It is time for those who believe in freedom of speech to stand and be counted for

This article was originally published in Trinity News
‘It’s now very common to hear people say, “I’m rather offended by that”, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. “I’m offended by that.” Well, so fucking what?’

So said Stephen Fry, for whom the issue is very clear cut. Unfortunately, for many people, and indeed the broader society, it is not. Last September, a movie trailer of questionable origin went viral on YouTube, provoking a wave of violence which swept across northern Africa and the Middle East. The reason for the violence was that the video both visually displayed and mocked the Prophet Mohammed. Following a number of attacks on American embassies, both Barrack Obama and Hilary Clinton condemned not only the attacks but the anti-Islamic video which provoked them. This was perhaps a politically sensible move to diffuse the situation, separating the US Government from the creators of the hate video. Yet a similar case in France is less clear cut.

In the wake of the murder of US Ambassador Christopher Stephens – then assumed to be as a direct result of the Innocence of Muslims video – the Charlie Hebdo published satirical images of the Prophet Mohammed. This was an obvious protest against the lengths to which extremists were willing to go to avenge insults towards their faith. The French Government’s response was quick, condemning the decision to publish these images on the basis that could put their embassies at risk. It was unwise, the government said, to add fuel to the fire – thus implying that the Charlie Hebdo, which has a case history in mocking religious figures, could be seen as morally responsible for any Islamist reprisals. Reprisals, I might add, that wouldn’t take place within French borders.

This reflects a new broader definition of moral responsibility has been gaining favour over the last few decades. Instead of being held responsible for crimes you commit, you may also be held responsible for the things you say, if they inspire or provoke others to commit crimes. Most western countries place restrictions on hate speech, and it may be argued that these do not restrict “constructive” debate. Yet it is undoubtable that some would like to see these restrictions be extended. And where the law does not restrict the discussion of controversial topics, there are other practical restrictions which are just as serious.

This is a topic which the University Philosophical Society would be all too familiar with. When a little over a year ago, it extended an invitation to Nick Griffin of the BNP to speak at a debate on immigration, the objectors were not slow to show their presence. “No free speech for fascists” was the slogan of the day. Given the fact that many of the BNP leader’s followers have a history of racial violence, it was that deemed anyone that offered him a platform shared some of their moral responsibility.

The protesters themselves were not the only ones who bought into this kind of thinking. As tensions mounted, the Phil found itself bogged down in security concerns. It had the responsibility to protect its guests against a presumably large group of outside protesters, a task it could not fulfill on its own. After a fruitless discussion with the college authorities, the debate was cancelled. Violence and intimidation had won the day.

It might argued that intimidating a college debating society is quite easy, and is not enough evidence on its own that freedom of speech is under threat. Surely if the free press can still discuss important and controversial issues, we still might outlive this era of over the top politically correctness? Right? I wish I could say yes, however the fact that the Charlie Hebdo faced the public denunciation of its government shows that this trend may have advanced farther than we may think. The fact is that we’re living in an era where he or she who can assemble the most protesters, tweet the most messages, send the most emails, and – God forbid – burn the most embassies, dictates what can and cannot be discussed in public. This state of affairs may be of our own making, yet there is still time to unmake it.

It is time for those who believe in freedom of speech to stand and be counted for. Our message much be clear: though we must accept that people will regard us differently for the views we express, we are not responsible for what they choose to do about it. Neither the state nor any any individual or group has the right to punish people for simple bad manners, and it is high time we accepted this.

    • Elizabeth Tyndall
    • January 8th, 2015

    Yes! At last. I’ve been thinking about this and I really do believe it’s all down to good manners. It’s not polite to make fun of people or their deeply held beliefs. However, good manners cannot and should not be policed from without – they must always be an act of self censorship. As long as external authority (the State, religions or whatever) demands special or considerate treatment, backed up by threats, it’s time for bad manners to break out. A veritable firestorm of bad manners, no holds barred, all fair game, from every direction until it becomes generally accepted that the right response to bad manners is counter argument, a retort or dignified silence. Then we can all go back to showing good manners again.

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