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Mirthless Moralisers vs. Free Speech

Whether it’s Sir Salman Rushdie not attending the prestigious Jaipur Literature Festival in India because of threats, or student unions being told to remove offensive material on their Facebook page, or even billboards that highlight anti-atheist sentiments, the roads we thought free speech flowed through are increasingly being revealed as cul de sacs. Mirthless moralisers of all stripes, from Muslims to atheists, are increasingly showing their stock within what Monica Ali calls “the marketplace of outrage”. As she told Kenan Malik:

What we have developed today is a marketplace of outrage. And if you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, “My feelings are more hurt than yours”.

Though these discussions above have their origin in the outrage within religious discourse, the focus is bigger and more important than that. Whatever your religious persuasion, what should matter to you is the centrality of free speech to any proper concept of freedom and, more specifically, individual liberty. The ability to express yourself, through speech, art, and literature; to show your fellow humans how you conceive the world; to slowly erode the division between inner thought and outer expression – since we are denied access to each other’s internal domains except through expression – must anchor us within a world overflowing with diversity and competing ideas about the best way to operate in such a world. These ideas expressed through free speech might be foreign to us, but as Jefferson said: “To prohibit us from foreign light is to consign us to long darkness.”

To silence free speech is not simply removing an expression that upsets you: it is shutting down the only means we have to convey to another person what we think. If we cannot tell others what we think, then we are being told what to think. If we are dictated to, then we have lost an important – if not the most important – aspect of freedom: the ability to engage fully with an idea.

If the idea is wrong, then that can be shown, through argument and engagement – in other words, it can be destroyed through the very same mechanism that brings it into existence: free speech and engagement. If all that you can do to oppose an idea or view is to restrict others knowing it, then it is a sign of your own viewpoint’s weakness, not that of your target. If your argument is better than the one proposed, I for one would want to know what it is: you are doing the world a disservice if all you do is cut an idea off by the root, rather than indicate why it is, in fact, a weed. You are denying knowledge that is, perhaps, needed. You do yourself and everyone a favour by indicating the stupidity or ineptitude of a view. But you help no one by merely censoring the view.

The limits of free speech can only be made with the mechanisms of free speech. If these limits are not engaged with as such, the limits become arbitrary and/or dictatorial. Who is telling you what you can and cannot read? Who is telling you what you may and may not see? We are adult enough to make such decisions, but we should realise that sometimes expressions might test us if there are signs of “clear and present danger”, as Oliver Wendell Holmes called it. His most famous example is that we should not be allowed to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Ayatollah Khomeini’s spreading his idea of a reward for killing Sir Salman Rushdie, for writing The Satanic Verses, might constitute another such violation. Another might be instructions on how to create a supervirus. The difficulty, of course, is working out the harder cases: should we say the Danish cartoonists “brought” such violence on themselves others, in the Jyllends-Posten debacle? I don’t think so, but we need to discuss that openly.

The important realisation though, especially in cases like the Jyllends-Posten and The Satanic Verses, is that if people relented, it would constitute submitting to (in this instance religious) bullying and totalitarianism. As Mill said “He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.” For Mill, a central aspect of liberty is not simply the lack of coercion (which is essentially what happens with censorship) but “self-creation”, or autonomy. It’s not enough that you walk without chains, you have to constantly build the bridge in front of you, too.

This doesn’t mean that you must never agree with others: those who want to say it is bad to post insulting pictures of Muhammad or of empty-headed atheists might have good arguments. But if we arrive at the same conclusions as these people, we must do so not because they’ve forced us into it with censorship of the offending material or threats against us, but because we have examined their view critically for ourselves. This is what using our liberty as individuals is about.

The paradox of course should be apparent: if we want to reach the same conclusions as the censors, we would need to engage with the material for ourselves. Then, as soon as that happens, and we relent to have the material censored, we can’t ever make a good argument in favour again, since the conclusion of censorship would’ve been reached. It seems then that a successful conclusion of censorship will always be a death-knell to the successful usage of autonomy. How we work this out, however, will depend on an open debate and one not based on whether my moral outrage is more than yours.


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Joi Ito has championed the MIT Media Lab’s inter-disciplinary approach to problem-solving. That means instead of specializing, going deep enough in a number of fields in order to understand the nuances and connect with other experts.