This article appears in the current issue of Index on Censorship.
‘The traditional balance between free speech and respect for the feelings of others is evidently becoming harder to sustain,’ lamented the columnist and panjandrum Simon Jenkins in The Sunday Times. He was writing of the controversy then raging over the publication by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed. ‘The best defence of free speech can only be to curb its excess and respect its courtesy,’ Jenkins concluded.
A year later, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and its director stood trial, in a case brought by two Muslim organisations, for publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion (‘injure stigmatisant un groupe de personnes à raison de sa religion’). The magazine had reproduced the offending cartoons and added one of its own for the cover.
Jenkins is the voice of moderation and civility. A declared libertarian, on homosexual law reform to fox hunting, he perceives that a fair society strives to hold values in balance rather than pursue absolutist demands for one at the expense of another. An American equivalent might be the writer KA Dilday. Commenting on the Charlie Hebdo case on the openDemocracy website, she protests that she is ‘not a great believer in policing speech’. Yet she does see ‘some sense of justice’ in such proceedings. They are, after all, effective in stimulating debate and drawing attention to grievance, in a way that France’s ‘warrior-philosophers’ in support of the word do not acknowledge.
The voice of moderation, civility and balance is, in short, politically toxic. It makes the false assumption that having regard to the feelings of others – a virtue in personal affairs – is any concern of public policy. It urgently needs to be rebuffed.
The conflict between religious sensibilities and freedom of publication long predates the Danish cartoons affair. Yet, in British politics and society, the main complainants till the 1990s were orthodox Christians, and their stated concerns were of a general erosion in mores. In 1977, Mary Whitehouse on behalf of her National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association won a famous legal victory in a private prosecution against the newspaper Gay News. Her objection was to a poem depicting Christ as a promiscuous homosexual, which she claimed was a blasphemous libel against the Christian faith. Even at the time, the conviction was widely seen as a legal idiosyncrasy and a social anachronism. Had Mrs Whitehouse couched her claim instead as a complaint about injury to the feelings of Christian believers, she would have had no legal recourse and almost certainly been ignored by mainstream opinion. Yet she would have been anticipating a notion that has in the last two decades become not only common in those same circles but almost axiomatic among some of them.
More than a decade later, Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa calling for the murder of a British citizen, Salman Rushdie, for writing a novel. Muslim leaders in the Indian subcontinent had already condemned the book, The Satanic Verses, for containing insults to Islam. The fatwa made the issue a central one of international politics; and at that point a distinctive claim emerged in western debate.
As in many events of recent British political history, one of the most informative sources – if often unintentionally so – is the voluminous published diaries of former cabinet minister Tony Benn. In his diary entry for 15 February 1989, Benn describes a debate on the Rushdie case held at a meeting of the Campaign Group of left-wing Labour MPs. Some of the responses he records, although cliché-ridden, are recognisably traditional statements of radical politics: ‘Mildred Gordon [a former Trotskyite who had become an MP in her 60s] said all fundamentalists and all established Churches were enemies of the workers and the people.’ But Benn then turns to Bernie Grant, MP for Tottenham, now deceased, who was often wrongly described as among Britain’s first black MPs. Benn states: ‘Bernie Grant kept interrupting, saying that the whites wanted to impose their values on the world. The House of Commons should not attack other cultures. He didn't agree with the Muslims in Iran, but he supported their right to live their own lives. Burning books was not a big issue for blacks, he maintained.’
The notion that free speech was an ethnocentric imposition on other cultures, to which a properly egalitarian politics would extend respect, has, in a less crude and populist form, developed mightily since. The soft form of that principle is that a culture founded on the free play of ideas needs to exercise restraint in the face of the sensibilities of others. As the Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan has put it: ‘Instead of being obsessed with laws and rights – approaching a tyrannical right to say anything – would it not be more prudent to call upon citizens to exercise their right to freedom of expression responsibly and to take into account the diverse sensitivities that compose our pluralistic contemporary societies?’
Sentiments such as these became established with the Rushdie affair, and have proved an enduring component of our political culture. In 1990, a year after the fatwa, Rushdie wrote: ‘I feel as if I have been plunged, like Alice, into a world beyond the looking glass, where nonsense is the only available sense. And I wonder if I’ll ever be able to climb back through.’
Western political leaders were adept at speaking that form of sense. The first President Bush ventured boldly, a week after the fatwa was issued, that the threat of assassination was ‘deeply offensive’. The Japanese government anguished and declared: ‘Mentioning and encouraging murder is not something to be praised.’ The Chief Rabbi in Great Britain, Dr Immanuel Jakobovits, remarked with ostensible balance but genuine callous stupidity: ‘Both Mr Rushdie and the Ayatollah have abused freedom of speech.’
Surveying these judgements, the writer Jonathan Rauch, in his 1993 book Kindly Inquisitors (from which I have taken the quotations), identified a tendency among Western intellectuals that would repudiate the sentence but not the notion that Rushdie had committed a crime: ‘If we follow this path, then we accept Khomeini’s verdict, and we are merely haggling with him over the sentence. If we follow it, then we accept that in principle what is offensive should be suppressed, and we are fighting over what it is ... that is offensive.’
This is the missing element in debate over the scope and regulation of speech. The notion that free speech, while important, needs to be held in balance with the avoidance of offence is question-begging, because it assumes that offence is something to be avoided. Free speech does indeed cause hurt – but there is nothing wrong in this. Knowledge advances through the destruction of bad ideas. Mockery and derision are among the most powerful tools in that process. Consider Voltaire’s Candide, or H L Mencken’s reports – saturated in contempt for religious obscurantists who opposed the teaching of evolution in schools – on the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial.
It is inevitable that those who find their deepest convictions mocked will be offended, and it is possible (though not mandatory, and is incidentally not felt by me) to extend sympathy and compassion to them. But they are not entitled to protection, still less restitution, in the public sphere, even for crass and gross sentiments. A free society does not legislate in the realm of beliefs; by extension, it must not concern itself either with the state of its citizens’ sensibilities. If it did, there would in principle be no limit to the powers of the state, even into the private realm of thought and feeling.
The debate has not been aided – it has indeed been severely clouded – by an imprecise use of the term ‘respect’. If this is merely a metaphor for the free exercise of religious and political liberty, then it is an unexceptionable principle, but also an unclear and redundant usage. Respect for ideas and those who hold them is a different matter altogether. Ideas have no claim on our respect; they earn respect to the extent that they are able to withstand criticism. Even some vocal defenders of liberty stumble on this point. The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell wrote recently, of a particularly slanted television debate: ‘Even the supposed Muslim moderates on last night's programme exuded a whiff of hypocrisy. Ibrahim Mogra of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) claimed: ‘We do not wish to impose our way of life on anybody. All we want is to live in respect with one another.’ Fine sentiments. Shame about the reality.’ It is not, in fact, a fine sentiment to require respect. Respect is not an entitlement. It is, at most, a quality that is earned by the intellectual resilience of one’s ideas in the public square.
A further complication in the debate is a return – rather an opportunistic one – to the concept of mores and its subclass, taboos. In December 2006, the theocratic regime in Iran staged a conference denying the Holocaust, apparently as a retaliatory gesture over the Danish cartoons. I happened to speak in a debate in London the following month with a representative of the Muslim Council of Britain, Inayat Bunglawala, who explicitly treated as analogous the two provocations. There had been ‘no need’, he said, of the Conference. This was entirely to miss the grounds of objection to it. Holocaust denial is wrong not because it is offensive but because it is false. It is a speculative hypothesis that can be consistently maintained only by ignoring or faking historical evidence. There are laws in some European countries against this form of antisemitism, and they are misconceived and pernicious for similar reasons to those I have argued. The exposure of Holocaust deniers’ claims is the province of competent historians rather than lawyers. The quality of offensiveness is irrelevant to that issue.
Beyond this is a pragmatic question. If those with deeply held convictions find they receive compensation for injured feelings, then mental hurt is what they will seek out. As one group succeeds, then others will perceive the incentive to fashion comparable demands. In Birmingham two years ago protestors forced the closure of a play, Behzti by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, which depicted the abuse of Sikh women by Sikh men. With inapt jocularity but succinctness, a BBC correspondent reported: ‘If you had to write a theatrical pitch for what Birmingham has just witnessed over the play Behzti, you could do it in seven words: Play offends community, community protests, play cancelled.’
Campaigners from a pressure group called Christian Voice then, not coincidentally, pressed their own demands. The stage show Jerry Springer – The Opera faced protests and threats of prosecution for blasphemy when it was shown on BBC television in 2005 and when it went on tour in 2006. ‘I can say with some feeling that the show is crude, offensive and blasphemous in the extreme,’ wrote the organisation’s director in a letter to theatres urging that they cancel the performances. And, given the precedent, why would he not have issued such a demand?
Trying to make sense of the Behzti affair for French readers, the London correspondent of Libération, Agnès Poirier, wrote: ‘Dans une situation pareille, on attend d’un gouvernement qu’il défende l’auteur menacé.’ She noted that the British government minister responsible for community relations, Fiona McTaggart, had in fact done no such thing. Rather, Ms McTaggart had welcomed the return of calm after the cancellation of the play. Often it takes a detached observer to appreciate fully the corruption of one’s own political culture.
This malaise is always a likely outcome of recognising a right to be respected. Respecting the beliefs and feelings of others is a lethal affectation in public policy. It is easy to depict freedom of speech as liable to cause hurt, precisely because it is true. The policy that follows from that is counterintuitive but essential: do nothing. The defence of a free society involves not taking a stand on its output, but insisting on the integrity of its procedures.
Oliver Kamm is an author and columnist for The Times