On free speech, a first draft


by Sunny
30th May, 2006 at 9:53 am    

This is a first draft laying out a series of arguments why ethnic minority groups should oppose embrace freedom of speech and avoid censorship.

Why there is a need for such perspective, I will explain later. Though I suspect most of you know why. Please feel free to add to this list and debate the points. I hope to use it for a comment is free article later too.

Censorship and violence
Most attempts at censorship by religious groups come with implicit threats of violence or death threats. It happened with Salman Rushdie, the play Behzti, Jerry Springer, Danish cartoons, Abdul Rahman and the Hindu paintings. Journalists get harassed, and in South Asia frequently killed, over expressing views or reporting stories that do not sit well with religious fanatics.

On a lesser-known scale people such as Sonia Deol, Kala Afghana, Deepa Mehta and many others have faced intimidation or death threats from religious groups. Censorship on religious grounds and violence go hand in hand. Unless we openly oppose the former, the latter will not go away.

Double standards
In an unbalanced power relationship total freedom of speech is the best tool that minority groups have to get their voices heard and grievances acknowledged. When faced with widespread censorship it is always the marginalised groups who are silenced first.

As an example let’s take the Muslim Council of Britain’s approach. The MCB strongly campaigned for new legislation to outlaw incitement to hatred and violence on religious grounds. It was opposed to speech that was seen as offensive to Muslims. Yet it campaigned against the government’s proposals to outlaw glorification of terror and has opposed extremist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir being banned.

In effect it is saying that while people should not be allowed to be offensive towards Islam, Muslim groups such as HuT should have the freedom to be offensive to Jews, other non-Muslims, western values and governments, and that people should be allowed to provide financial and vocal support to terrorist groups in Palestine, Kashmir and other parts of the world.

Similarly, Sikh groups even tried to convict Behzti’s writer Gurpreet Bhatti as inciting hatred against Sikhs!

A government should not be allowed to target or exempt specific groups from what they can or cannot say. Freedom of speech legislation should be broad and applied equally otherwise it fails in its objective. With the boundaries on what is acceptable and what is not being vague, the only realistic answer is to make it legal to allow complete political freedom on speech.

Supressing women and the disadvantaged
Attempts at censorship usually hurt the disadvantaged and marginalised the most, and this applies within minority groups too. Within them, it is usually the community leaders who hold the balance of power, supressing marginalised groups such as women (and lower castes in South Asia) from freely expressing their thoughts.

As Rahila Gupta pointed out last year, women are frequently suppressed from voicing concerns over cultural practices, corruption within religious insitutions, rapes by religious leaders and so on.

During the Salman Rushdie affair when Muslims formed Women against Fundamentalism, they were threatened and intimidated by men.

Making assumptions
Not wanting to allow racists or xenophobes from saying what they want also underestimates the intelligence of most Britons to see through bigoted and racist worldviews. It also underestimates the strength of our own communities to deal with such racial or xenophobic slurs. Not all of us are as helpless and liable to breakdown at every someone says something offensive.

Democractic engagement
It is part of living in a democracy that we should get used to hearing things we may not want to. That applies to citizens as much as it applies to telling the government when it is wrong.


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  1. Ismaeel — on 30th May, 2006 at 10:13 am  

    I think you mean for freedom of speech not oppose freedom of speech, although to be honest Sunny, anything is possible with u

  2. Ismaeel — on 30th May, 2006 at 10:19 am  

    Sunny, there is no such thing as total freedom of speech anywhere, nor will there ever be, so campaign all you want you’re gonna be banging your head on a brick wall.

    Anyway this is all a misnomer anyway, most Asian people from whatever background are for the right of freedom of speech but they are also for the responsibility of being civil towards others. If you are against people having this responsibility then you are pretty much advocating anarchy.

  3. Kismet Hardy — on 30th May, 2006 at 11:04 am  

    (sing to any Willie Nelson tune)

    Don’t get narky over anarchy
    Put a smile on your face Ismaeel
    Let the people, let the people be free
    And while away, while away the while

  4. Kismet Hardy — on 30th May, 2006 at 11:08 am  

    Na-na-na-na-na-na la-la-la

    Singalong now

  5. Jai — on 30th May, 2006 at 11:17 am  

    Kismet,

    Your regular paagalisms are very amusing ;)

  6. Kismet Hardy — on 30th May, 2006 at 11:36 am  

    Phew. I thought you said plagarism there for a second.

    Not that I earn my living ripping off articles from the Internet or anything…

  7. S — on 30th May, 2006 at 11:45 am  

    “Anyway this is all a misnomer anyway, most Asian people from whatever background are for the right of freedom of speech but they are also for the responsibility of being civil towards others. If you are against people having this responsibility then you are pretty much advocating anarchy.”

    Yes let’s have a right to say inoffensive things. Those with the thinnest skins can decide what is offensive.

  8. Kismet Hardy — on 30th May, 2006 at 11:58 am  

    Good idea of S. If I may set the free speecometer into motion

    I am a Muslim and I’m a dick.

    My brother is a Muslim and he’s a knob.

    My dad is a Muslim and he’s an arsehole.

    My uncles are Muslim and they’re all wankers.

    My cousins are Muslim and they’re all fuckers.

    My boss is a Muslim and he’s a cunt.

    It would be fair to say all the Muslims I know are dicks, knobs, wankers, arseholes and fuckers.

    A sub-editor could quite rightly whittle this down as: ‘Kismet Hardy thinks all Muslims are genetalia’

    Do I get shot now?

  9. Robert — on 30th May, 2006 at 12:09 pm  

    Sunny,

    It is worth pointing out that all of your examples cite religions being offended. To what extent is the ‘freedom of speech’ issue just a sub-issue of how the religious must cope with the fact they have to live with a bunch of smirking, irreverant agnostics. It might be worth comparing your points with, say, something about how the BNP excercise their freedom of speech, and how we (and the Asian community in particular) have to tolerate it.

    The other point about freedom of speech, is that trying to supress it is counter-productive. In this global world of mass igital communication, trying to suppress a painting, a cartoon or a book is only going to draw attention to it!

  10. Arif — on 30th May, 2006 at 12:41 pm  

    Trying to be serious….

    Sunny I think that marshalling a range of credible arguments, may be effective political activism, but isn’t developing a long-term political philosophy. In this debate I think underlying principles matter even at a tactical level because you are wading into a hypersensitive political arena where suspicious people are going to want to check out your deeper agenda.

    Equating censorship with violence is no more or less convincing to me than equations of humiliation and violence. I think this argument just draws attention to how we don’t care if people are offended unless they add in a threat of violence. In this way, we are to some extent responsible for perpetuating these threats if theya re the only things which offend us enough to care about issues.

    The argument about double standards is fine, but we are all guilty of it, and that is why I think a debate on free speech should be more humble – letting us point out each others’ blind spots in a way which allows us to explore our own feelings and develop a more complex and consistent attitude to issues.

    Suppressing minorities is also a consequence of many dynamics. Sometimes free speech also becomes so one-sided that it becomes part of the reason for the oppression of women and minorities. Pornography is one (perceived) example. Attempts to censor pornography have been found to backfire in North America, since the first places the police go to are to censor books which argue against pornography using examples of those practices, or to shut down bookshops of sexual minorities, rather than the pornography considered oppressive iself. What does this tell us? Nothing could or should be done? Or that other means need to be found? Or to keep censoring until new imagery takes its place and the consequent historical oppression slowly lifts? Or is censorship just the first step in ensuring we respect one another in deeds as well as words? You suggest counter-speech, but how successful can and should this be according to your own principles?

    When it comes to assumptions – not all of us are helpless, but also not all of us are confident in the cut and thrust of public debate or whatever means of free speech is valued.

    As for our model of democracy. We should all be able to listen to things we disagree with, but then is it really engagement to stigmatise the speaker and expect them to listen to words that offend them in turn? Unless there is mutual respect there will be no dialogue and democracy becomes meaningless to me. There is no mutual learning and accommodation, just a competition for power over a fragmented society full of resentments.

    I would ask you to consider a second draft which is for respectful dialogue rather than free speech.

  11. Don — on 30th May, 2006 at 12:44 pm  

    Surely non-religious grievances (racial profiling for stop & search, for example) are almost always ammenable to the normal (admittedly imperfect) process of debate in any liberal society? Both sides will generally be arguing the balance between mutually agreed ‘goods’; civil liberties and security, etc.

    There are exceptions, animal rights extremists being a case in point. But by and large, even heated arguments about civic/secular issues are conducted within a framework both sides recognise.

    When religion makes demands, however, one side has a fixed, non-negotiable starting point which is immune from rational examination. God said… . If the other side cannot accept this premise there is no-where to go
    but into a spiral of mutual indignation and resentment.

    Where secular groups have a malevolent agenda (BNP, anti-gay rights, etc)they can usually be relied upon to reveal themselves for what they are once they try to articulate their views.

    So it seems reasonable to focus on religious pressure groups as being the most intractable opponents of free speech.

    Having said that, perhaps Sunny could add a clause detailing his position on speech which incites violence in a context where that incitement might reasonably be considered as likely to have consequences. I’m thinking partly of the way radio stations exacerbated the Lozzels and Sydney beach violence, not to mention the part hate speech played in Rwanda.

    There are legal restraints on this at the moment and I know that some generally reasonable posters here (Amir for example) feel that absolute freedom of speech should extend to this too.

  12. Roger — on 30th May, 2006 at 1:21 pm  

    The old definitions “liable to lead to a breach of the peace” or “not shouting fire in a crowded theatre” work very well in a homogenous society with its own unspoken- and perhaps unrecognised- limitations. The problem comes with a society where many different and diametrically opposed opinions exist, especially when- as with religion- some of those opinions are supposed to have a higher level of truth [and need a lower level of evidence for their truth] than others.

    Actually, it’s possible to argue- as Karl Popper did- that if there are going to be limitations to freedom of speech then the first people who should be silenced are the ones who want to establish a society that limits freedom of speech: the more eager people are to limit freedom of speech, the less right they should have to say so.

    The problem with Ismaeel’s civility agenda is that it insists on two levels: if- say- the quran says homosexuality is an “abomination” muslims have freedom of speech to say so because it is a religious belief; on the other hand, if someone alleges Mohamed was a paedophile because he allegedly had sex with his nine-year-old wife that is a breach of civility. In fact, one problem with civility is the role of Mohamnmed: to a muslim he is the prophet- the bearer of the word of god. To nonmuslims he is a man who untruthfully- for whatever reason- claimed to have the word of god. Is there a civil term for such a man?

  13. sunray — on 30th May, 2006 at 1:34 pm  

    what is ‘freedom’ of …….?

    Freedom to slag, twist, paint, offend religion ‘A’ in some ways. That is Freedom.

    Is the same freedom then given to the ‘protector’ (ie those who feel offended) of that religion A?
    and
    Is the protector not allowed to use his ‘freedom’ to raise oposition to the ‘offense’?

    Does ‘freedom’ stop when threats are used?
    But other ‘freedom’ can continue even if offense is used?

    Is this then all about ‘Offense’ versus ‘threats’?

    At what point can something be offensive?
    Is anything ever offensive if we are to preserve ‘freedom’?

    I hope it makes sense :(

  14. Sunny — on 30th May, 2006 at 2:05 pm  

    Keep the (serious) responses coming folks, I’ll respond a bit later on.

    I do want to add to this about having mutual respect for each other, but I think that will come, as Don says, once we atleast have some sort of a common framework.

  15. j0nz — on 30th May, 2006 at 4:21 pm  

    Well keep it up Sunny :)

    Your earlier faux pas with the wording reminds me of when I went onto Jamal’s site and commented about Bin Laden, saying that in hand to hand combat, I would kiss his arse. I meant kick, obviously!

  16. David — on 30th May, 2006 at 4:47 pm  

    The “mutual repect” thing is essential when engaged in dialogue, as Arif pointed out. Debate quickly becomes meaningless, if not impossible, without civility.

    However, debate is not the only form of discourse in a democracy, and the principles of free speech do not apply only to dialogue. Satire also has a very important place, and it is older than any of the religions which have currently been seeking special protection from it.

    Ismaeel, for example, thinks:

    defending the honor of the Prophet (PBUH) and making the world a better place go hand in hand for any Muslim, because all the teachings that can make this world a better place find their origin in him (PBUH).

    a claim which is pefectly easy to agree or disagree with civilly in a friendly dialogue. But if someone has examined that claim and found it to be unfounded and ludicrous, he is pefectly entitled to satirise and mock it to its very core. Ismaeel doesn’t have to look or listen.

    Only totalitarians seek exemption from satire.

  17. Roger — on 30th May, 2006 at 7:08 pm  

    Not mutual respect for each other, actually. Mutual respect for the peaceful exchange of opinions. You can despise an opinion and respect the right to hold and express it.

  18. Katy Newton — on 30th May, 2006 at 7:42 pm  

    If we don’t let people say what they think without fear of repercussions then we will never be able to deal with the prejudices, assumptions, misconceptions and stereotypes that lead to racism.

    There has to be a limit. I find it offensive when people say that they hate Jewish people, or that Jewish people secretly run the world/media/banking system (if that’s true I really wish they’d get round to sorting out my overdraft), but I’d still rather know if someone feels that way. Saying “I think we should all go out and shoot Jewish people” is a different kettle of fish. I appreciate that there are times when the line between saying what you think and inciting others to violence is blurred but I still think that is the best rule of thumb.

    You don’t solve the problem of prejudice by criminalising its expression, you just drive it underground to fester.

  19. Unity — on 31st May, 2006 at 10:37 am  

    The first thing to say is that in a civil society even free expression has it limitations. Roger cites one of the classic examples of shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre where the right of free expression does not outweigh the rights of others not to have their lives recklessly endangered. Incitement to violence or commit a criminal act is, likewise, an area where individual or communal rights to safety, property, etc are held to be more important than unrestrained free expression; and of course there is libel and defamation where the right free speech is also limited in defence of the rights of individuals not to have their good name and reputation smeared with lies and falsehoods.

    These are all limitations on free expression that have more or less evolved over time via judicial precedent and the common law and are, therefore, based on assessments of over time of what is the nature of a reasonable balance between rights of free expression and other individual and communal rights – in a very real sense the common law has applied itself over time to the question of what is reasonable by way of free expression in order to facilitate civil discourse and has done fairly well, with the odd exception (libel laws in UK are hopelessly unbalanced in favour of the plaintiff) in arriving at a reasonable package of legal constraints that balance these competing rights.

    Where the problems really begin to arise – and Sunny, I’d recommend string that you real Paul Foot’s last book ‘The Vote’ as background – is where free expression comes into conflict with privilege.

    We should always take calls for civility and reasonable dialogue with extreme care, sometimes they are on the level but often they are not and what community leaders and religious leaders are actually calling for in not civil discourse but uncritical discourse, which serves to protect their privileged position in society.

    Exoteric religion, in particular, is prone to this kind of approach because its fundamental basis is the teaching of received wisdom, which the follower is expected to accept uncritically and without question as the ‘revealed truth’ – much of the ‘offence’ that relgious groups purport to experience derives not from genuine insults but simply from questioning the validity and veracity of the beliefs. In a civil society one might reasonably discourage the former to some extent – accepting David’s point about the validity of satire – but one should always support the latter.

    Ishmael is quoted as having written that:

    defending the honor of the Prophet (PBUH) and making the world a better place go hand in hand for any Muslim, because all the teachings that can make this world a better place find their origin in him (PBUH).

    The question I have to ask is how often do Muslims actually find themselves defending the honour of Mohammed as opposed to defending the political/temporal institutions that have grown up in and around his teachings? The two are actually very different things.

    One of the best commentaries on this came from Terry Jones when asked about the furore that surrounded the Life of Brian, where he noted that the film was not a satire on Jesus precisely because if one looks at the actual teachings of Jesus as written in the four gospels what one finds is basically sound moral philosophy of a kind that it is genuine difficult to argue with and almost impossible to take the piss out of. Life of Brian was a satire on the Church and its intitutions, which can be and often are eminently ridiculous and open to satire, just as JS:TO is satire on everything from US talk shows to evangelical christian fundamentalism.

    One can easily respect the beliefs of individuals and yet fundamentally disagree with and satirise the attitudes and values of religious institutions and, particularly, the privileges it accords itself and its functionaries – and if one looks closely enough one will almost almost always these that religious leaders are seeking to protect, and not the beliefs themselves.

    So, for me, whenever someone, particularly and religious/community leader complains of being ‘offended’ or, especially, that ‘their community’ has been offended the question has to be why are they offended – is it because something has caused genuine offence or are they simple seeking to protect their own privileged position.

    If it is the latter, as it often is, then I have no sympathy with their claims.

  20. Sunny — on 1st June, 2006 at 4:27 am  

    Thanks for the answers everyone, lots of food for thought.

    Arif, you say:
    In this way, we are to some extent responsible for perpetuating these threats if theya re the only things which offend us enough to care about issues.

    I disagree.That is like saying that if I disagree with you, and then don’t follow a course of action you suggest, you have a right to take a violent course of action.

    In addition to the obvious problem with that argument, it also doesn’t take into account the power imbalance. The people who are able to commit that violence are the ones in power, not the ones marginalised.

    Can Ahmadis in Pakistan afford to be violent against the majority in order to make a point about their opression? Can women who are domestically beaten and then silenced by the community afford to beat back their husbands to get their voices heard? I suspect not. I hope you’re not trying to be complicit in helping the powerful keeping the status quo.

    Pornography is one (perceived) example. Attempts to censor pornography have been found to backfire in North America

    That is more a moral issue than about censorship. People are allowed to legally develop and sell porn. It is the access to that material which is under consideration and based on moral standards a society suggests.

    I would ask you to consider a second draft which is for respectful dialogue rather than free speech.

    Dude – I’m not trying to re-invent Communism here. The assumption is that some people will not engage in respectful dialogue because they approach issues from diametrically opposed views. It also makes the assumption that strong clashes of views, and attempts to influence the minds of the majority, will always exist.

    It may not fit in with your desire to see a more peaceful etc society, but before we get to that stage, we need to first establish boundaries of engagement. This is what this min-manifesto is about :)

  21. David — on 1st June, 2006 at 10:58 am  

    Another thing that is seldom mentioned about would-be censors is just how rude they are. They are effectively butting in to someone else’s conversation and telling them to shut up.

    In creating a work, the artist is setting up a line of communication between himself and his intended audience. Christian fundamentalists were not the intended audience of Jerry Springer the Opera, and yet they persistently tried to get it banned. They tried to sever the line between artist and his intended audience.

    If paintings of naked goddesses are going to offend you, don’t go and see them. I’m not offended by them, and neither is the artist. Let the two us commune in peace. The exhibition is not for you.

    Is the latest issue of Mo-toons Monthly going to upset you? Don’t buy it. It’s not for you. The cartoonists are not talking to you – they are talking to the people who find such things funny.

    Didn’t anyone tell you it’s rude to interrupt? Learn some civility.

  22. Arif — on 1st June, 2006 at 12:27 pm  

    On the point about not rewarding violence, Sunny, I think you misunderstand me. I am saying that if one of your arguments for avoiding censorship is that it leads to a slippery slope towards violence, the other side can respond (equally credibly) that cultural products degrading minorities also take you down a slippery slope of violence. Both sides may fear violence. So either we take violence seriously from both perspectives, or we take the issues seriously regardless of whether we think violence might erupt later. So I just thought this was a weakness in the manifesto you might want to be aware of.

    My own view is that we tend to reward violence because violence makes the news, makes it to our consciousness and might make us respond. Unless we make a conscious effort (as you do) to be sensitive to important issues which will never make it into the mass media, we create incentives for attention-grabbing militancy. I don’t see this as supporting violent militancy (although it explains why people find it necessary) but as supporting non-violence (by arguing for more attention to be given to non-violent struggles for justice).

    I’ll not get into the pornography debate here, because I think that it goes down many new avenues if I tried to convince you about its dangers and I accept you are consistently opposed to its censorship.

    On the last point about trying not to invent a whole new political philosophy. I sympathise, but as I said in the beginning of my last post, it might be worth thinking about underlying principles because suspicious people will want to probe you for them.

    David, I also agree with you that censorship can be seen as a rude interruption to people having their own conversation/entertainment. But by some moral standards it is also considered rude to talk about people slanderously. I am not arguing for censorship, but I am in favour of responsible speech – and Sunny, that means I argue for it, not attempt to enforce it on others, except perhaps if I were moderating a website!

  23. Sunny — on 1st June, 2006 at 3:32 pm  

    David – excellent point.

    Arif:
    the other side can respond (equally credibly) that cultural products degrading minorities also take you down a slippery slope of violence.

    I disagree. In reality it pans out the other way. Countries or societies that are more open to freedom of speech have less degrading of minority groups than places that place restrictions on the basis of ‘responsible speech’. That is because the people legislating freedom of speech want to preserve the status quo in their favour than that of minorities. Look at the real world, stop dealing in theory.

    Unless we make a conscious effort (as you do) to be sensitive to important issues which will never make it into the mass media, we create incentives for attention-grabbing militancy.

    Again, disagree. Giving in to violence geared towards censorship actually creates an incentive for people to not only continue but increase the level of violence when their aims are not given into. All the emails I’ve received from Hindus on the issue so far state – “well look at how Muslims responded to the Danish cartoons and got their way. Why can’t we do the same?”

    If your ordinary person is thinking this, don’t you think the militants are thinking and acting on it?

  24. Arif — on 2nd June, 2006 at 12:40 pm  

    Sunny:

    I understand you think free speech is less dangerous for minorities that any restrictions. And I am willing to explain that point of view to someone who wants restrictions. And I also expect they will say I am playing around with theories while minorities get abused and beaten up in hate crimes. I don’t take a strong position on this because I see both sides make sense both in theory and in practice in different contexts. And so, for myself I try to practice responsible speech and do not perceive it to be free: it is constrained by an acceptance of responsibility for the consequences I expect my speech to have. Maybe it is too theoretical for others, but it is how I try to make my own choices in the real world.

    On the second point, I think you might be misunderstanding me. In what sense am I saying we should give in to violence? I am saying that we should take more notice of nonviolence and marginalise the violent. The example of emails you have been sent seem to back up exactly the point I am making. If people see that violence gets attention and nonviolence does not then people who feel their grievances are ignored will be tempted to use violence. This is exactly what those emails seem to show me.

    I take the lesson that I should be more attentive to peaceful campaigns, and you seem to take the lesson that you should be more confrontational towards violent campaigns. I think that both can go together, but you seem to think attention to peacefully expressed grievances somehow promotes violence and I don’t understand why that is.

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