I gave two talks this weekend. One was on ‘Turning diversity on its head’ at the sixth anniversary celebration of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB),  the other on’Offence and censorship’ at an Artangel ‘Party for Freedom’.  The two talks overlapped, so here I have stitched them together into a single post. The cartoons are from the wonderful Jesus and Mo.

Almost twenty years ago, in 1994, the Independent newspaper asked me to write an essay on Tom Paine, the eighteenth-century English revolutionary. It was the 200th anniversary of his masterpiece, The Age of Reason, a book of which Paine said that it was a ‘march through Christianity with an axe’. ‘All national institutions of churches’, wrote Paine, ‘whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to be no more than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit.’

Few authors have so punctured the pretensions of organised religion or so savaged the claims of divine revelation as Paine. Fewer still have faced such ridicule and vilification for doing so. In England The Age of Reason was suppressed for decades and successive publishers imprisoned for blasphemy. Anyone who distributed, read or discussed the book faced prosecution. Some were arrested for simply displaying the portrait of the author. In America, where hitherto Paine had been feted as a hero for his unwavering support for independence, newspapers denounced him as a ‘lily-livered sinical [sic] rogue’ and ‘a demihuman archbeast’. The Age of Reason, as I observed in my Independent essay, became ‘The Satanic Verses of its day’. And, given that comparison, I thought it reasonable to open the essay with a quote from Salman Rushdie’s novel, satirising the divine origins of the Qur’an.

The Independent thought otherwise. There was consternation in the editorial offices when I filed my piece. Eventually one of the editors phoned me to say that I could not use the quote from The Satanic Verses because it was deemed too offensive. No amount of logic or reasoning could persuade her otherwise. The irony of having been commissioned to write an essay on Tom Paine, the greatest freethinker of his age, and then being banned from quoting from a freely available book, seemed to escape the Independent editors.

Back in 1994, the Independent’s argument still seemed shocking and unusual. Twenty years on, the idea that we should refrain from giving offence to other cultures seems to many common sense. It no longer startles when, in the name of cultural sensitivity, publishers abandon books, theatres savage plays, opera houses to cut productions, art galleries censor shows. ‘I believe in free speech. But…’ may well be a motto of our times.


At the heart of the argument for restrictions on offensive speech is the belief that while free speech may be a good, it must necessarily be less free in a plural 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 groups and to protect the dignity of those individuals embedded in them. As the 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.’ One of the ironies of living in a plural society, it seems, is that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.

It is an argument that seems to me fundamentally to misunderstand the nature both of diversity and of 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. Diversity is important because it allows us to break out of our culture-bound boxes, to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgements upon them, and decide which may be better and which may be worse. It is important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can held create a more universal language of citizenship.

But the very thing that is valuable about diversity – the cultural and ideological clashes that it brings about – is precisely what many people fear. And that fear takes two forms. On the one hand you have the little Englander sentiment: immigration is undermining the national fabric, eroding our sense of British or Englishness, turning our cities into little Lahores or mini-Kingstons. And on the other you have the multicultural argument: that diversity is good, but it has to be policed to minimise the clashes and conflicts and frictions that diversity brings in its wake. And so we have to restrain speech, and police the giving of offence.

j&m offence

I take the opposite view. It is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In a mythical homogenous society in which everyone thought in exactly the same way then the giving of 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. 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’.

But more than this: the giving of offence is not just inevitable, it is also important. 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.

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 also 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 confront those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.

Of course, most critics who argue for restraint on the matter of offensiveness would have no problem with political or social or cultural criticism. What is unacceptable, they would argue, is when such criticism crosses the line and becomes abuse or obscenity.  There is all the difference, as the philosopher Shabir Akhtar put it at the height of the controversy over The Satanic Verses, between ‘sound historical criticism’ and ‘scurrilously imaginative writing’. Akhtar, who became a spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques in the wake of the infamous book-burning demonstration in January 1989, suggested that he real debate was not about ‘freedom of speech versus censorship’ but about ‘legitimate criticism versus obscenity and slander’.

Exactly the same point has been made by every opponent of offensive talk.  By the Sikh protestors, for instance, who in 2004 shut down Behzti, a play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, which the Birmingham Rep pulled after demonstrations by Sikh activists. Or by the Christian protestors who would have liked to have prevented the broadcasting of Jerry Springer: The Opera.


But the question arises: who makes that judgment call? Who decides what is legitimate criticism and what is obscenity and slander? And the answer one gives depends on how one views the nature and value of diversity.

To understand this, we have to take a slight detour and look at what is meant by diversity and multiculturalism. Clarity is often difficult because multiculturalism has come to possess two meanings that are all too rarely distinguished. The first is the lived experience of diversity. The second is multiculturalism as a political process, the aim of which is to manage that diversity.

The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and celebrate.  It is a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different.  It requires the public recognition and affirmation of cultural differences. It insists that social justice requires not just that individuals are treated as political equals, but also that their cultural beliefs are treated as valid. And it describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage and institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.

The conflation of lived experience and political policy has proved highly invidious.  On the one hand, it has allowed many on the right – and not just on the right – to blame mass immigration for the failures of social policy and to turn minorities into the problem. On the other hand, it has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of liberty, such as an attachment to free speech, in the name of defending diversity.


The starting point of multicultural policy is the acceptance of societies as diverse. Yet, on the multicultural map, that diversity seems magically to vanish at the edges of minority communities. Multiculturalists tend to treat minority communities as if each was a distinct, singular, homogeneous, authentic whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. In so doing, multiculturalists all too often ignore conflicts within those communities. And they take the most conservative, reactionary figures as the authentic voices of those communities, precisely because they are reactionary and therefore must be authentic.

The claim that The Satanic Verses is offensive to Muslims, or Bezhti to Sikhs, or Jerry Springer to Christians, suggests that there is a Muslim community, and a Sikh community and a Christian community, all of whose members are offended by the work in question and whose ostensible leaders are the most suitable judges of what is and is not suitable for that community. But what is often called offence to a community is more often than not a dialogue or debate within that community. That is why so many of the flashpoints over offensiveness have been over works produced by minority artists – not just Salman Rushdie or Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, but Hanif Kuresihi, Monica Ali, Sooreh Hera, Taslima Nasrin, MF Hussain, and so on.

Shabir Akhtar no more spoke for Muslims than Salman Rushdie did. Both represented different strands of opinion. So did Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti and the protestors outside the Brimigham Rep outraged by her play Bezhti. But Shabir Akhtar has come to be seen as an authentic Muslim, and the anti-Bezhti protestors as proper Sikhs, while Salman Rushdie and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti are regarded as too Westernized, secular or progressive to be truly of their community.  To be a proper Muslim, in other words, is to be offended by The Satanic Verses, to be a proper Sikh is to be offended by Bezhti.  The argument that offensive talk should be restrained is, then, both rooted in a stereotype of what it is to be an authentic Muslim or a Sikh and helps reinforce that stereotype.  And it ensures that only one side of the conversation gets heard.

Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, which published the Danish cartoons, has observed how the idea of tolerance has in recent years been turned on its head. Tolerance used to mean the willingness ‘to be exposed to things you don’t like’, and  ‘to live with what you find distasteful, what you abhor’  Today, tolerance is ‘more about the ability to keep quiet and refrain from saying things that others may not care to hear’. The meaning of diversity has transformed in much the same way. Where once it used to mean the creation of a space for dissent and disagreement, now it describes a space where dissent and disagreement are expunged in the name of respect and tolerance, where in Tariq Modood’s words, people have ‘mutually to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’.

To defend the right to give offence, in other words, is not merely to defend free speech. It is also to defend diversity in its true sense. If we want the pleasures of pluralism, we have to accept the pain of being offended.

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  1. TJR

    I agree with most of what you say, but want to point out that “diversity”, like “multiculturalism”, has multiple meanings that are rarely distinguished between.

    In this context, “diversity” usually gets used as a euphemism for ethnic and national differences, and this seems to be how you are mostly using it.

    However, “diversity” in its normal definition indicates variation and difference, so in this context something like “everyone is different” or “everyone is allowed to be different”.

    So in the first sense “diversity” means, roughly speaking, variation in group label, whereas in the second sense it means between-individual variation.

    These two meanings are quite different, and the one does not imply the other, but almost every discussion of this topic I’ve seen has glossed over this difference and in effect conflated the two.

    In some of what you’re saying above you seem to be sort of hinting at this, without actually saying it.

    • Thanks for this. I agree that diversity can have a number of meanings. I am using it here simply to mean the existence of variety, in beliefs, values, lifestyles, etc, variety that provides the raw material of social engagement. I am suggesting that we should not see such variety merely in terms of group differences, nor should we ignore within-group differences.

      • TJR

        You seem to be switching between definitions a bit here. You say that you meant diversity in the “everyone is different” sense (diversity1), but in the article you seemed to be using it mostly in the “euphemism for ethnic and national differences” sense (diversity2). Indeed, one of the points of the article was that, to some extent, diversity2 can work against diversity1, or at least the free speech elements thereof.

      • I’m afraid you seem to have misread the article. Far from using diversity as a ‘euphemism for ethnic and national differences’, the point I am making is that it is multiculturalism that undermines much of what is good about diversity by institutionalizing ethnic, cultural and religious differences, by ‘putting people into boxes’.

      • TJR

        I disagree. You were quite careful in defining multiculturalism etc, but to the reader you do not seem to have been equally careful with the various uses of “diversity”. Hence my original comment. Of course you know what you meant, but it doesn’t necessarily come over that way to the reader.

    • TJR

      Sorry (and I’ll stop here) but I’ve just realised that I wasn’t clear enough before. My implicit point was that we are so used to people using “diversity” in the diversity2 sense that we tend to get in the habit of interpreting it in that way, unless the writer explicitly states otherwise.

  2. Aaron

    “This requires that we police pubic discourse about those cultures and beliefs, both to minimise friction between antagonistic groups and to protect the dignity of those individuals embedded in them.”

    Indeed, there is nothing worse than a wild, unpoliced pubic discourse. Without trimming the discourse will surely cause friction.

    • I am not opposed to people being polite and respectful (though I also think that politeness and respect are often overplayed virtues). That is very different, though, from insisting that it is wrong to offend others, or their beliefs, or that public discourse should be policed to ensure that such offence does not occur.

  3. AT

    Hi Kenan,

    Thanks for writing this. I think that it is a useful corrective to remind people that tolerance requires the ability to endure people having diametrically opposed views to your own.

    I do not personally recognise the way you portray the arguments for multiculturalism. I have always seen it as merely asserting that no culture can claim absolute superiority over another, because the values used to judge one another are themselves partly artifacts of our cultures (or our disillusionment from them). It is itself an argument for humility and not an argument for any particular way of either policing or promoting free speech.

    But I do think it is important you remind us that intolerance of other perspectives is not a mark of authenticity, but is just that: intolerance. And offence is offence, misunderstanding is misunderstanding, hatred is hatred, intimidation is intimidation and so forth.

    However who you interpret as being silenced, intimidated and being deprived of free speech will depend to some extend where you stand in terms of your identity, values and personal hopes and fears. One persons freedom to stigmatise, shame or express their hatred of another group, is the removal of another persons freedom to live without feeling fear, shame or devaluation just because of the group they belong to. The freedom to devalue others in return is meaningless to someone who does not wish to devalue others. The freedom to assert your own value without devaluing others is (as I see it) the freedom to advocate for a form of multiculturalism. In fact it feels to me more like a responsibility than a right.

    However if I were to assert this as a responsibility that flows from a commitment to avoid supremacism, perhaps you would consider me an advocate of censorship. Would that be so?

    • It depends on what you mean ‘supremacism’. If you mean that it is wrong to undermine or devalue other peoples’ or cultures’ beliefs or values, then I disagree. There are many values and beliefs I think it vitally important to undermine and devalue, and the ability to do so is at the heart of any plural, democratic society. If, on the other hand, you mean that it is wrong to stigmatize, or foment hatred against, a group, as opposed to the ideas, values or beliefs that members of such a group might hold, then I would agree. However, I also believe that the best way to deal with such hatred is not through censorship but through publicly confronting it. At the same time, it is, in my view, morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to stand up to bigotry. To argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge obnoxious, odious and hateful views seems to me immoral.

      • AT

        By supremacism I mean something like the belief that your own group is sufficiently superior to another group that you are entitled to expect and enforce their adherence to your own group’s norms or values. I think we might agree that such enforcement by force would be wrong, but enforcement by shaming is another matter.

        You say that it is wrong to stigmatise or foment hatred against a group, but not against their ideas. And I wish the distinction could be made in a clear-cut manner in practice. In principle I do think this is a valid distinction, but I assume you would agree that in practice identifying a group by beliefs (which some of their members may only tacitly hold and never act upon) then portraying those beliefs as a central issue which is beyond the pale can (in practice) be a form of villification fomenting hatred – or at least be sincerely perceived as such by some. And then who decides which forms of villification are fair comment or not?

        I do not think I have solved this problem, so I am not criticising your formulation as wrong, but I want to push this discussion with you to help clarify what you mean. Once you let fomenting hatred in as a valid reason for censorship, do we not get back to where we started with “this speech is offensive therefore here is a limit to free speech which is necessary for living in a free pluralist society”?

      • AT, I did not suggest that fomenting hatred is ‘a valid reason for censorship’. I suggested to the contrary that ‘the best way to deal with such hatred is not through censorship but through publicly confronting it’. We should not confuse what should be legal or permitted with what is morally right. That is the distinction I was drawing when I wrote that it is ‘morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to stand up to bigotry’ and that ‘to argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge obnoxious, odious and hateful views seems to me immoral’.

      • AT

        I appreciate your patient reiteration, Kenan. I am not trying to misconstrue you, but pointing out to the uncomfortable edges which means most people do not (in practice) support free speech, although we may wish to uphold it as an abstract principle.

        When you say we need to be more tolerant, and simultaneously argue that tolerance is shown by publicly confronting hatred and intolerance rather than legal crackdowns, you leave open several possibilities:

        1. That the call to hatred and scapegoating is more successful, more widely distributed and those confronting it are also stigmatised successfully for doing so as apologists for evil, appeasers and so forth.

        2. That people exercise their free speech to confront hate with hate-filled speech of their own, and the hostility escalates with those refusing to take sides with the same degree of hostility represented as weak-willed, treacherous or even a common enemy.

        3. That the public sphere becomes so toxic that it drives out people who have the most sensitivity to the very issues under discussions, as they are misrepresented in ways which makes speech counter-productive (or ineffective at best).

        And the reason I feel you might be sanguine about this is you are tacitly assuming a background of enforced nonviolence or equality. As Michael Fugate notes below, violence and inequality are key issues in contention – whose violence and which inequalities are legitimate and which are not. So part of the goal of hate-speech is to legitimise violence and oppression, and by arguing for counter-speech it suggests you agree that such speech can be effective, and assume counter-speech can be equally effective.

        If in some cases counter-speech is not effective and you find yourself on the losing side of some kind of pogrom, is that a price worth paying for free speech? If you failed to convince people of your own value, would you then blame yourself for not being rhetorically skilful enough to stop them? It does not strike me as a price worth paying, but I do not know how best to avoid such dynamics. I am not rhetorically skilled, so perhaps I perceive my value to be under greater threat than you do, and is that also fair enough?

        Do you see any of the problems I am getting at?

      • I am neither sanguine nor do I ‘assume a background of enforced nonviolence or equality’. I recognize, however, that you do not get rid of hatred by banning it. You simply let the sentiments fester underground. As Milton once memorably put it, ‘To keep out evil doctrine by licensing is like the exploit of that gallant man who sought to keep out crows by shutting his park gate’. To give but one example: the 1968 Race Relations Act in Britain made incitement to racial an offence. The next decade was possibly the most racist in modern British history, when ‘Paki bashing’ became a national sport, when assaults, stabbings, and firebombings were common, and murders not infrequent. Matters are different now, of course. It was not the law banning hatred that transformed Britain, but a myriad social changes, not least minorities directly challenging such racism. Censoring ugly ideas will not make them go away. Rather, such censorship is a means of abrogating our responsibility for dealing with hatred. It is precisely because I am not sanguine about bigotry that I take the view I do.

    • Michael Fugate

      AT, if someone – like many religious adherents – believes that women are inferior and should be subordinate, should I tolerate their views. Can I say my culture is superior on this issue – or is it just another opinion (no better, no worse)? How do I go about valuing my own view of equality without devaluing this community’s view of inequality? Should young girls who, through no fault of their own, get stuck with parents who believe they are inferior to boys just tolerate their bad luck and should I just stand by because, heaven forbid, someone might be offended or stigmatized or shamed because of their religious beliefs? Should I allow leaders of these communities to act as spokespeople or should I search out someone within the community who shares my view?

      You can choose to censor yourself any time you want – freedom of speech doesn’t force you to say anything. If you want to tolerate intolerance in others to prop up multiculturalism, then go for it.

      • AT

        Hi Michael Fugate, I agree I am free to censor myself. If you were living in a community where women were routinely devalued and you disagreed with this, I assume you would also sometimes value the freedom to censor yourself to not be stigmatised to no benefit to anyone.

        You may value the support from other communities where values are closer to your own, and decide to escape into them to some extent. But you might not necessarily feel it helps your cause if those who argue for women’s rights within your community simultaneously seem to use it to devalue the community as a whole. Especially if it means your own attempts to promote women’s rights are then interpreted in the same framework, as an attack on the group, rather than an attempt to benefit it through humane reforms.

        Dynamics like these means that stigma and shame are counter-productive to drawing some people towards your own values and disempower people within other communities who who share your values. So I try to censor my more self-righteous urges.

        So my concern is not with appeasing spokespeople of any community, but effectively supporting those in all communities who might share my values, and making space for us to act solidaristically.

      • Michael Fugate

        AT, 200+ words and not a single answer to a question I asked. Do you honestly believe that if I speak out against what I think is injustice it more likely to do harm than good? That it is self-righteous to attempt through words to make society egalitarian? That all of the anti-slavery speeches of the 19th c. and those of the civil rights movement in the 20th c. were a waste of breath and sent those movements backwards? You must be aware that the very fact of being of another faith or no faith offends certain people. That gay couples holding hands in public offends. That a woman without a veil offends. That eating meat offends. I frankly can’t see how I can live my life without offending someone somewhere. Hell, even if I were to kill myself to avoid offending people, I would offend someone else who thinks life sacred.

        Censorship solves nothing; it cannot erase ideas from individual brains. That can only happen through discussion, argumentation and education, but we have to acknowledge the other side first and let them speak. We have to let them put their misconceptions out on the table before we can challenge them. Silencing groups turns them into martyrs – “look my ideas are so powerful that they are afraid to let me speak.”

  4. Mr Cormorant

    “Thus, absolute political freedom is in the most vital interests of democracy, because it is the only way the population can acquire the needed antidotes to frenzied irrationality. It is, therefore, not just for their own sake that democracy must allow its opponents to express themselves freely. It is at least as much for democracy’s sake.”


    “The more strictly we limit and regulate people’s freedom of action for reasons of social equality, the more important it is to have unconditional freedom of speech – the freedom to criticise the current regime.”


    “Free art is never able dictate to the people, because each person decides for himself which books to read or not to read, which pictures to see or to give a miss, which broadcasts to listen to or to switch off. Coercion arises only if the people seek to define art, and it affects art first, and then the people, who no longer have free art to choose from”

    - Poul Henningsen, the lampshade bloke often cited by Rose as an influence, writing in 1945 (bis) and 1947. Not all his stuff has aged well, while his time of writing and his failure to foresee the Internet make him go a bit Godwin sometimes to modern ears, but his is an interesting voice and a corrective to those, like Wilders, who nowadays seek freedom of expression only for themselves.

  5. I thought it reasonable to open the essay with a quote from Salman Rushdie’s novel, satirising the divine origins of the Qur’an.

    I was wondering what that quote was….!?

    • This:

      Salman the Persian got to wondering what manner of God this was that sounded so much like a businessman. This was when he had the idea that destroyed his faith, because he recalled that of course Mahound himself had been a businessman, and a damned successful one at that… After that Salman began to notice how useful and well timed the angel’s revelations tended to be, so that when the faithful were disputing Mahound’s views on any subject, from the possibility of space travel and the permanence of Hell, the angel would turn up with an answer, and he always supported Mahound, stating beyond any shadow of a doubt that it was impossible that a man should ever walk upon the moon, and being equally positive on the transient nature of damnation.

  6. Fayyaz

    By your standard of freedom of speech, I guess then Mr. Khomenei has every right to issue fatwa against Salman Rushdie-after all it is his opinion and it is just a speech even if it incites violence ? What if I write a full paragraph of pornographic insults against this article in this space ? will it be ok? Who is to judge this freedom of speech?
    Every publication has the right set its policies, the writer can write whatever he/she wishes, but publication has the freedom to edit it or deny publication.

    What you are talking about is abuse of freedom of speech to shock and get the attestation and not responsible discussion of difference of opinions. Offending just for the sake of offending does not advance the cause of freedom of speech, it just gives cover to bigots and racists like Cartoonist you mentioned.


    • No, by my standards, the line between the legal and illegal should be the incitement to violence. There is, however, a big difference between the giving of offence and the inciting of violence, a difference you seem to gloss over. Of course, every publication has ‘the right set its policies’; I have never suggested otherwise. That does not mean that I cannot criticize a publication (or a museum or a theatre or a broadcaster) for the decision it takes, for what it deems to be acceptable or unacceptable, or to insist that the refusal to offend is an undermining of free speech.

      You ask ‘Who is to judge freedom of speech?’. That was precisely the question I asked. Who decides what is ‘abuse of freedom of speech to shock’ and what is ‘responsible discussion of difference of opinions’? The Dutch politician Geert Wilders wants to ban the Qur’an on the grounds that it promotes hatred. By your standard of freedom of speech, I assume that you think he is right to do so? If you think otherwise, why should we rely on your judgment as to what is acceptable and unacceptable, rather than Wilders’? Shabir Akhtar insisted that The Satanic Verses was ‘hate speech’? Do you agree with him? If not, why not?

      As for free speech providing ‘cover’ for racists and bigots, I wrote in my comment to AT above, that I think it ‘morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to stand up to bigotry’ and that ‘to argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge obnoxious, odious and hateful views seems to me immoral’. Don’t confuse what should be allowed with what is morally right.

      • AT

        What is your definition of “incitement to violence”, Kenan?

        It seems to be a key line in the sand, so I think if I understood how it would be enforced in a non-discriminatory manner, I would be much more comfortable with your overall argument.

      • Fayyaz

        I think Salman Rushdie is a great intellectual. He has the ability and intellectual capacity to write an intellectually challenging critical analysis of Islam, but instead he chose a crude and vulgar method to offend Muslims and wrote Satanic Verses. His objective was to offend Muslims-and he chose intellectually lazy and easy way out by writing Satanic Verses.

        I do not know whether Satanic verses was a hate speech, but it was to offend Muslims just for the sake of offending and get cheap publicity- under the cover of freedom of speech. In my judgment such abuse of freedom of speech is also immoral.


      • AT, my definition is what it says on the tin – the direct incitement to commit an act of violence. There has to be both a direct link between speech and action and intent on the part of the speaker that that particular act of violence be carried out. In ordinary criminal cases, incitement is, rightly, very difficult legally to prove. The burden of proof should not be loosened just because hate speech may be involved.

  7. Fayyaz

    Your these comments.

    “Fayyaz, your view provides a very good reason as to why perceptions of offence should not be the basis for censorship.”

    I am not in favor of censorship either. I think If someone has to make a point or express an opinion , one should do so even if it is offensive to others. But I think one has the responsibility to express oneself in the least offensive way possible. If one deliberately chooses the most offensive way possible, then motive is to offend and not express an opinion. I think the writer/ speaker has the personal responsibility, not outside body, to make a judgement. Similarly the publication has to make a judgment whether the material is to express an opinion or mainly to offend others.


    • Sure, there is a distinction between the right to free speech and the wisdom of exercising such a right in a particular fashion, a point The I have made many times. Take, for instance, The Innocence of Muslims, the risibly crude and bigoted anti-Muslim video that provoked so much controversy and violence last year. I would defend the right of such a film to be made, but I would also question the wisdom of making it, and would strongly challenge the sentiments expressed in it. It makes little sense, however, to view the distinction between the right to speech and the wisdom of exercising such a right in a particular fashion in terms of ‘expressing oneself in the least offensive way possible’. It is, as I have suggested, often important that people offend others. To say that something is offensive is often another way of saying that certain ideas, beliefs and forms of power that people do not wish to be challenged are being challenged. To demand that one should always minimize the giving of offence is to demand that one should always minimize the challenge to such ideas, beliefs and forms of power. In the case of, say, The Satanic Verses, the problem lay not in Salman Rushdie causing offence but in people taking offence. That is true in most such cases.

      • Fayyaz

        Your comment ” The Satanic Verses, the problem lay not in Salman Rushdie causing offence but in people taking offence.”

        I think you are laying lot of omen and gag order on the victim of offence and giving a free ride to the writer. The victim of an offence, actual or perceived, has the right to protest, it is not a ” problem””but right.
        No one has the right to resort to violence,but everyone has the right to protest against offence.

        Words has power, influence and consequences-both positive and negative-otherwise why write?They can cut like a knife and sooth like a balm. Freedom of speech comes with responsibility.Most of distinctions you mentioned are to some extent arbitrary used by some writers to escape responsibility. See following comments by Zoe Heller on Salman Rushdie:

        “More troubling, however, than his exaggerated claim to naiveté is the case that Rushdie seems to be making for fiction’s immunity from political or religious anger. In a departure from the standard, liberal notion that literature must be free to offend, he proposes that literature, properly understood, cannot offend. Muslims who were insulted by The Satanic Verses were guilty of a category error: just like Anis Rushdie, in his “unsophisticated” reading of Midnight’s Children, they had confused fiction with other sorts of speech:

        In his famous essay “Outside the Whale,” written five years before the fatwa, Rushdie attacked various books and films for propagating imperialist myths about the nature of Indo-British relations during the Raj. (He argued, for example, that the rape plot at the center of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet endorsed a racist fantasy about the sexual threat posed to white colonial women by “lust-crazed wogs.”) Novels, he claimed, could not be excused from criticism of this sort on grounds that they were “just” fiction: all art, in as much as it ventured to assert “what is the case, what is truth and what untruth,” was inescapably political, and part of “the unceasing storm, the continual quarrel, the dialectic of history.”


      • 1. Sure, people can people can feel offended about what they will. And they have the right to protest, even in the most offensive terms if they so wish. What they don’t have is the right not to be offended.

        2. It is true that words are important and have power, but they do not ‘cut like a knife’ except in a metaphorical sense. Part of the problem in this whole debate is the confusion of the metaphorical and the real.

        3. There are many responsibilities we may wish to place upon writers – the responsibility, for instance, to speak the truth, to fight injustice, to challenged conventional views, etc. But the last thing we should do is place responsibility upon writers not to give offence. In fact were writers to take that as their starting point, it would be an abrogation of their responsibilities as writers. It is also a notion of ‘responsibility’ with which most authoritaran regimes would every happy; indeed it is a notion of responsibility that many continually use to shut down debate.

        4. You are right that when it comes to free speech, literature does not, and should not, occupy a privileged place. You are right, too, that fiction, like any piece of writing, cannot in any way be protected from criticism. But to criticize a piece of writing, whether The Satanic Verses or the Raj Quartets, is not the same as saying that it should not have been written, or that the author must take responsibility for people being offended by it.

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