There is one complication about this free expression march, at least to my mind. I suppose that’s why I didn’t flag it up beforehand as much as I could have. I flagged it up some, but not as much as I could have. That’s because it wasn’t specific enough – and that I suppose relates to why I wish Peter hadn’t caved in on the cartoon issue. I didn’t particularly want to cheer on a march for free expression in general, I wanted to cheer on a march for free expression as opposed to religious censorship, or as opposed to toonophobia, or instead of bullying by offended taboo-wielders, or as the alternative to charges of blasphemy and apostasy and heresy and violation of the sacred. I wanted to cheer on a particular march for free expression in the context of coercive religious silencing moves – so I found the title inadequate to convey the subject matter. Then once the subject matter became precisely what was given up at the last minute – it all seemed more confused than ever.
You’re wondering what I mean. Here’s what I mean. What if the march had been for free expression for the BNP, or for Hizb ut-Tahrir? Specifically for one (or both) of them, as opposed to free expression in general. I wouldn’t have gone or wanted to go or urged anyone else to go or advertised it, that’s what. Not in a million years. Because I don’t support them, and have no intention of supporting them. I agree that, with the usual (contested) reservations and stipulations, free expression and free speech are basic goods, are as Juan Golblado says part of the infrastructure; but that doesn’t mean that I actively support particular groups I don’t agree with. So my support for the march for free expression was support for it to the extent that it was about a particular issue that I do agree with and do support.
It’s a case where the legal and the moral run together. I think the toonophobes have not only no legal case for making people shut up, but no moral case either; I think Frattini and the pope and Annan and Straw and the State Department and everyone else who says we ought not to offend people’s religious beliefs is wrong, morally wrong, because I think religions cannot, ought not, must not be binding on people who don’t subscribe to them. I actively (and enthusiastically) support the right to mock and criticize Islam (and Christianity and any other religion), I do not actively (let alone enthusiastically) support the right to say a lot of other kinds of things that are and have to be legal. It was the specific context that would have hauled me to Trafalgar Square in the rain on Saturday if I’d been closer than six thousand miles away (well, a lot closer); if it had been just any old generic march for free expression, I wouldn’t have bothered.