No one expects the inquisition

Freedom of speech: a fundamental right.

Human rights are the most basic and fundamental freedoms that all people of the world, regardless of colour or creed, deserve to have afforded to them. Human rights include the right to life, the right to free speech and expression, the right to determine and challenge one’s leaders, the freedom to hold opinions and the right to associate with other humans regardless of their persuasions or opinions. Karl Marx – in his analysis of alienation at the workplace – argued that man’s creative act defines him, to take this away it to remove one of his most fundamental rights. Expressing one’s opinion, no matter what others may think or say about it, is one of the most basic forms of human creativity, do deny someone’s freedom of expression is to deny someone’s humanity.It is right that this analysis applies regardless of what that particular opinion may be. Voltaire’s oft-quoted remark on the nature of free speech is at the heart of this, the essence of these freedoms is that no one has the right to determine which opinions are ‘right’ and which are ‘wrong’. One may not like what someone else has to say, but who is to say which of us is right? To insist that certain opinions should not be expressed implies that the state has the right to control people’s actions by controlling information and thoughts. When unelected officials can suspend the democratically elected mayor of London for expressing his opinion, how long is it before the rest of us are similarly constricted. When police officers arrest actors for appearing in a channel 4 film about Guantanamo Bay, how long is it before other artists are silenced for creating art that the state disagrees with.

Religious beliefs are a case in point. Religions, by their very nature, are often inherently opposed to the concept of free speech. The acceptance of doctrine is anathema to open and critical thought. I am not a religious person but I accept that some people are; they have a right to hold opinions on morality, existence, the meaning of life and a whole other host of topics. Despite any evidence to the contrary, I accept that many people will simply continue to accept doctrine without question and preach all kinds of hatful and unfounded viewpoints. Such bigotry should never be a crime, the crime is to act upon – or cause another to act upon – any belief that infringes upon the human rights of another. Being bigoted should not be a crime despite the fact that bigots are a detriment to society, acting upon bigotry by attacking others is a crime.

The intransigent views of the fundamentalist wings of various religious sects are what cause me the most fear. In my experience of religious people many are quite happy to hear criticism of their beliefs in an open forum (although such an exercise is often pointless because of the inherent intransigence in religious doctrine), a fundamentalist is one who is quite different. Fundamentalists are usually normal people with normal jobs and normal lives; fundamentalism arises from the need to belong to a group and to have faith in a concept, this is something that can drive even the most atheist of people. If enough people tell you the same thing enough times, it becomes increasingly difficult to disagree. This is what happens in fundamentalist discourse, a single group become convinced of their own doctrine by the simple process of self-reinforcement. For an example of this, just look at the way that the media bombardment of ‘factoids’ results in certain untruths entering the popular public consciousness (justification for the war in Iraq perhaps) as perceived fact. The intransigence of religious zealots with regard to freedom of speech has been highlighted recently by the reaction of some elements of the Islamic world to the publication of racist cartoons in the Danish press. Allow me to re-state; these cartoons are racist and the people who produced them should be challenged for their racism. These cartoons should be published so that the racism of the Danish newspaper that carried them and their creators can be exposed in the public light. Suppressing the cartoons keeps the views of racists in the underground where they can fester and ferment, shining the light of public criticism upon them reveals the images for what they really are. Besides, I don’t understand why Muslims should be offended on behalf of their god; after all, if their god is powerful he shouldn’t be so worried about a couple of cartoons now should he.

One wonders if the al-too-predictable fundamentalist Islamic response to the cartoons was the objective of publishing them. Is it inconceivable to think that this filthy right wing newspaper would deliberately publish provocative images and hide behind a veil of freedom of speech while crowing about the terror of a primitive religion burning down embassies and chanting death to unbelievers. Media coverage of peaceful Islamic protests against the cartoons was very light despite the turnout being several orders of magnitude greater than the small number of youths who preached death to unbelievers. Why? Because the media has a vested interest in creating fear and hysteria over and above considering issues in depth.

The racists and bigots of our world are hiding behind fee speech laws while the people they insult are being misrepresented by their own fundamentalist wing. So what should the response be from the rest of society, should we cut off our collective nose in order to spite our face? Freedom of speech is something to be cherished, but what should we do when people abuse these freedoms? As distasteful as they may be, racists must be free to have their say; equally, others must have freedom to challenge them with the full weight of reason. All well and good you may say, but reason isn’t going to work against the likes of Abu Hamza or the BNP. True enough, but such individuals – and they are in a small minority – are only a danger to society when they have followers, people prepared to act upon their hatred and lies. What good would Osama Bin Laden’s rhetoric be if there was not a long line of disenfranchised poor people willing to kill themselves for his cause?

The question then is this; is our society prepared to give up one of our own freedoms to silence its enemies? Some argue yes, I argue no. If religious fundamentalists, racists and zealots are liars then we should tell the truth, if they seek to spread discontent and ill feeling within communities then we should invest in local communities and stop their deceptions from finding a foothold in depressed towns. If our worldview really is so much better than theirs, why are we hiding and not challenging them in a battle of ideas. The next time Osama Bin Laden releases a ridiculous statement about his own self-importance on a world stage, instead of repeating the US military’s line – which will without fail say “we believe is it Bin Laden, you should be reminded that we still need to catch him and that therefore US military funding must not be questioned” – the media should challenge and pull apart his lies and deceptions. Instead of allowing the BNP to appear on national TV with a presenter who merely tuts and scowls at their racism; challenge their views with facts, expose the lies for what they are and reveal the idiocy behind their policies. We must use free speech to our advantage rather than fearing what others may do with it.

Every joke has its butt; every funny man has a straight side kick. For every proposition or statement there is an opposite position that can be taken. Since the renaissance the basis of civilisation has been freedom of expression and thought. The restriction of freedom of speech is associated with Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, the Spanish inquisition and the McCarthy witch hunts; is this really how we want posterity to remember Britain of the early 21st centaury? Why should throw aside our way of life in order to silence our enemies? If we do then the battle for all of our futures may already be lost.

© Dean Wright, March 2006.