Thursday, March 16, 2006


"The concept of free speech [...] got into a mess [...] because we persist in the notion of a 'right' as something to be claimed rather than accorded. While claim and counter-claim are presented as absolutes, this is a debate that not only will have no resolution but cannot have a resolution," says Tom Stoppard in today's Guardian Review. Well, bugger it - here's my two pennyworth to that debate anyway.

Freedom of Expression is often spoken of a philosophy in itself, or at least as an outpost of liberal democracy. But because its absolutist advocates tend to sit on the liberal democratic side of the fence, Freedom of Expression is seen as an ideologically neutral topic, one which can be discussed in the abstractest of terms.

So let's remove this abstraction and talk about something more concrete. We could talk about Irving, or Danish cartoons, or Abu Hamza etc etc. These are all very relevant topics. But I'd like to talk about something which I once experienced.

When I was at University, the Free Speech Society pedlared their wares at the Freshers' Week Fair. As it happened, one of the big cheeses of the Free Speech Society has gone on to become a leading light in the BNP. He was on trial with Nick Griffin earlier this year on charges of inciting racial hatred. He was acquitted, but he and his party are, of course, overtly fascist. I'm sure he would not try to (or even want to) deny this charge.

At two consecutive Union AGMs, there were proposals to ban the Free Speech Society from campus. The first proposal failed; the second succeeded overwhelmingly. Why? Because at the first AGM, the protagonists of the Free Speech Society (who were overtly and obviously arrogant, racist pseudo-intellectuals) stayed away. Freedom of Expression remained an abstract, and who could vote against such a thing? But at the second AGM, where other political groups and individuals had nailed the FSS as a student branch of the National Front, these protagonists were forced to turn up and defend themselves. They were thus seen as the racists - and potentially physically violent racists - that they were. They didn't stand a chance.

Freedom of Expression is not a concept in itself. It is inextricably linked to another freedom - the freedom to commit acts of violence - and a limitation, that imposed by power relations. To not vote for the expulsion of the Free Speech Society from campus would have implicitly meant subjecting vulnerable groups to violence. This is precisely what backing Jyllands-Posten's decision to publish anti-Islamic cartoons means. To suggest, as some free speech absolutists have conveniently suggested, that J-P is attempting to ignite debate around Islam, is absurd. The newspaper is operating from a particular ideological viewpoint (it famously refused to print blasphemous images of Christ), and out of a country whose race relations are somewhat parlous. This is not to say that they did not have the right to publish the cartoons, but merely to say that they were wrong to act on that right.

As one of the panellists at the Guardian debate pointed out, if Freedom of Expression (which I will persist in writing with capital letters) is an absolute, it must have parity with other absolutes, such as religious ones, or other political ones. Otherwise, the liberal democratic notion of free speech (which is, after all, the notion which is under discussion) falls prey to the accusation that it imposes itself on others. There are clear parallels (which follow the inevitable link between freedom of speech and freedom of committing acts of violence) with the invasion of Iraq. One of the several claims for invading Iraq was to "liberate" its people from tyranny. The disastrous aftermath of that invasion appears almost irrelevant in this context (the context being that Iraqis had no say in whether they were liberated or not), but actually it is very relevant, since the imposition of Western-style democracy has betrayed its posturing.

There are links as well to the notion of freedom of markets. The neoliberal model of free markets is anything but free - it relies heavily on an impositional approach (hence the interventions of bodies such as the G8, the World Bank, NGOs etc). The suggestion made by Gary Younge that the right to free speech must entail the right to be offended can thus be extended to the military and economic interventions perpetrated by the powerful against the powerless today. The right of the oppressed to fight back - frequently denied by the very people who preach the sacrosanctity of freedom of speech - must be protected at every opportunity. Particularly when, as in the case of Danish Muslims following the publication of the cartoons, the right to be offended actually means facing the reality of increased threats from a hostile society.


Blogger Comandante Gringo said...

Just wait till when we insist on standing on our right to fight back against the neoliberal order... It loox like we'll have to go thru the French -- bourgeois -- Revolution all over again -- forget the socialist one!

8:39 PM  

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