Saturday, December 08, 2007

Free speech QED

Ruthie at Ruthie's Law has been giving her very own paint by numbers lesson on the value of free speech.

"It is clear that free speech is a requirement in any society which aspires to democracy - a system described by Winnie as the worst form of government, except for all the others. Thus, free speech must be defended. If that means anything at all, it means that free speech must be granted to those whose views are despicable, disgraceful and disgusting (dear Diary, Tucker says that alliteration is admirable).

But what is this free speech? I suggest that it is a right to speak. It is not a right to be heard. It is not a right to speak anywhere one likes. It is a right not to be locked up or persecuted by the State for expressing an unpopular (as opposed to a criminal) point of view. But it is not a right to be given an audience. For some reason it is a matter of principle for some that David “Auschwitz is a lie an exaggeration” Irvine should be able to peddle his turd-speak wherever he likes, on the basis that he describes himself as an historian: so that’s alright then.

If Irwhinge wanted to say that black people were intrinsically inferior to white people it is difficult to see the same approach being adopted. Thus, I conclude that this debate is not really about free speech at all. It is about what people are comfortable hearing. Part of the reason that this country is comfortable about holocaust denial or minimisation is that (unlike Germany) it still congratulates itself for not being on the wrong side. Dear Diary, it is entitled to such congratulation. Yet, alas, it has learned the wrong lesson. The lesson is not that traditional British tolerance will ensure that it does not happen here - even though that may be true. The lesson is that people like Irwhinge and Grithick mean what they say. We tend to find that thought so incomprehensible that we shy away from it, and thus fail to learn the lesson of history.

Once one grants that the people who speak freely mean what they say, the debate sharpens up considerably. If we entirely prevent them speaking then, apart from driving their views underground (a tactical debate which I do not address here), we must trust the state to get it absolutely right when determining who can and cannot speak out. Most of us do not have that level of trust in the state and, in a democracy, most politicians do not have that level of trust in themselves. Good...

As dear old Voltaire should have said: “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to mumble it to the other addle-pates whilst not being prosecuted for doing it. However, the minute you begin not to mumble you are liable to arrest if your words result in actions against those about whom you speak, of which there is a clear risk to an objective observer.” That dear Diary, is the issue of criminalising hate-based conduct. Whether we have the balance right is another question. That there is a balance should be plain. Ultimately we all have a choice about what we hear. How we exercise that choice is something that impacts on everyone and is thus a moral decision. Our fear of that decision must not prevent us denying the essential reality that we are responsible for what we do and that millions of individual decisions matter. If one feels too insignificant to make a difference that is sad. But it is not an excuse for denying the obvious in a self-indulgent attempt to stay in the nursery."

Read it in full and the comments. Great stuff.

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