MMM#14: Defending free speech

The attempted murder of Salman Rushdie earlier this month has given rise to people declaring the importance of free speech which is often threatened by fanatics and extremists, religious or otherwise. The only thing I knew about Salman Rushdie prior to this incident was that he wrote the novel The Satanic Verses which led to the infamous fatwa being placed on him by Iranian ruler Ayatollah Khomeini.

Nevertheless, despite not knowing that much about Rushdie, I admire his courage in remaining a public figure and advocating for free speech despite the obvious threats against him for his work. The fatwa against Rushdie has not only resulted in this recent attempt on his life, but also the murder, or attempted murder, of translators of The Satanic Verses like Hitoshi Igarashi and William Nygaard. If I was in a similar position, I don’t know if I would be so willing to expose myself to such threats even though I know this would compromise free speech.

The importance of freedom of speech is highlighted by the willingness of people to defend other’s right to speech even if they disagree with them. Theodore Dalrymple notes in this article that Rushdie has said things that Dalrymple finds objectionable but still recognises that Rushdie is a “staunch and brave supporter” of free speech.

Although most people recognise that freedom of speech is important, such a stance is not without its difficulties, particularly in the culture war era. Rational centrist types might advocate for a world that is based primarily on logic and freedom of expression but it is likely that societies will never be totally free of taboos no matter how liberal the most powerful countries in the world become.

It’s telling after all that the socially liberal/neoconservative worldview of “making the world safe for democracy” has been met with a pushback by countries who have been occupied by the US and its allies such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The Western values that were offered to these places obviously conflicted with the taboos and customs that are prevalent in the Middle East. Not everybody wants a McDonalds in every street corner and a rainbow flag flying in every embassy. Personally, I’d prefer to live in the West but I recognise that people grow up in different environments and circumstances so will not have the same attitudes as me.

The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine is also in some ways a clash against two different worldviews which could be simplified as nationalism on one side and globalism on the other with the unfortunate Ukrainian citizens caught in the middle of it all. While I don’t want to come across as too sympathetic to the Russian side, it’s notable that any criticism of the Ukrainian government (as opposed to Ukrainian citizens who I have every sympathy with) or the portrayal of the conflict by Western media as biased against Russia will result in attacks and condemnation. Here we see that freedom of speech in the West has its own taboos and heresies.

We can also see this in other areas. Would public broadcasters like the BBC, for example, employ a presenter on their TV or radio channels that openly opposed gay marriage, was critical of feminism or expressed scepticism towards other sacred cows like climate change? The answer is very likely no. This is in spite of the fact that many people who work for the BBC would likely be supportive of Salman Rushdie.

It has been pointed out by other political commentators that despite many institutions like the BBC being obsessed with all kinds of diversity, they do not try to promote diversity of opinion. One reason for this may be because the positions that I deemed as impossible for a BBC presenter to openly express (anti-gay marriage, feminism, etc.), would be considered ‘oppressive’ and therefore anti-free speech. That such positions would likely be held by religious extremists is also seen as evidence of their oppressiveness.

Social media sites have the same mindset as broadcasters in blocking or preventing the expression of ideas they find oppressive. An argument used by advocates of ‘woke’ or ‘political correctness’ in support of bans on platforms like Twitter is that these companies are private and so should have the freedom to ban whoever they like. Paradoxically, then, free speech can be used to prevent free speech.

This complex and contradictory aspect of freedom of speech has led me to think that it is not possible to have open debate without some amount of taboo and intolerance, although what this would look like is itself open to debate. Being free to speak and express ideas always appears to lead to some boundaries being set up even if these boundaries have some flexibilities. Even though I believe in as much freedom of speech as possible, the inevitability that certain ideas and thoughts will be discouraged and restricted seems to me to be a realistic observation.

In a sense, the culture wars are not just a battle for freedom of speech, but also over what issues societies should be prejudiced and censorious about. In other words, should we attack or restrict ideas that are thought of as dangerous towards designated victim groups, or against ideas that are dangerous towards Western civilisation?

Considering the intense and difficult debates that Western societies will have to address in years to come, such as how people with completely different worldviews and cultures can peacefully co-exist with each other, the relationship between men and women, and race relations among others, it’s at least a good thing that there are people like Salman Rushdie who will fiercely defend free speech, even at their own risk.

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