Freedom of expression in the west is hokum, I say, and hypocrisy dressed up as high virtue. Worse still, it is now used as a missile aimed mainly at Muslims.
Freedoms are sacred and easily snatched by the powerful and it is a blessing to live in a country where Prime Ministers and Princes are berated with impunity. Authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia and China and many others remain unenlightened because they suppress the human voice. However, I also believe freedom is anarchy without responsibility and sensitivity. As do all European nations which have collectively agreed that that Holocaust denial is an offence, minorities should be protected from hate speech, that individuals have the right to privacy and legal protection against libel, that big businesses must be allowed to keep information confidential as can governments, defence companies and NATO. There are also the constraints that have crept in over the decades: Muslims thinking evil thoughts or reading about them are now tried and some jailed; influential folk can buy silence about their affairs and journalists self-censor for an easy life. The chief whip, who allegedly called a police officer a ‘pleb’ is finding out he wasn’t really free to do that. Quite a list of limitations eh?
Libertarians proclaiming freedom of expression as an ABSOLUTE, NON-NEGOTIABLE, BEAUTIFUL western value say nothing or little on any of those restrictions. If that manifesto was real, Kate Middleton would have to put up and shut about those pictures, David Irving, the anti-Semitic historian would be allowed to publish his revolting spiel and not be imprisoned as he was in 2006 in Austria and we would have no libel or defamation laws. Racist landlords would put ‘No Wogs, No Irish, No Dogs’ notices on their window sills and disabled and gay people would be liberally abused on trains and busses, and paedophilic material would be sold in corner shops. None of that is permitted because in good societies there have to be formal and unofficial curbs on what can be said, published or broadcast and sometimes freedom has to give way. I agree with the DPP that senders of silly tweets and tasteless jokes should not be prosecuted but surely we still need to take care when communicating with the world.
With Muslims, there is no restraint or even fairness. Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine in France which printed demeaning cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, wanted trouble, mayhem, so its editor could appear a really big man. And because Muslims are instantly and irrationally aroused to extreme frenzy he expected it all to go off and the rag to make money and martyrs. Well it didn’t happen. French Muslims were banned from demonstrating, denied that democratic right.
The anti-Islam internet film made by some dodgy Americans (we think) got the fire and fury it wanted- throngs came out, people died, for no good reason on either side. Now we find that some Libyans have come out against the murderous mobs and for the American Ambassador and other victims, even for America itself. Not what was expected, a terrible disappointment for the westerners who feel especially good about themselves when they can get many of my brethren behave madly or very, very badly, which they do, too often. Muslims need to calm down, grow up, learn to debate and become more self aware. Western liberals who feel they have a duty to incite Muslims need self awareness too and a bit of honesty. They don’t provoke, Jews, Hindus, Christians to test the muscles of their liberalism and actually are pretty rubbish at accepting criticism themselves. I remember the late Christopher Hitchins at the Hay festival behaving like a literary lout when challenged about some of his views.
We have recently had a lot of Salman Rushdie, too much, like three plates of biryani. A memoir, hagiographic TV programme, a film of Midnight’s Children, luvvie tributes have affirmed his eminence. This novelist of exceptional talent and imagination spent the best years of his life living with fear and trauma. He is entitled to be angry forever. But as he stands for freedom of expression, he should live by it. Mr Rushdie finds that very hard. In his book he turns on anyone with nuanced views of the Satanic Verses crisis or, like John Major and civil servants, didn’t give in to his many demands. Sarcastically dismissed is this newspaper, apparently a ‘house journal for British Muslims’, while serious writers who were critical of him – Arundhati Roy, Louis de Bernieres, John le Carre are roundly trashed. Rushdie, a god of liberalism, proves words and images hurt.
They do, which is why we tell our children to watch what they say, not to say what they want. And why there are no school lessons on how to make cruel and offensive ‘jokes’ or outrageous trolling. The internet is almost absolutely free and look how ugly and frightening that space is becoming. Imagine all that poison suffusing through the real world. It may well happen and then maybe the most fanatical libertarians will think about the consequences of feral, uncontained, goading freedom. By that time it will be too late.
Published in the Independent 24th September 2012