Pandaemonium

ON THE RIGHT TO SATIRISE, PROVOKE, AND BE DOWNRIGHT OFFENSIVE

The offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were this morning firebombed, just as it was about to publish its latest edition, a spoof issue ‘guest edited by Muhammed’, in response to the Islamist Ennahda party’s victory in the Tunisian elections. Caustic and vulgar (think of a cross between Private Eye and Viz), Charlie Hebdo prides itself on being an equal opportunities offender, as happy to draw the ire of Christians and Jews (and, indeed communists) as of Muslims. The French press has, so far, been almost unanimously in support of the magazine. But already there have been rumblings elsewhere that Charlie Hebdo went too far, that this was the wrong time and the wrong issue upon whichto be so provocative.  I am republishing here my original response to the Danish cartoons controversy. This essay was first published in Prospect almost six years ago. It shows how little the debate has moved on that it is still seems necessary to make elementary points about the right to challenge, to provoke, to be downright offensive.


‘TOO MUCH RESPECT’,  PROSPECT, 22 MARCH 2006

‘I believe in free speech. But…’ That has become the rallying cry for the liberal left in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy. The Guardian ‘believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression, but not in any duty to gratuitously offend’. For Jack Straw freedom of speech is fine but not if it leads to an ‘open season’ on religious taboos. ‘I respect freedom of speech’ UN Secretary general Kofi Annan has said. ‘But of course… it entails responsibility and judgment.’

Free speech is good, runs the argument, but it has to be less free in a plural society. ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict’, the sociologist Tariq Modood points out, ‘they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’. One of the ironies of living in a more plural society seems to be that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.

I believe the opposite is true. I think that Danish newspapers should be free to publish insulting cartoons about the prophet Mohammed; that Muslim demonstrators should be able to carry placards calling for the beheading of those who insult Islam; and that both the radical cleric Abu Hamza and British National Party leader Nick Griffin should be free to spout racist hatred. And they should all be free to do so because we live in a diverse society not in spite of it.

In a truly homogenous society in which everyone thought in exactly the same way then giving offence would be nothing more than gratuitous. But in the real world where societies are plural, then it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And we should deal with those clashes rather than suppress them. Important because any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. The right to ‘subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’ is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. ‘If liberty means anything’, as George Orwell once put it, ‘it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’.

Ah, say the would-be censors, the problem is that you poor secularists simply do not understand religious believers’ depth of attachment to their faith, and hence their outrage at any insult to it. As Ian Jack, editor of Granta magazine, has put it, an individual might have the abstract right to depict Mohammed, but the price of free speech is too high when compared to the ‘immeasurable insult’ that the exercise of such right causes – even though ‘we, the faithless, don’t understand the offence’.

This argument might reveal how little attached many liberals are to their own beliefs (one can imagine Jack arguing about Galileo 400 years ago, ‘He has an abstract right to depict the earth orbiting the sun, but imagine the immeasurable insult that the exercise of such a right would cause…’) but there is no reason to treat Muslims (or, indeed, any religious believer) as a special case. Communists were often wedded to their ideas even unto death. Many racists have an almost visceral attachment to their prejudices. Should I indulge them, too, because their beliefs are so deeply held? In any case I would challenge anyone to show me how my humanism is any less intensely felt than the faith of a Muslim or of any other believer. There is something deeply pernicious, almost racist, about the claim that Muslims are somehow so different from everyone else.

Last October, the Egyptian newspaper Al Fagr published the cartoons in full- without a murmur of protest. The violence over the cartoons has less to do with religion than politics. It has emerged from a sense of grievance and victimhood that many Muslims feel about their treatment by Western societies, a sense that has been skillfully exploited by some Muslim organizations for their own ends.

Yet, even within this climate many Muslims remain opposed to censorship. Bünyamin Simsek is a councillor in the Danish city of Aarhus who helped organize a counter-demonstration to the cartoon protests. ‘There is’, he says, ‘a large group of Muslims in this city who want to live in a secular society and adhere to the principle that religion is an issue between them and God and not something that should involve society’. He is not alone. But his is the kind of voice that gets silenced in the rush to censor that which is deemed to cause offence. In the name of pluralism, the censors are helping to strengthen the hand of the most conservative elements within Muslim communities.

It is true that there is nothing particularly laudable about the cartoons themselves. They are at best childish, at worst distasteful. But free speech is nothing if it is not the right to be distasteful, even racist.

The ‘I believe in free speech but…’ argument leads to a pick ‘n’ mix attitude to what is tolerable. When British Muslim leader Iqbal Sacranie’s comments on homosexuality led recently to a police investigation, 22 Muslim leaders wrote to the Times demanding the right to be able to ‘freely express their views in an atmosphere free of intimidation or bullying’. Those same leaders deny such a right to newspapers publishing cartoons about Mohammed. Nick Griffin wants to be free to promote racist hatred, but wants to lock up Islamic clerics who do the same. Many of those happy to see cartoons lampooning Mohammed draw the line at anything mocking the Holocaust. It is fast becoming a case of ‘My speech should be free, but yours is too costly’. What is, in fact, too costly is giving in to the demand not to cause offence. If we really believe in free speech, there can be no buts.

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34 comments

  1. Good article, right tot he point, if you can’t stand to be offended then why bother to allow yourself to be offended in the first place? No one view has merit over another and equality cannot be achieved through a la carte censorship

  2. I remember when the Danish cartoon stuff was happening. One of my old philosophy professors got himself into some trouble when he tried arguing the same point you seem to be making. The problem was that he argued it by posting the cartoons on his office door. There is a large Muslim community in my city and there was a march to protest this professor and to ask for him to be fired. He was not opposed to the protest (in fact, he joined in – much to their horror). He was tenure and was hard to get rid of, but there was enough pressure (and a decent severance package), which ultimately led to his early retirement. Kinda sad really – he was a good professor.

  3. And Atheists talk about their ability to moralize and be “good”.

    What part of slander and blasphemy is “The Good”? “Freedom of Speech” countermands the dictates of “The Good”?

    If I remember my list of Virtues, one is “Reverence”. What does “Irreverence” have to do with Virtue? Atheists don’t have virtue? Atheists practice vice and call it “Freedom of speech”?

    I like it how when Ann Coulter shows up at a college campus, leftists attack it so it is closed down. Free speech? Free speech is only for the politically correct crowd and no one else. Free Speech is a club to beat down resistance to Leftist speech and when the Left gain power—they close it down and restrict it.

    So much blarney and hypocrisy.

    • So let me get this straight. You want restrictions on free speech when it comes to slander and blasphemy but complain about lack of free speech when leftists try to stop Anne Coulter from speaking. And you think atheists are being hypocritical? My view is that free speech is a good and should apply to all. As I put it in my essay:

      I think that Danish newspapers should be free to publish insulting cartoons about the prophet Mohammed; that Muslim demonstrators should be able to carry placards calling for the beheading of those who insult Islam; and that both the radical cleric Abu Hamza and British National Party leader Nick Griffin should be free to spout racist hatred.

      And I’m happy to add that Anne Coulter should be free to spout her nonsense too. And you, too.

  4. sean matthews

    I think the point here is that people want to have their cake and eat it. But either you believe in free speech, or you don’t. Since the whole point of ‘free speech’ is that it can be ‘abused’ and ‘used irresponsibly’, any attempt to qualify it with such restrictions indisputably, and immediately, falls cleanly into the category of Newspeak.

    You can dispute the Millian (is that a word? Somehow it doesn’t look like one) ideal, and it is certainly possible to do so, but if you do, say so, but, please, save the (fucking) piety.

  5. michellegraham

    What do you think about personalised abuse and threats? I’m thinking in particular of the kind of sexualised threats female bloggers attract, as highlighted by Laurie Penny and others this week.

    I think it’s relatively easy to defend open discourse, but I’m not sure why free speech should be viewed as an absolute. I moderate my own speech and try to be circumspect by not making ad hominem attacks, while defending my right to question anyone’s ‘beliefs’ or opinions.

    • Michelle, I, too, prefer reasoned debate, and the minimum of abuse or ad hominem attacks (though there are times when abuse can be quite enlightening to a debate). But while it is easy to condemn the kind of abuse that Laurie Penny received this week (a kind of abuse that is, of course, all too common in comment threads), the distinction between abuse and debate is not as easy to draw as it might seem. Much of the condemnation of The Satanic Verses, for instance, rested precisely on the claim that the novel amounted to abuse not rational criticism. As Shabir Akhtar, the spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques put it at the time, the real debate was not about ‘freedom of speech versus censorship’ but about ‘legitimate criticism versus obscenity and slander.’ Exactly the same argument has been made in demanding censorship in a host other recent cases from Monica Ali’s Brick Lane to the use of the Bible in the ‘Made in God’s Image’ exhibition at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art to the current Charlie Hebdo issue. As for hate speech in a broader sense, I am opposed to it, but I am also opposed to its banning .

    • Kryptic Krusader

      While Malik’s argument is a coherent one but its a utopic world where freedom of speech is an absolute. Say for instance if a woman is walking down a road and she looks pretty and a passerby loudly passes a vulgar remark on her making her feel distinctly uncomfortable and a subject of humiliation, in this context will you still uphold the freedom of speech (given the guy is free to appreciate her beauty in whatever manner that he deems fit) argument versus upholding the dignity of that woman? if we do take ure freedom of speech argument as absolute, this scenario wud be absolutely normal and ideally the woman shud respond back/walk away. Now put this scenario in the context of India/Afghanistan/Pakistan basically countries that are more conservative than the West. The mere act of that man abusing her in public (if unchecked) would be a cause for her ostracization from society not to mention much ridicule.

      Absolute freedom of speech is great if there are basic commonalities across people. but thats not possible…so …but great article nevertheless.

    • I assume that those who wanted to ban The Life of Brian and Jerry Springer were exhibiting the Christian sense of humour? As someone who grew up in Britain at a time when ‘Paki-bashing’ was a national sport, I don’t take kindly to the suggestion that Muslims’ ‘idea of fun is killing people for sport’. Nor, I suppose, would those Muslims who get beaten or killed because of their faith. The irony is that your assumption that the firebombers represent all Muslims exactly mirrors the claim of the Islamists. All your comment reveals is that there are idiots on both sides of the debate.

  6. Bobbie

    I am against free speech at all costs.

    Its easy to say, as Bob ^^^ so couthly put it puts it, they “Have no sense of humour”.

    I understand that by placing restrictions on freedom of speech is going to cause the simple among us to say, well which freedom means more?

    Kierkegaard put it best, the people who demand freedom of speech do so, because they fail to use the freedom of thought which they already have.

    I do not consider it my right, to go around and incite hatred. What you fail to understand is human nature, or you simply do not care for it, if you want freedom of speech at all costs, you must be prepared for the consequences. If you come up to me and insult me, whether it be justified or not, human nature would be to punch you in the face. Inciting hatred results in violence. Why is my freedom to defend myself against, what may be a malicious verbal attack any less than your right to hurl insults at who ever you pass when ever it takes your fancy? Or is your argument just a “pick ‘n’ mix attitude to what is tolerable.” ?.

    What about the less literate among us? how do you think they are going to respond to the verbal assaults thrown their way in the name of freedom by the abusers of unlimited free speech? Violence is out of the question, right? Do you care? Maybe tell them to go buy a dictionary? Maybe they should just stay there and take it? drink some concrete maybe? Why protect the meek just so the strong can speak with out fear of retribution?

    You may think that i am talking about extreme circumstances, and that people like yourself may be able to say what you like with out offending, and that may be true, and if it is i applaud you for it. But, Many people wont. Many people don’t think before they speak and will, knowingly or unknowingly use freedom of speech to abuse, knowing full well if their subject retaliates that they have won what ever ideological battle that is occurring in their mind.

    • Five questions:

      1 If what matters is that no one should feel abused or insulted or offended, should all speech that abuses, insults or offends people be banned? Everything from The Life of Brian to My Beautiful Laundrette? And what about the Qu’ran and the Bible, both of which many find offensive, and which many, in different contexts, wish to ban? In your world would there be anything left worth reading or viewing? I am prepared for the consequences of free speech. Are you prepared for the consequences of a world without free speech?

      2 Who decides what is offensive or abusive? As I have observed many times, when we talk about an insult ‘to a community’ what we really mean is ‘debate within a community’. That is why so many of the flashpoints over offensiveness have been over works produced by minority artists – Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kuresihi, Monica Ali, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Sooreh Hera, Taslima Nasrin. Why would you wish to defend the reactionaries within a community in their struggle against the progressives?

      3 When you ask ‘What about the less literate among us?’, are you not suggesting that only well-read people who can quote Kierkegaard have the ability to live with free speech? And is that not as offensive a claim as all those offensive claims you wish to ban?

      4 Is your view of human nature not as absurd as you assume mine to be? A view of humans acting as robots who, on hearing a perceived insult, immediately seek to punch people in the face?

      5 Can you not see the difference between making a provocative or insulting comment and ‘punching someone in the face’? And that punching something may not be the most appropriate response to an insult? And that those who cause violence are responsible for that violence, not those who ‘incited’ them?

    • Bobbie

      Five Answers

      1. An extreme view, Free speech should never be banned. Education needs to be provided on the effects of freedom of speech and its consequences. You nailed it when you mentioned “context”. Being offended at a humorous text is different to say, reading the orientation guide for a hate group. One obviously should be banned because its sole purpose is to incite hate, the other is created to promote joy. We can sit around a table, drink cognac and smoke our pipes and debate entry level existentialism about whose truth is more valid, or we can judge based on how people interpret these texts. Hopefully we will not focus on the statistical anomalies.

      2. “Who decides what is offensive or abusive?” So its too hard to determine the context so lets let everything be acceptable? How come we seem unable to decide what is decent social etiquette, yet we are able to judge a persons freedom of speech is greater than someone else’s freedom to live a free and tranquil life, free from the provocation of others?
      Debate within a community is good and should be encouraged, can you see there is a difference between the authors you have mentioned and drawing pictures of mohammed or the “piss christ”. What debate is that actually encouraging? Would you not think that engaging debate with moderates that represent the muslim community at specifically organised events be of greater benefit, than drawing immature pictures and putting them on the web?
      How exactly did those cartoons fight those progressive muslims? Can you explain to me of the struggle of the Danes in Denmark?

      3. No, I just dont believe anybody should be subjugated to the taunts of those who have the ability to shout the loudest. I can possess a bag full of free speech, but to those with no mouth, free speech will be as useful as a screen door on a submarine. You are prepared for the consequences of free speech because you know of its power and how to wield it. You have a platform (This blog), Should it be allowed that the rich among us are able to print entire newspapers outlining their views, especially if their views are untruthful or misleading in an attempt to promote their agenda? Should there not be a law against that? You would allow articles calling for genocide on the front page of the NY Times? Is that the type of free speech you want? I know this is an extreme example, and by reading your comments below, it is not what you want either, but looking at the comment you replied to, can you tell me that people will not take freedom of speech as a fundamental right to incite hatred? Now is that contradictory? You want unlimited free speech yet think inciting hatred is absurd, how can this be reconciled without impeding of free speech?

      4. My View of human nature is based in practicality, well i at least hope it is. Is/was there no fatwa on salmon rushdie? I dont agree with it, i think its an abomination, nor do i think salmon rushdie shouldn’t write. I dont think people are robots and i dont think violence is acceptable or even everybody’s response, i do believe in fight or flight and that when people feel marginalized people are capable of lashing out.

      5.I can see the difference between making a provocative statement and punching someone in the face, but i do think both can be seen as acts of violence. the former if uncontrolled especially as leading to violence.
      ” those who cause violence are responsible for that violence, not those who ‘incited’ them?” Both are just as culpable. As seen in the Israel v Palestine conflict, the settlers illegally settle anothers land, one fights back to reclaim it, are the palestinians only to blame? Would there have been violence if the land was not taken in the first place?, the first act was the provocation, why only focus on the retaliation?

    • Many thanks for this response. I have not the space to address all the points you raise, so let me deal primarily with the question of hate speech. But first, a point about ‘context’ which you raise. Context requires us to make rational distinctions. That, unfortunately, is what you fail to do. In both your posts you confuse the distinctions between the giving of offence, the fomenting of hate and the inciting of violence. Sometimes you argue for censorship with respect to one, sometimes with respect to another. It is critical that we distinguish between them. The giving of offence is not only acceptable, but often necessary, in a healthy, democratic society. The fomenting of hatred may well create political and social problems; but these are not problems that can be solved by legislation to restrict free speech. The incitement to violence should be an offence, but only if incitement is tightly defined

      Far from censoring offensive speech, a vibrant and diverse society should encourage it. In any society that is not uniform, grey and homogenous there are bound to be clashes of viewpoints. Inevitably some people will find certain ideas objectionable. This is all for the good. 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.

      The fomenting of hatred, on the other hand, should be challenged. But it should not be legally banned, both as a matter of principle and with a mind to its practical impact. As a matter of principle free speech becomes meaningless if those whom you despise, including racists, don’t have free speech. Free speech, but only for nice liberals, is not free speech at all.

      In practice you can’t challenge racism by banning it. You simply let the sentiments fester underground. Censoring ugly ideas will not make them go away. It is simply a means of abrogating our responsibility for dealing with them. It is only through freedom of expression that we can articulate our disagreements with such people and challenge their ideas.

      There is a practical problem, too, in defining ‘hate speech’. Most of the Rushdie protestors saw The Satanic Verses as ‘hate speech’. So did the protestors against the staging of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Bezhti. In Holland, Geert Wilders wants to ban the Qur’an for promoting ‘hate speech’. One man’s essential speech is another man’s hate speech.You might say that you don’t see these cases as issues of hate speech. But what makes you the judge of what is or is not hate speech?

      It is, in any case, a myth that hate speech regulation leads to ‘a free and tranquil life’. In 1965, Britain prohibited incitement to racial hatred as part of its Race Relations Act. The following decade was probably the most racist in British history. It was the decade of “Paki-bashing” when racist thugs would seek out Asians to beat up. a decade of firebombings, stabbings and murders. In the early eighties I was organizing street patrols in East London to protect Asian families from racist attacks.Today, Britain is a very different place. Racism has not disappeared, nor have racist attacks, but the open, vicious, visceral bigotry that disfigured Britain when I was growing up has largely ebbed away. It has done so not because of laws banning racial hatred but because of broader social changes and because minorities themselves stood up to the bigotry and fought back.

      Incitement to violence should be banned. But the notion of ‘incitement’ has to be tightly defined. One of the most pernicious means by which restrictions on free speech have grown tighter in recent years has been through loosening the meaning of incitement. Incitement is, rightly, very difficult legally to show and to prove. We should not lower the burden of proof just because hate speech may be involved. Incitement to violence in the context of hate speech should be as tightly defined as in ordinary criminal cases.

      Finally, you imply that free speech is good for the powerful and the rich, but not for the powerless and the poor. In fact the opposite is the case. Ask yourself who it is that benefits from censorship. The answer is those who have both the ability to censor and the need to do so. It is precisely ‘those who have the ability to shout the loudest’ who are best able to shut down speech and debate. Free speech, n the other hand, acts as a permanent challenge to authority. This is why it 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 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

  7. I consider it my right to go around inciting hatred. To limit it is obscene. “Fundamental Beliefs” should be challenged. That is what civilization is about. Insisting that you not be offended is a declaration of one’s own lack of civilization. An additional question for Muslims concerned about “fundamental beliefs”. Most Americans fundamentally believe that Palestinian lives are worth less than Israeli lives. Is that not a fundamental belief worth challenging?

    • If you mean that you should have the right to say what you wish, even if it incites hatred, I agree with you. If, on the other hand, what you mean is that it is your duty to ‘go round inciting hatred’, that is absurd. In fact, as I have argued, it is morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech also to challenge obnoxious and hateful views:

      The whole point of free speech is to create the conditions for robust debate. And one reason for such robust debate is to be able to challenge obnoxious views. To argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge obnoxious, odious and hateful views seems to me immoral. It is morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to stand up to racism and bigotry.

      Finally ‘inciting hatred’ and ‘challenging fundamental beliefs’ are very different things. I do not see why challenging myths about Palestinians amounts to ‘inciting hatred’.

  8. Civilization is not about “free speech”. The first civilization of Europe was the Dorians and they had Xenelasia. It is part of the Natural Law. It is just bloody commonsense.

    The history of free speech was cooked up after the religious wars of the 16th century. Atheists, freethinkers, radical Protestants all were suppressed by the dominant cultural authority, the Roman Catholic Church. When the Protestants ascended into power, they in turn did the same thing. So, when faced with hypocrisy, they opted to have “tolerance” and to preach so-called “free speech”.

    Was there any “free speech” in the Soviet Union, the workers paradise? Was there any “free speech” in Cuba?

    How about the USSR of College Academia? Political Correctness rules. It is a religion and it suppresses all sorts of speech.

    There is no such thing as “free speech”. Never was. It is only to deceive people into granting it to their enemies and so the enemies .

    I am not for free speech and it was never a value in either Sparta or Christendom. It is not a part of European Culture and it is certainly not ordained by the Natural Law.

  9. Ian

    I read the following somewere:

    They all err—Moslems, Jews,
    Christians, and Zoroastrians:
    Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
    One, man intelligent without religion,
    The second, religious without intellect

    Where was it now? Oh,I remember. On this site, The Poetry of an Old Atheist.

    Mind you it doesn’t stop people taking things to heart. Pity.

  10. Roelof

    And now because ‘GeenStijl’ told to mollest anyone who talkes about Jesus.. another thing. Since nobody dares to speak about 18.000 Jihadist terror attacks since 9/11, everybody believes Breivik is a Christian and therefor it’s completely rational wanting to forbid all religion, the following.. Is Breivik a Christian or not?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKEqM5bi8K4&feature=channel_video_title

    Our culture is based on Judaism/Christianity/Modern Humanism (invented by a Christian) and old Greek philosophical norms and values.
    Since Breivik is Agnostic and Islam as well as Atheists want free speech, but only when they are allowed to have this right, with the killings, I consider muslims as well as atheists as dangerous.

  11. pietje

    GS talkes 1000 times about how sad gays are and 1000 times about how Christianity hates gays. Guess what? .. Gay is wrong! What is so good about people wanting to fuck others in the ass??

    .. leave it.. I really don’t want to know.

    That’s why gays don’t feel accepted. Good for gays they can hate Christianity for that.

  12. Cellar

    So you have a right to say whatever you want. But if there are consequences, well, it’s yours to shoulder them. You insult someone, he’s insulted, or not, as he chooses. Is it your fault he’s insulted? Well, if you knew he’d be when you said it, probably, yes.

    Then again, does that justify him burning down your house? Er, no. The justice system in the western world generally forbids that sort of thing; that includes both setting fire to others’ property and playing judge. Or maiming or killing people, for that matter. So why do some of us like to blame the crimes of the offended on the excerciser of that much-vaunted right of ours, free speech? Have they thought about that at all?

    On top of that it’s apparently not about the cartoons, nor any insult they might cause, but far more about the opportunity to be violently indignant about perceived slights as a way to advance your own agenda. And by structuring the uproar like this, they have a large audience in the more huggy-feely part of western society. As such, it’s a good trick and they’ll be milking it for all it’s worth. Pretty smart, really.

    It’s not really about the religion, even if it is about advancing an agenda that’s heavily religious. Personally I don’t think we should give in to hordes of mouth-frothing people claiming violence is fine if it’s in the name of peace.

    Not that occupation in the name of freedom is any better, mind.

  13. Benfatto

    Kenan Malik: I would define free speech even wider than you do. Incitement to violence is also freedom of speech. To me, anything in words or writing qualifies as a rightful exercise of liberty. Freedom ends with the initiation of force. This is the only 100% objective definition of freedom of speech.

  14. sean matthews

    Abuse on the net seems to be the theme this week. When I posted above in this thread, I inserted a (parentheised) oath, partly as a joke, and partly to express a bit of irritation. But I see what has followed, and I regret it.

  15. Mark Robert B Baldo

    This is a good exposition of what liberalism truly means when carried out to its logical end. Hence, I do not like it. Liberals talk of an open society but an open society is no society. it is a misnomer.

    That line for example, “if we really believe in free speech, there can be no buts”, is a step too close to saying, “if we really believe in liberty, there can be no buts.” Why have laws against murder, genocide, terrorism, among many others?

    Quite simply, if we follow this way of thinking about politics, why limit yourself to speech? Why not carry the logic to actions (i.e. bombings, killings, etc)? After all, we believe and advocate so strongly liberty. I would tell you the implicit reason why.

    It is because of a materialist conception of man. I think, at the back of the head of these people is the belief that words cannot harm others in any significant way while actions really can. But this is a flimsy belief, a false one.

    Hence, I remark again that if we follow this logic faithfully, we end up not with a democracy but with anarchy.

    Show me where the logic failed and my faith in liberalism might increase.

    • You are right, my attitude to free speech is closely linked to my views about what it is to be human – but that view is the opposite of what you assume it to be. I am indeed a materialist. But to be a materialist is not to discount the idea that words have impact. After all, there would be no point in defending the idea of free speech if I thought that words had no impact. The real issue is: how and in what ways do words have an impact?

      There is no direct relationship between words and deeds. How people respond to words depends largely on the individuals themselves. They are responsible for interpreting the words and translating them into actions. Between words and deeds stands a human being, with a mind of his own, an ability to judge between right and wrong and a responsibility to face up to his own actions. It is not the words themselves that cause things to happen, but our estimation of the value and truth of those words. Words have consequences only if we choose to make them consequential. Bigots are, of course, influenced by bigoted talk. But it is the bigots who must bear responsibility for translating talk into action. Blurring the distinction between speech and action is to blur the idea of human agency and of moral responsibility.

      So I, the materialist, defend free speech because I want to defend the idea of human agency and moral responsibility. You (I assume an anti-materialist) in refusing to see that crucial distinction between words and actions are blurring the idea of agency and responsibility.

      We differ, too, in what we understand a society to be. For me a society is the creation of the people within that society. The more that people are able to participate, engage, speak their mind, debate with each other, thrash out their differences, the better that society will. You claim that ‘an open society is no society’. That seems to suggest that a society for you is one in which the select few decide what is good for the rest of us. That is the very opposite of my conception of the good society.

      You suggest that with my conception of free speech ‘we end up not with a democracy but with anarchy’. But anyone who truly believes that ‘an open society is no society’, does not, it seems to me, understand democracy at all.

  16. Mark Robert B Baldo

    Mr Malik:

    To be frank, I did not expect such a quick and well-thought out reply. For that I feel grateful to you.

    I am afraid I have not been able to explain my point well enough the first time. I wish to put it again. While I appreciate your account of the difference between words and deeds (a better term than what I used which is actions), I cannot wholly agree to it. It is true that unlike in the case of deeds, the impact of words is filtered through human agency of that one who receives it, but that is not the whole case. This is a very delicate point at this stage but I can only offer some considerations.

    Take a look at the comment posted above: “To me, anything in words or writing qualifies as a rightful exercise of liberty. Freedom ends with the initiation of force.”

    What is more important for my criticism of your views here is that this boundary on freedom seems rather arbitrary. The insistence of the one who posted the above comment that even incitement to violence ought to be covered by freedom of speech. What are your views on that? I for one feel extremely uncomfortable in belittling the impact of words in these cases. I think it highly irresponsible to incite people to violence then later on, when someone does commit violence, say, “Well that was his agency and his responsibility.” The use of words itself is an act of agency which carries responsibilities, and responsibilities mean boundaries.

    It takes me a while to develop my point but it comes down to this: even speech ought to be regulated, just as deeds are.

    When it comes to my understanding of society, it stands as such: a society is a group of persons sharing a common historical heritage aiming at some good. This stands in contrast to what I take to be your liberal view that society is quite simply an arena where people settle their differences (i.e. an open society). It is true that my view of what society is shapes my view on free speech for the pursuit of a good requires rules and boundaries. The analogy is if your travelling somewhere, you need to follow the road unless you have good reason not to do so.

    It is not that decision making is concentrated on the few but that everyone abides by the rules not merely because someone imposed them but because these rules are recognized to be the means to achieving a particular good. Hence, in a society, I believe that it is crucial for everyone to take upon responsibility as measured against such rules in view of the achievement of a particular good of a society, and that includes speech.

    In this light, I hope it could be understood what I meant in saying an open society is no society. It also ought to shed light on what I meant by democracy and how it stands in contrast to anarchy, as what I take an open society borders to be.

    I am sorry for the long-winded response but I do take up a long time to develop my point.

    Thank you very much.

    • 1. You claim that my ‘boundary on freedom’ – my view that incitement to violence should be illegal – ‘seems rather arbitrary.’ There is nothing arbitrary at all about it. Direct incitement is making a specific plan to commit a specific act and encouraging others to join in. If that action is violent, directly causes harm to someone, and if you intend that violent act to be carried out, then the incitement should be illegal. This is not the same as indirect, or rhetorical, incitement, such as Muslim protestors carrying placards demanding ‘Behead those who insult Islam’. Such speech should not, in my view, be outlawed.

      It is not my boundaries, but yours, that are arbitrary – largely because you do not draw any. Despite all your attacks on my argument about free speech, you’ve said nowhere what speech you’d ban and why.

      2 You quote a previous comment that ‘even incitement to violence ought to be covered by freedom of speech’ and ask ‘What are your views on that?’ Given that I have already argued that direct incitement to violence should be illegal, I think my views are clear.

      3 On what constitutes a society. I happen to be critical of traditional liberal concepts on this. It makes no sense to think, as many liberal theorists do, of the individual as existing prior to society, either historically or conceptually. Humans are not individuals who become social. They are social beings whose individuality emerges through the bonds they create with other.

      There is, however, no conflict between this view and a belief in an open society. An open society is not, as you seem to think, one in which anything goes. It is one in which there are as few barriers as possible to the flow of ideas and to social engagement. You talk of a society in which everyone ‘abides by the rules not merely because someone imposed them but because these rules are recognized to be the means to achieving a particular good.’ How can people do this except through an open society?

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  18. Mark Robert B Baldo

    1) Then, would I be right to take that you think there are cases where your earlier account of agency and responsibility are trounced and that these include those direct incitement to violence? Not a knock-down argument, but it seems worth considering how that earlier account now stands with these cases which I do not think are exceptional. This is what I meant by “rather arbitrary.”

    2) On where I would draw the boundaries. I dare not give an outright definition. First, that is rather difficult and challenging as I have tried to demonstrate in refuting both the boundaries you drew and Benfatto’s. Second, my position does not allow me so. My position is that the boundaries depend upon the moral culture or system, loosely speaking, of a given society, insofar as it pursues a specific good. Notice however that this does not compel me to adopt a relativistic view on morality.

    In another post of yours I have revealed that I read MacIntyre and I only try to follow his position.

    3) I agree with your view of society. That nuance of “as few barriers as possible” is I think what we have been trying to thresh out in this exchange. I hesitate however to label it an “open society.”

    Thank you very much Mr Malik for the attention and patience to reply to my objections. This post was only referred by a friend but I think, after this, I would follow your blog earnestly. :)

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