Sunday, 11 January 2015

After Charlie Hebdo: defending free speech. Or are we?

A million people are marching Paris, including 40 world leaders, to demonstrate their solidarity against terrorism and in favour of free speech.

Well, up to a point anyway.

Marching against terrorism. But not perhaps for freedom of speech
They don’t like terrorism, which is rather like saying one doesn’t like the plague: a worthy sentiment with which most of us probably agree, but hardly strikingly original or insightful.

They do like free speech. Now there’s a much more interesting notion. And a much more questionable one.

Ever since the attack on Charlie Hebdo, voices have been raised across the political spectrum in favour of an unfettered right to free speech, as though this were somehow the touchstone of democracy. The reality is rather more complex. For instance, to give the old counter-example, no one feels there should be an absolute right to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre that isn’t, as it happens, on fire. Most of us would regard that as an abuse of free speech and feel it ought to be proscribed.

Which means that we favour limiting free speech.

But then we don’t much like libel or slander either. Incitement. Conspiracy. The freedom to use speech in these ways is limited in all democratic societies, and it’s legitimate to do so. Or at least it’s legitimate to do so up to a certain point. London, for instance, is regarded as the libel capital of the world. Some wealthy man who wants to sue a publication that has offended him will look for evidence of its having been distributed in England, so that he can sue there: the burden of proof is so slanted to the defendant that it makes it far easier to win his case.

If we were that keen on freedom of speech, we’d see English libel laws made far less draconian. Sadly, however, even though both the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, will be marching for free speech in Paris, I don’t expect either to come up with any proposals for reform any time soon.

The danger of the abuse of free speech is nowhere more blatantly demonstrated than in the United States. The first amendment right is constantly invoked to justify massively expensive TV advertising for political campaigns, or indeed huge contributions to those campaigns. What on the face of it sounds like a defence of democratic values is in reality a distortion of them: the effect is to subordinate politicians to donors and therefore lobbyists. Only those with the deepest pockets can make their voices heard in Washington.

To understand just how grave, even life-threatening, that can be, we need only consider that the events that have shocked France and the world cost 17 lives. In December 2012, 26 lives were taken in the shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Twenty were children. The National Rifle Association with its bottomless campaign chest was easily able to outmanoeuvre the bereaved parents and their supporters, and make sure that precisely nothing was done to prevent such an event happening again.

Finally, there’s an even greater difficulty with campaigning for this particular right. It’s easy to demand it for people with whom one agrees, or whose position one is reasonably close to: some of us may feel that Charlie Hebdo didn’t need to be quite as offensive as it often was, even though we defend its right to be as offensive as it chooses. But if we truly believe in freedom of speech, we believe in it for everyone.

Now I believe that Al Qaida and ISIS are vile organisations and the sooner they vanish into the sewer of history, the better. However, if I want to be seen as a real champion of freedom of speech, I have an obligation to defend the right of individuals to speak up in their support.

As long as they’re not slandering anyone, inciting anyone to break the law or conspiring with anyone to commit a crime, if I truly believe in free speech, I have to back ISIS and Al Qaida supporters’ right to speak in favour of their cause.

Lots of people keep quoting the fine old principle that, while I may not agree with your view, I will defend to the death your right to express it.

Will they defend to the death the right to speak up for the jihadists’ aims? Will the million marching in Paris? Will the political leaders who have joined them?

Ah, freedom of speech. A trickier subject than some imagine.


Awoogamuffin said...

I thought of this post as I read this in the guardian this morning:

“It is intolerable that there is a hashtag on social media saying #IamKouachi,” Cukierman said. He branded the tweets as “an apology for murder” which should be pursued through the courts.

David Beeson said...

Excellent point! What price of freedom of speech really?