Free speech is hugely important.

One of the strengths of a democracy is that all viewpoints can be expressed—including the idea that the previous statement is wrong.  Because democracy thrives on and encourages a rational debate: ideas are put forward, challenged, discussed, inspire new ideas, and ultimately lead to truth (or a workable approximation).  Problems arise when one viewpoint sees itself—and itself alone—as having truth, and tries to suppress other ideas.  ‘I don’t like what you said!  Let’s not have a conversation!’  BANG!

The censorious and morally outraged can be found in all walks of life, in all political and religious persuasions.  They are, however, one and all, from the politically correct Marxist gender studies student to the Ayn Rand-spouting free marketeer to the religious fanatic, bigots: mad, bad and dangerous to know.  They want to restrict  free speech, to limit not only what is considered appropriate discourse but possible discourse.  They think that certain things should not be said, certain views not expressed—because they find something offensive.

‘You are offensive, because this page has a sword which I choose to say is not a sword.  You are lewd because that page has a lance which I prefer to think is not a lance.  You are lascivious because yonder page has a staff which I elect to declare is not a staff.  And finally, you are indecent for reasons of which a description would be objectionable to me, and which therefore I must decline to reveal to anybody.’  (James Branch Cabell, Jurgen)

Start removing things because they’re deemed potentially offensive, and one ends up with anodyne pap: stuff that doesn’t have anything uncomfortable or thought provoking in it, and an audience of sheep.  Docile sheep, perhaps, but nevertheless big white fluffy baaing things, without a thought in their woolly heads.

Censors suffer from a severely limited, unnuanced, black-and-white view of life.  They have little grasp of aesthetics, historical or cultural context or the concept of authorial intention, but plenty of moral outrage.  As a result, they are prone to gratuitously misread texts, and see offence where none was intended.  Censor Huckleberry Finn and Fawlty Towers, the moral guardians say, for I think they might be racist!  In a way, it’s the modern equivalent of the white man’s burden: well-meaning but patronising middle-class white folk protecting the poor non-whites from things that could be offensive, rather than letting them make up their own minds.  Censorship is counterproductive: it treats intelligent members of the public as morons (we can’t be trusted to make up our own minds), while ~ist people will already be ~ist, so suppressing texts or views won’t change their thinking; better to expose them to other ideas, rather than quash others.  But censors would rather quash, would rather destroy the idea and the individual with it.  Purifions par le fer et par le feu!  Purify by iron and by fire!

‘The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common.  They don’t alter their views to fit the facts.  They alter the facts to fit the views.  Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.’ (Doctor Who: The Face of Evil)

We have seen this over the last week, with the murder of the Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris and the fire-bombing in Hamburg.  We have seen this in the past, with Christian moral watchdogs in the UK, and with political regimes (whether far right as in Nazi Germany or McCarthyist America, or far left as in the USSR) that brand their opponents ‘subversive elements’, dangers to the group.  Indeed, their worldview is absolutist: there is only one view of the truth, and they claim to be speaking on behalf other entire group.  Because their worldview is narrow and absolutist, there is only one possible way to be a member of the group; New Yorkers who did not subscribe to McCarthy’s particular brand of nationalism were ‘un-American’, moderate Muslims who are opposed to Wahhabism are infidel.  And yet, in the real world, things are far more complex.  Identities are complex and numerous; there is no one single way to be an adherent of a religion, or a member of a nation-state.

So my complete and utter contempt for the censorious is their closed-mindedness: anything that contradicts their ideology is wrong, and they attempt to impose their views on other people, on moral or ideological grounds.  They want to abolish actually thinking about the world and a free exchange of information and ideas.  Whereas a healthy society is one in which a plurality of ideas flourishes, new ideas are formed through debate, in which ideas can be discussed impartially, wrong ideas are challenged and exploded because of evidence, and in which people can say and think what they like without getting shot or blown up.  As Ahmed Aboutaleb, Muslim mayor of Rotterdam, said:

‘It is incomprehensible that you can turn against freedom.  But if you do not like freedom, in Heaven’s name pack your bag and leave.  There may be a place in the world where you can be yourself.  Be honest with yourself and do not go and kill innocent journalists.  And if you do not like it here because humourists you do not like make a newspaper, may I then say you can fuck off.’

Follow this link for part 2 of this article.

Nick Fuller

2 thoughts on “Free speech is hugely important.

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