Sam Mace looks at the ‘right to offend’ side of the free speech debate
The latest attacks on free speech have arrived and sadly I am not surprised. This is just the most recent attack in a long history of our freedom to offend being not just questioned, but openly attacked. This isn’t a new phenomenon either for those who wish to try and pin this down on our foreign policy or disenfranchisement.
The renowned author of the satanic verses, Salman Rushdie, was given a death warrant by a head of state that is now thankfully deceased. Not only did this particularly dictator call for Mr Rushdie’s death but many seemed to agree with this man, in so far that Mr Rushdie had caused ‘offense’ so his books must be burned. It wasn’t just Mr Rushdie who suffered; his Japanese translator was murdered, his Italian translator was stabbed but survived and his publisher in Norway was shot three times but survived. This was all done in the name of being offended.
Sadly the Rushdie affair was the first in a long line of attacks. These attacks have been perpetrated by lynch mobs, gangs, fascists and lunatics relatively frequently. Whether that is Mr Van Gogh who was killed in Amsterdam, the Danish state being held hostage or people trying to get Maajid Nawaz deselected from his candidacy in the Liberal Democrat party. Not only are these attacks frequent but often they are not completely condemned by the whole of society. Although few side with the attackers, as seen with the reaction to this latest atrocity you hear people say ‘well of course it’s wrong but….’ This reaction seems to suggest that while the attacks were wrong that the cartoonists had somehow brought it on themselves. This is a disgusting line of thinking that leads to the conclusion of ‘don’t anger the mad men they may hurt you’, which would soon disintegrate into a situation where we can never say anything thought provoking.
It is not surprising that our newspapers decided not to stand side by side with Charlie Hebdo who have suffered for their views before this with their offices being fire bombed in 2011. None of the major papers decided printing the cartoons was worth the risk, as Andrew Neil said ‘consider us intimidated’. Many columnists chiefly among them Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch and Douglas Murray have all come out in support of the cartoonists and for our most fundamental and basic rights. Not only them but free thinkers such as Stephen Fry and Mr Rushdie have also come out to condemn what has happened and to counter the argument that we must not offend. Sadly they seem like lone voices in a confused and at times scared society which considers threats to our society worth heeding.
I am not going to go into the details of my belief in freedom of expression in this article as I have explained them here. What I will say is that freedom of speech and expression is the cornerstone of every functioning, healthy, democratic and free society. Without this walls will build up against communities and our worst fears will be realised of living in a truly divided society. What I will say is that no-one has the right not to be offended, even if that is to grossly offend someone else. Without this not only is freedom of speech lost but so is freedom of religion. Muslims may find people depicting the prophet as insulting and wrong. Many including myself are also offended at the seeming lack of acceptance of homosexuality in the mainstream of the Islamic faith. However that is the price of living in a free society, we’re free to disagree with each other and free to offend one another even on matters which matter to us greatly.
We must not be cowered as we have been in the past by this latest attack we have a right to offend, to satirize, to mock with incredulity and yes to insult. If people cannot stand that idea then they need to learn to accept it. As Mr Hitchens once said ‘my own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.’
By Sam Mace
[image credit: Brian Talbot]