Freedom of Expression Blues

Freedom Of Speech In Retreat

I guess I’m cranky when I get the flu, and very impatient too.

One of the big issues for me at this blog is actually the freedom of speech issue, whether it be letting artists do their thing (like Bill Henson) or letting cartoonists do their thing, or letting authors do their thing – I mean, I want to do my thing, get into it you know? Like a Blog Machine. Count it in now! – yes, even let musicians sing about sex and drugs.

So here’s an article in The Economist that’s worth checking out.

TWO decades ago, on 14th February 1989, Salman Rushdie received one of history’s most notorious Valentine greetings. Ayatollah Khomeini, then Iran’s Supreme Leader, issued a fatwa (a religious edict) calling for the death of the Indian-born British author in response to his novel, “The Satanic Verses”. Khomeini called on all “intrepid” and “zealous” Muslims to execute the author and publishers, reassuring them that if they were killed in the process, they would be regarded as martyrs.

Rarely had a book stirred up such intense feelings. Hitoshi Igarashi, its Japanese translator, was stabbed to death. Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator and William Nygaard, the book’s Norwegian publisher, were stabbed and shot respectively, although both survived. Bookshops were bombed and the tome was burned in public across the world. Mr Rushdie, fearing for his life, was forced into hiding.

Horrific though these consequences were, many argued that freedom of speech itself was at stake. To cave in, by withdrawing publication or sale of the work, would represent the crumbling of a defining principle of liberal societies. Britain broke off diplomatic relations with Iran over the threat to kill a British citizen. At no point did Penguin, the original publisher, withdraw the book. It remained possible to argue that Mr Rushdie’s intolerant detractors, despite their violence, had lost their battle.

Yet critics today, such as Kenan Malik, a writer and broadcaster, argue that the detractors have gradually won their war. Mr Malik and others suggest that free speech in the West is in retreat. Other publishers, faced with books that were likely to cause widespread offence, have been less resolute. In 2008 Random House was set to publish “The Jewel of Medina”, a misty-eyed account of romance between Muhammad and his wife Aisha. The firm reversed its decision after a series of security experts and academics cautioned them against publication (one American academic described the work as historically inaccurate “soft core pornography”) warning it would be dangerously offensive. Gibson Square, another publisher, took up the novel and saw its offices firebombed in September 2008, 20 years to the day after the publication of “The Satanic Verses”. “The Jewel of Medina” has since been released in America, but it remains under wraps in Britain.

There are always reasons people list that one shouldn’t just write anything, because it might cause offense or that it might be vilification. Now, that is a very general thing. I don’t condone vilification either, but I’m not willing to say one shouldn’t make any negative critiques whatsoever. Part of having any blog is to call it like you see it, and you can’t really be doing it under the threat that the Ayatollah of Iran might declare a fatwah against you or that they may burn effigies of you in those countries with turbans an angry bearded men. The world over knows they burn effigies of people at the slightest of perceived slights. Clearly they don’t have better things to do, and it speaks to their station in life.

In any case, this paragraph irritated me.

Two decades after the fatwa was imposed on Mr Rushdie, it appears that many Western artists, publishers and governments are more willing today to sacrifice some of their freedom of speech than was the case in 1989. To many critics that will be seen as self-censorship that has gone too far. But a difficult balance must be struck: no country permits completely free speech. Typically, it is limited by prohibitions against libel, defamation, obscenity, judicial or parliamentary privilege and the like. Protecting free expression will often require hurting the feelings of individuals or groups; equally the use of free speech should be tempered by a sense of responsibility. But that sense should not serve as a disguise for allowing extremists of any stripe to define what views can or cannot be aired.

Did you notice they slipped in the word ‘obscenity’? Obscenity laws are precisely the point at which artistic freedom of expression threaten to get shut down. Whether its the Tipper Gore-led mother of prevention trying to gag Frank Zappa, or the wowsers that hound Bill Henson, or for that matter the NAZIs with their label ‘academy of degenerate art’ to punish the Modernists, clearly get way too much say on the base of ‘obscenity’ laws. Hlf the time good comedy works through offending the common prejudices, whether it be racism or class snobbery or simply manners.That’s how it’s done: by risking obscenity.

It irritates me greatly that having argued that Freedom of Speech might be in retreat in the west, they throw artists under the bus. It’s deadset wrong.

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