The recent global events and subsequent attacks on the freedom of speech have brought up debates that were dropped some time ago and dropped I believe for very good reasons but should be reignited and placed back as an absolute right in view of current developments. What I want to convey is the excruciating importance of free speech even in the face of hurt feelings and violence.
My proposition is simply this: Without free speech the descent into tyranny and suffering is inevitable.
So when I hear calls for blasphemy to be criminalised and member states putting this on the agenda at the UN to enforce it, my blood runs cold and then boils as people pander to a concept that can only be described as an attempt to legislate thought crime. Once you can prosecute people with crimes of thought or expression, you have a totalitarian dictatorship that in this case not only presides over its immediate control but on everyone. This push for blasphemy laws is not just about the offense taken, hurt feelings and potential for violence. It is far more sinister, it’s an attempt to create a shield of impunity and allow some the rights of censor, to determine for everyone what you can and cannot read, write, think and express. It’s an attempt to prevent criticism of the murder and brutal treatment of homosexuals, mutilation of children’s genitals, subjugation of women, advocating of hate and violence as well as a plethora of other delights which are in stark contrast to the values of the organisation to which this is being proposed as well as its mandate. Let’s not even get into them trying to ensure the UDHR gets universally accepted.
So who is making these calls, who are the proponents, apologists, supporters and opponents of this debate? A debate, which should be considered with the same reverence as bringing up the slavery debate again but if it must be had, then so be it. Well the main proponents are the religious leaders of Islam and virtual consensus of Islamic states that brought this motion to the UN. The apologists and supporters are a bit more diverse but the primary group are the religious who think this will provide ‘protection’ for their feelings and religion (a grand irony in this regard). Let’s not forget the rather significant portion of the population who are not believers and live with the daily offences of religion, one of the great sources of division, hatred and violence who don’t but will call for the religious texts to be banned because of hate speech if these laws come to be.
So what will happen, what are the consequences if this becomes a reality? First thing you’ll notice is the snowballing of censorship, if you protect this group you’ll need to do it for another unless you through the concept of equal treatment away. Different religions censoring other religions and then the censorship of scientific ideas that contradict religious belief. This will result in conflicts as one group will use its influence to suppress the other under the very same laws; conflict resolution through mediation becomes impossible. Any faith based government will claim immunity from criticism, anyone who disagrees with the protected group will be in perpetual contravention of the laws and the slippery slope becomes a quick slide into utter chaos and from chaos to domination. The very worst the twentieth century had to offer, in a world 3 fold its size making it a prospect of apocalyptic stature. Another thing, who is going to be the one who declares what, is and what isn’t blasphemous, who is going to look at all the blasphemy and determine these distinctions? The degree of religious observance is drastically different between an Anglican and a West Buro Baptist. Who would you choose to tell you what you can and cannot read, write and watch? How do you determine how offended someone or group is? By its most extreme adherents, the one’s quick to violence?
Free speech starts at the criticism of religion because if you cannot openly debate the nature, truthfulness, historicity, meaning and all other aspects of the most fundamental and important questions about the universe and human beings then it cannot exist. Neither is it possible to have these discussions without the religious taking some sort of offence on a topic which is still riddled by taboo, intimidation, and violence .This persecution complex must be dismissed if this is to be discussed openly.
Now to critique the supposed bastions of free expression, Europe and the US and their role, the US to a lesser degree but the self censorship under threat of violence is a travesty. A rational fear by editors, publishers and journalists but completely unacceptable at the same time. How are you supposed to be informed and make your mind up about caricatures of a religious figure if you have never seen them? Holocaust denial and hate speech are also scandal and should be not be a criminal act! They simply cannot be policed effectively, equally and objectively under a banner of freedom.
What blasphemy laws and limitations on free speech do to proponents is denying them the right to hear something and destroys the freedom of someone who thinks differently.
This begs the question of limitations, when does this freedom become intolerable? There have been numerous court cases and rulings but probably the most concise and articulated comes from a US Supreme court ruling Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969),interpreted by Jeremy Waldron “hate speech, like seditious speech, is protected unless it is calculated to incite or likely to produce imminent lawless action.”
There is so much more to be said but in the interests of keeping the text to a reasonable length, let’s wrap it up and leave it with a couple quotes which encapsulate these ideas’s better than I could hope too and leave room for debate and thought.
“If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.” – Noam Chomsky
“Free speech is about as good as cause as the world has ever known. But, like the poor, it is always with us and gets shoved aside in favour of things which seem at some given moment more vital.” --Heywood Broun
Peace – Me and all my ninja’s.
John Milton, Areopagitica (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Areopagitica)
Age of Reason Introduction. by Thomas Paine (http://www.ushistory.org/paine/reason/intro.htm)
On Liberty. John Stuart Mill (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/34901)