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We Believe In Free Speech, But …


When I was younger, it was popular for idealistic liberals to embrace some form of Voltaire’s (misattributed) “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” to claim the high ground in a debate.

Predictably, the defense was narrowly tailored to defend things like blasphemous art, absurd Heavy Metal bands, or maybe some flag burning—anything to upset your parents. What defenders never actually had to do was risk anything.

I was reminded of this when hearing Labor’s Ed Miliband promise that if he was elected he would make “Islamophobia”—a phrase Christopher Hitchens accurately referred to as “stupid neologism”— as an “aggravated crime.” If we’re to believe The Muslim News, Miliband told editor Ahmed Versi that he was “going to make sure it is marked on people’s records with the police to make sure they root out Islamophobia as a hate crime.”

A reader might have wondered whether prosecuting thought crimes and putting them on a person’s permanent record was antithetical to liberalism. In response, for example, Richard Dawkins —now on the outs with many on the Left for holding consistently critical views of religion—asked why a person in Britain should be able criticize music, art, a book, but not religion? Well, in a few years the answer might be: you’re right, there are certain books you shouldn’t be criticizing, either.

Right now the problem is more specific. A Miliband type law would mean that a person would be able to disparage any ideological, theological, philosophical, or political position they wanted, in the most ferocious terms they wanted, whenever they liked, without ever having to worry about violent retribution from individuals or legal retribution from the state. But there would be a special dispensation for a single viewpoint that happens to chafe against the fading liberal values of a Western world.

Whether such a campaign promise could ever be kept is one thing— I don’t pretend to be expert on British politics or law— but the notion that the leader of a major political party in major liberal state would promise to pass a law punishing thought crimes portends something disturbing. And you can feel that kind of thinking creeping into the debate here, as well.

Increasingly, we see people demanding speech live up to their standards of virtuousness before being deserving of any protection. In the United States, a woman who offers the wrong answer to a theoretical question about gay marriage can be drummed out of business for her crimethink. A gay American who dares to meet with a candidate who opposes same-sex marriage can be bullied into groveling to save his business. One false thought and people can be destroyed. It happens all the time. That’s bad enough. Yet, there is still a counter-force in this country that works to protect them from the mob.

Until that is, the state gets involved. This week, two House Democrats urged the Obama administration to ban firebrand Geert Wilders from entering the country. “Mr. Wilders’s policy agenda is centered on the principle that Christian culture is superior to other cultures,” they argued. This seems to me this is a position well within the bounds of genuine debate. Ironically, the lawmakers want to use the International Religious Freedom Act, a law that empowers the State Department to ban the entry of a foreign leader responsible for severe violations of religious freedom, to deny him entry.

We see it in the moral confusion of Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who suggesting that it was “hate speech” for the satirists at Charlie Hebdo to mock those who threatened to kill them. “Not only was one cartoonist gunned down,” he explained, “but riots erupted around the world, resulting in the deaths of scores. No one could say toward what positive social end, yet free speech absolutists were unchastened. Using judgment and common sense in expressing oneself were denounced as antithetical to freedom of speech.”

No, having others dictate what our judgement should be is antithetical to free political speech—which deserves special consideration. This is true, whether it is dictated by the majority or by one self-proclaimed arbiter of common sense. I mean, what sort of positive social good does a Doonesbury strip offer? Newspapers buy it. People read it. But if Doonesbury triggered threats of violence from around the world, the social worth of it changes, because even a preachy comic strip is worth defending for the larger idea of free expression.

And when people are gunned down for satire, they may not have used the best judgment or their common sense. They may not be the Dixie Chicks or Robert Mapplethorpe or W.A.S.P., or any of the other false martyrs of free expression we’ve had over the decades. They risked something real.

When PEN American Center awarded its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the Charlie Hebdo, six prominent authors—Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi—pulled out. All of them purport to be big defenders of freedom expression …

… but, but, but.

Carey says that “a hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” Prose claimed that he supported “freedom of speech without limitations” but “couldn’t imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo.” Cole authored a predictable piece in the New Yorker where, in gorgeous prose, he does his best to blame the victims.

PEN’s retort, titled “Rejecting the Assassin’s Veto,” was well-stated (as was, in a more direct way, Salman Rushdie’s):

The rising prevalence of various efforts to delimit speech and narrow the bounds of any permitted speech concern us; we defend free speech above its contents. We do not believe that any of us must endorse the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in order to affirm the importance of the medium of satire, or to applaud the staff’s bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats. There is courage in refusing the very idea of forbidden statements, an urgent brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say in order to make it sayable.

As Andrew Solomon, president of PEN, eluded to, last year’s inclusion of Pussy Riot probably had little to do with their musical abilities or intellectualism. Sometimes you defend free expression for the sake of principle. Especially for those who do risk something and especially for those who aim their satire at the biggest threat to free expression in the world.