Talk to most people about freedom of speech, and they’ll advocate the right of people living in a free society to anything they want – within limits. Support for “pure” free speech is never as prevalent as it seems; there are always qualifications. There are legal restrictions against certain types of speech that would go against the law of the land (incitement to murder, racial hatred et al). Therefore, “pure” free speech is an illusion in any organised society. However, as the world gets smaller and communication and travel grow ever easier, cultures and beliefs will run up against each other and one person’s free speech will be another person’s incitement.
Witness the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. If you were reading the news in late January/early February ’06 you’ll know what happened, so I’m not going to re-link all the news stories (the Wikipedia entry has a decent potted history). What struck me on reading further was how manufactured the controversy was. A group of Danish Imams had toured the Middle East with a dossier of the cartoons, which happened to include three obscene and racist ones which weren’t published by JP. (One of them wasn’t even a cartoon.) The newspaper apologised to anyone who might have been offended, but that wasn’t enough for extremists who wanted the Danish government to apologise (a stupid and impossible demand, as Denmark has an independant media), and then stirred up hatred towards Denmark, other European countries, and anyone who republished the cartoons, Christian or Muslim. For them, the cartoons weren’t offensive. It was the climate of free speech that allows the mockery of dogma and hypocrisy that they find offensive.
It was a very odd time. Protestors in London carried placards saying “Kill Those Who Insult Islam” and “Freedom of Speech Go To Hell”. Funny, they were all for it when they were carrying those placards – but dead against when it concerns Danish cartoonists. Were those placards part of the give-and-take of opinion that defines a free society such as Britain? Well, yes and no. I was outraged at the opinions expressed at the protest, and surprised that no arrests were made. At the same time, it created a backlash by Muslims against those extremists who claimed to share their religion. (UPDATE: As of 15/3/06, three people have been charged over their role in the protests.)
David Irving, of course, was not nearly as fortunate. The liberal arguments against his prison sentence seemed to ignore the fact that he had simply fallen foul of the law in Austria, and this was no sinister PC conspiracy. If he had said the same things to a far-right conference in the US (as he had been intending to), he’d still be a free man. I think that the Austrians had every right to prosecute him, given their history and sincere wish to to make amends, but that jailing him will in and of itself be counterproductive. As he alleges himself to be a historian, his views should be challenged by the standards of historiography. During his libel action against Deborah Lipstadt, the historian Richard J. Evans completely discredited Irving. His evidence proved then and proves still that Irving is no historian, but a shady character who twists the facts to fit his prejudices.
Which brings us nicely to Dr. Frank Ellis, of the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies of Leeds University. I came across a decent post on Ellis’ racist comments and his seeming desire to turn himself from a previously obscure academic into a free speech martyr:
Why is the nature of Ellis’ defence important? It tells us he wants to be a martyr. Unable to prove his position with legitimate (peer-reviewed) evidence, he’s instead looking for proof that the liberal elite Guardian reading establishment is silencing him.
I wrote previously that his belief that there was scientific proof that black people have on average a lower IQ than white people meant he was unable to think logically, and therefore shouldn’t be teaching, let alone in a university. I still believe that. But nevertheless, the overwhelming emotion when I wrote my post was visceral disgust. I didn’t want this man at my university. I wanted him out. I wanted him kicked down the stairs of the Parkinson Building to lie sprawled face-down in a litter of fast-food wrappers and discarded club flyers (bit of local colour for you there). If someone’s views are that repugnant, you find it hard to acknowledge that they can be talked to, rather than just shouted down. However, the only way to combat bigotry is to argue with it, defeating every point as it comes up, forcing their retreat into muttered accusations of “political correctness” and conspiracy theories, and eventual shamefaced silence. Don’t sack Ellis. Prove him wrong, and then let him resign without honour when he’s been comprehensively discredited.
This is why Irving is by and large a spent force, at least outside the neo-Nazi gutter. This is why jailing him seems slightly superfluous – his greatest punishment was the destruction of his reputation at the Lipstadt libel trial. This is why silly cartoons should never give extremists a free pass to insult “the West” and its freedoms. Free speech means the right to give and take offence, the right to argue your point against others, the right to be wrong, stupid, bigoted, hateful and offensive. There will be a lot of arguing. But if you’re on the side of truth, you will eventually win.
Wow, this really is a big post. I bashed through this pretty quickly, so didn’t have time to link in all the other articles and posts I’ve read recently that inspired me to write this. Here’s a few of them; they’re all worth reading.
Liberal Elite: I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.
Normblog: Mockery of the Dead