This again. I seem to have this argument every ten days or so. The issues are just never framed properly – instead they’re framed evasively and euphemistically, and how can anything be discussed properly when the air is clouded by evasion and euphemism? I ask you.
What argument? The free speech one. The one that swirls around the thought that free speech is not about the easy cases but about the hard ones. One version of that is the discussion of hypocrisy and double standards, as in Mark Steyn’s inaccurate whinge about Hampstead big guns who ‘lined up’ to defend Rushdie but wouldn’t (according to Steyn) line up to defend Lynette Burrows, and as in this one about Orhan Pamuk and David Irving. Why are people making free speech noises about Pamuk and not about Irving?
Two European writers have recently fallen foul of European governments for expressing their views about genocide. Both are threatened with trial and imprisonment for something they said or wrote. Yet one is supported by EU politicians and the international literati – who have rallied around to defend him from censorship and to champion the right of writers to speak freely – while the other has been ignored, or even told that he got what he deserved.
Yes. That’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. It leaves a great deal out. It oversimplifies – drastically. The two writers didn’t say or write the same thing, about the same subject, in discussing the same genocide, with the same implications. That paragraph tries to make it look as if they did, but they didn’t. Just saying ‘for expressing their views about genocide’ and ‘for something they said or wrote’ is not good enough. You might as well say both Martin Luther King and Timothy McVeigh went to jail for protesting against the government. You might as well say that both Osama bin Laden and Irshad Manji are controversial. Both are true statements, but incomplete – to put it mildly.
This is bad news, because when it comes to free speech it’s all or nothing: we either have it or we don’t. And if we were to have free speech for one writer but not for another, then we wouldn’t have free speech at all.
Is that true? It seems to me to be quite untrue. It seems to me to be a rather stupid oversimplification, and unargued besides. Why is free speech all or nothing? Why do we either have it or not? Why can’t we have it in some things and not in others? As in fact we already do – for good or ill, or both. And why do we not have free speech at all if we have it for one writer but not another? What if one writer’s entire output consists of exhortations to murder certain groups of people? If that writer does not have free speech, does it follow that none of us do? I don’t offhand see why.
Brendan O’Neill does finally get around to saying that the two writers ‘could not be more different’. But then –
Yet their cases are the same: both could be incarcerated, not for physically harming another person or for damaging property, but for the words they spoke; both could have their liberty removed because they expressed views that the authorities – in Turkey and Austria – decree to be distasteful.
But that is not the point. That just evades the real point, which is much less easy to deal with. And that’s what is so irritating – free speech absolutists are so predictably apt to do that: to evade the real difficulties in their position by resorting to adjectives like ‘distasteful’ – or controversial, offensive, shocking, objectionable, or the like. As if the only issue were emotional reactions. But that is not the only issue, and it’s very dishonest to shove the real issue behind the sofa and hope no one will notice. Austria doesn’t make Holocaust denial illegal merely because it is ‘distasteful’ but because, rightly or wrongly, they think it is dangerous. Obviously there is plenty of room for argument on that: it’s an empirical question as well as a question of principle, and there’s a lot to say. But that is the issue, not anything so silly and trivial as distaste.