Does it include the freedom to offend?

Much of the French press reprinted the Danish cartoons last year, no UK newspaper did; Jack Straw ‘called the Europeans’ decision “disrespectful” and said freedom of speech did not mean “open season” on religious taboos.’ Anthony Grayling thinks the UK press should have published the toons, to the shock of a journalist.

Free speech is not a secondary issue but “the fundamental right, from which all other rights flow. Without it, you cannot elect a free parliament or defend yourself in a court of law”. Does it include the freedom to offend?

What a farking stupid question. Of course it does. If free speech doesn’t include the freedom to ‘offend’ it doesn’t include very damn much, does it! If free speech doesn’t include the freedom to ‘offend’ then why bother to use the phrase at all? Why not just replace it with enslaved speech or submissive speech and let it go at that?

Emphatically yes, he says. If political views cannot be protected from a cartoonist’s pen, why should religious views? “It’s the rent that has to be paid in a free society. This is a lesson Muslims have got to learn.” The lesson, he says, is that mocking a belief is quite different from mocking an individual. “Many Muslims take it personally. But it’s not about them personally.”

It’s not about them personally, and the crucial point here is that taking it personally is a really gross attack not just on free speech but on free thought and free inquiry. It’s infantile, it’s narcissistic, and it’s an assault on everyone’s ability and freedom to think openly and freely about large general impersonal significant subjects that must be thought about. That’s especially true given that Islam is a religion with large universalist claims. It prides itself on not being local or parochial or ethnic or national. It’s meant to be for everyone – either as a gift or as an imposition on pain of being unexpectedly blown up or beheaded. Well, if it’s meant to be for everyone, then everyone has to be able to think about it and discuss it, in the same way that everyone has to be able to discuss capitalism and socialism and communism, taxation and law and ethics, markets and universities and courts. We don’t get to take it personally if someone says something critical or mocking about the property tax or Bill Smith University; we don’t get to take it personally and say everyone must shut up because we’re offended.

In the Anglo-Saxon world these are unusual positions for someone who places himself on the left. What’s more, Grayling is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Council for Western-Muslim Understanding. But if one idea runs through his 27 books, many articles, television appearances and a life as a prominent public intellectual, it is the importance of liberty and free speech. If one thing worries him, it is that the West’s secular, liberal tradition is under threat.

These positions are not as unusual as all that in ‘the Anglo-Saxon world’ for someone on the left! They’re not a bit unusual around here, for example – as Anthony knows, even if James Button doesn’t.

[T]he culprit is belief itself. “To believe something in the face of evidence and against reason – to believe something by faith – is ignoble, irresponsible and ignorant, and merits the opposite of respect,” he writes in Against All Gods, published this year.

James Button (like so many people) seems to find that excessive in some way – which is mildly depressing. Does he think that to believe something in the face of evidence and against reason in fact merits respect? Has he thought it through?

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