lesser charge of ‘offence’ standing. The Union of Islamic Organisations of France, are suing Charlie Hebdo for “public insults against a group of people because they belong to a religion”. There is nothing unusual or wrong in taking offence, the new malevolence is the idea that being offended by someone can be used as a pretext to silence them.

The religious should be the most wary of using offence as a marker to limit free speech. The compelling irony is that those who wish to do just that are often those who themselves cause the most offence. Hypocrisy at best, at its worst this tendency falls into contradictions, which as in the case of Kissinger and the Nobel peace prize, deal a deathblow to satire. A banner seen at a British demonstration following the cartoons declaring, ‘Behead those who say Islam is a violent religion’, is yet to be rivalled. Muslims would do better to hold up a banner inscribed with the maxim famously attributed to Voltaire, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ Thus recognising that the restriction of one person’s free speech sets a precedent that threatens many more.

A law against ‘religious hatred’ would be best understood as just that- a law referring to hatred from religion. Far more offensive than the cartoons was the response to them. Scandinavian embassies in particular, and European embassies in general, were pummelled with bricks and torched with fire, leading to the deaths of nine people. Christian churches in Pakistan and Nigeria, even with no European ties, were similarly burnt. When religious belief rises to such heights of arrogance, satire against it becomes not just desirable but essential.

Yet today condemnation of the cartoons is used to diminish, or even to apologise for the want-on violence that followed. Similarly, surely the fact that a student’s safety has been put at risk for holding an opinion is of greater concern than the opinion itself. It is unlikely that our own Students’ Union will offer him any solidarity but anyone who writes for the Boar, which recently reaffirmed its commitment to absolute free speech, should do so. Fierce disagreement with and a willingness to hear provocative opinions are not irreconcilable opposites; rather, they are the precondition of all rational thought.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 06/03/07

December 19, 2006

Why I've Signed The Euston Manifesto

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Well it took me a while but my thoughts over the last few months have convinced me that the purposes and principles of the manifesto need to be spoken up for. Read the Euston Manifesto yourself here linktext

As one of the main aims of the manifesto is to create new debate i’d love to hear your submissions for or against the manifesto.

For those of you unfamiliar with the manifesto it was launched in May by a group of progressive British
journalists, academics and bloggers. It reaffirms the core values of the left against those who have tarnished and trangressed them. As the manifesto puts it we “reaffirm the ideas that inspired the great rallying calls of the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century: liberty, equality and solidarity; human rights; the pursuit of happiness” Some have criticised the manifesto as too general but it is precisely because of the disgraceful behaviour of some on the left that such core principles need to be reasserted. The manifesto is not a blueprint, nor the ideological statement for a new political party, but a starting point for renewed debate on the left and elsewhere.

One cannot be a neutral in the struggle between those on the left who support universal human rights and those who conveniently pick and choose according to narrow political interest. The last straw for me came with the SWP/Respect support for Hizbullah over the summer. I support the Palestinian cause for statehood and am no friend of the Israeli government. But i found it utterly contemptible that left-wingers could support a group which has targeted innocent civilians, does not support Israel’s existence, and wants to establish a fascist theocracy in pluralist Lebanon. Not a scintilla of criticism or reserve was placed in front of this rabid support. Add to this the record of the most prominent anti-war figure, George Galloway, fawning over Saddam and Bashar Al-Assad, (see previous post to this) and silence was no longer an option.

So here in summary are my main reasons for support:

- Support for universal human rights. Too often today we hear culturally relativist arguments made that fail to recognise the differences within and not just between cultures and show little awareness of the cultural progress that can be made. A century ago ‘western culture’ was one in which women and gays were explicitly treated as second-class citizens, but a few bold pioneers pushed for the changes that now form the consensus. We must support those pioneers worldwide who seek to achieve the same for their societies today and not condemn them to their countries dominant culture.

- Though a number of its authors were prominent supporters of the Iraq War the manifesto itself has no stance on the war, a war which i opposed. Nevertheless, i wholeheartedly support the manifesto’s argument that after the overthrow of the Ba’athist regime the priority of all on the left should have been solidarity with the peaceful democrats and progressives in Iraq struggling in the most difficult conditions. Those SWP/Respect figures, and other leftists who supported the murderous ‘resistance’ which has killed far many more Iraqis than ‘imperialists’ must be roundly condemned. They betray the principles of internationalism and solidarity.

-A two state solution for Israel and Palestine. This remains the most practical and ethical resolution of the conflict and must be stressed in opposition to those on the left who back a one state solution.

-Freedom of speech and ideas Threats to these are growing at the moment, particularly in light of a damaging religious resurgence (see my piece On Freedom of Speech And Religion) and we must stress that ‘offence’ can never be used as a marker to limit free debate. Religious ideas must be as subject to criticism as all others.

-Opposition to double standards. Too many on the left publicise and protest against the human rights violations of Israel and the US without doing the same for violations in other states. Human rights are universal and therefore breaches of them must be condemned universally. The fact that the US has breached human rights with Guantanamo Bay and ‘extraordinary rendition’ does nothing to lessen the charges against states such as Iran and Syria. Criticism can never be mutually exclusive on either side. But this does not preclude recongition that despite its abuses the US as a liberal democracy remains superior to dictatorships. The SWP and others are so vociferous in their critcism of the US and so muted in their criticism of states such as Iran, that they end up with a de facto acceptance of dictatorships as legitimate resistance to the ‘American Empire’. The slogan of the International Socialists, the forerunner to the SWP, was ‘Neither Washington, nor Moscow but International Socialism’. Today it is just a big no to the US.

Let us now champion the founding Enlightenment values of the left with the same force, persistence and convinction with which others have betrayed them.

December 01, 2006

A Freedom That Isn't Free: On Free Speech and Religion

‘People sometimes pay with their lives for saying out loud what they think’ said Anna Politkovskaya. Now, this courageous Russian journalist is dead, assassinated three weeks ago. A salutary reminder that speaking freely can have deadly consequences; one of the founding principles of any open society is coming under sustained attack.

Quite rightly, freedom of speech is restricted by prohibition of, for example, libel or incitement to murder. Clashes over free speech have existed as long as the concept. Today in a more world traversed by 24-hour global TV, wider and faster internet provision, our words matter more than ever. The particular challenges of religion, always inimical to freedom of speech (indeed the UK retains archaic blasphemy laws) have been bolstered by a worldwide resurgence in influence. Sikh extremists forced the play Behzti to be taken off the Birmingham stage , and the evangelical Christian Voice threatened BBC executives for showing Jerry Springer: The Opera. The confrontation between religion and freedom of speech has been most vicious in the case of Islam, starting in modern times with the fatwa placed on Salman Rushdie.

A number of incidents have brought this clash into sharp focus; the brutal murder of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist, the global protests and violence, including the destruction of embassies, following the publication by Jyllands-Posten of offensive cartoons, the outrage following the Pope’s comments on Islam, and most recently the removal of a production of Mozart’s Idomeneo, which at one point features the severed head of Muhammad, after threats of violence made to the venue. The trend within jihadist Islam to not merely attempt to deny, but violently punish free speech represents a unique problem today. Years of exposure to an increasingly secular culture have diluted Christianity’s capacity to take offence. Camden market stalls can feel free to sell t-shirts depicting John Paul II as a dope head, without fear of violent reprisal or probably even complaint. Whilst Madonna was condemned by the Vatican for her on-stage re-enactment of the crucifixion, no imminent threat of violence forced her to cancel the show- indeed, the show went on. Sadly at the present time we could not have counted on this had she been referencing Islam.

Of course, we should also condemn wholly unproductive and overly offensive words and images. Yet all too often ‘offence’ is used as code by religious forces for the restriction of freedom of speech. The risk and danger of offence is a necessary trade-off for the preservation of freedom of speech. The great advantage of free speech is that damaging or false ideas and words can be clearly exposed as such and subjected to public scrutiny. A great debate and contest between ideas can flow, allowing the free citizen to come to their own conclusion. Of course, no amount of laws can eliminate free speech, they just push it underground and send out the message that we lack the confidence that fair and tolerant values will ultimately prevail.

Some point out that not all individuals have equal access to speech and expression in society. After all, the average citizen cannot hope to enter into a free and fair debate against Rupert Murdoch. This is an argument for redistributing power and influence not for limiting free speech.

If we take offence as a marker to limit freedom of speech, we offer a clear hostage to fortune. Conceptions of offence vary widely over time and between people. Therefore, careful individual consideration and pragmatism, rather than legislation and regulation, are the appropriate means of avoiding offence.

But in an imperfect world there are and always will be a minority who test our limits to the full; the answer is still best captured by the maxim attributed to Voltaire; ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ Secularists such as myself often find religious stances on gay and women’s rights, unpalatable. Yet were any call to limit religious expression to go up I would then stand side-by-side with the religious, recognising that the restriction of one person’s freedom of speech today threatens the restriction of my own freedom of speech tomorrow.

Religion does not, however, hold a monopoly on threats to free speech. Last week the French National Assembly criminalised denial of the Armenian genocide.(A pure coincidence, of course, that over 90 years after the genocide such a bill is passed just as Turkey enters EU membership negotiations.) Historical truth is the responsibility of historians, never governments and can only be established through the free competition of competing interpretations and evidence. Similarly, David Irving, who has appeared to deny the holocaust, should be challenged and scorned wherever he roams, but not confined to an Austrian cell. The best response to offensive or false views is not censorship, individual violence or state punishment, but more free speech.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 07/11/06

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