Government Minister Sam Gyimah begins an op-ed in The Times today thus:
I wholly disapprove with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
Voltaire’s famous words reflect my opinion on free speech. It is an essential part of a thriving democracy, a civil society and a fulfilling university experience.
Except Voltaire never wrote those words. They are a paraphrase, a summary, written by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who wrote under the pen name Stephen G. Tallentyre.
The phrase appears in Friends of Voltaire and is in reference to Voltaire’s contemporary Claude Adrien Helvétius and his controversial book De l’Espirit (On The Mind), which had been declared heretical and burned.
On The Mind became not the success of the season, but one of the most famous books of the century. The men who had hated it and had not particularly loved Helvétius, flocked round him now. Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional. ‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ was his attitude now. (Pages 198-199)
According to Wikiquote, the misattribution to Voltaire happened in the June 1934 edition of Readers Digest. In repsonse, Hall was quoted in Saturday Review (11 May 1935), saying:
I did not mean to imply that Voltaire used these words verbatim and should be surprised if they are found in any of his works. They are rather a paraphrase of Voltaire’s words in the Essay on Tolerance — “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.”
6/ You may think me naive, or things are too far gone. But I believe – fundamentally – that no problem is beyond solving, particularly where both sides contain good people who want things to be better not worse. But it will be difficult – the above is as minimum to succeed. /end
In the past few weeks I’ve been having debates with good people whom I respect deeply about the limits of freedom of expression. When Britian First were banned by Facebook I suggested that the extremists in our society might be moderated and rehabilitated through dialogue.
When I have made this point, my friends have criticised me for being naiive. The bigots are irredeemable (they say) and the best strategy is therefore to cauterise their movement by silencing it wherever we can.
A quick thought about the nature of ‘responsibility’.
In the Meechan case this week the judge at Airdrie Sheriff Court said:
In my view it is a reasonable conclusion that the video is grossly offensive. The description of the video as humorous is no magic wand. This court has taken the freedom of expression into consideration. But the right to freedom of expression also comes with responsibility.
On the Sky News debate programme The Pledge, presenter Nick Ferrari echoed this sentiment.
With the right to free speech comes a responsibility to use it wisely. This a sentiment I hear a lot and it seems sensible. Personally, I am not convinced it is the rhetorical silver bullet that most people think it is. I can think of examples where a speaker might actually think it very responsible to mock or to offend someone who they believe deserves it. And when journalists expose Official Secrets (as the Guardian did when publishing the testimony of Edward Snowden) there were plenty of people ready to call this kind of publication irresponsible. So ‘responsibility’ is in the eye of the beholder. Continue reading “Rights and Responsibilities”
In Airdrie, Scotland, a man named Markus Meechan has been convicted of posting a grossly offensive video on his ‘Count Dankula’ YouTube channel. He taught his girlfriend’s dog to give a Nazi salute in response to the phrase ‘gas the jews’.
It’s clearly a joke. In fact, he explains as much in the video itself:
Mah girlfriend is always ranting and raving about how cute her wee dug is, and so I thought that I would turn him into the least cutest thing that I can think of, which is a Nazi.
This blog may give the impression that I am certain in my views, especially about freedom of expression.
But that’s not the case. Especially about freedom of expression.
As Robert Sharp of English Pen told me – just when you think you’ve settled your mind on all the arguments surrounding free speech and censorship, along comes an argument to throw you completely off again.
That’s from a blog post by Ben Please of the Bookshop Band, who are doing a marvellous project on censorship with the V&A, which has just acquired the archives of Oz Magazine. I hope I can go to their event on 20/21 April.
Following my short appearance in a BBC news report yesterday, I had hoped to publish a companion blog post here, making all the free speechy points that were edited out of my contribution. Instead, I strayed off piste and ended up with this litany of complaints about Facebook. A useful aide memoir for the future, with a couple of useful insights, maybe.
When it comes to free speech, even the most hardened advocates tend to draw the line at incitement to violence. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins” wrote Zechariah Chafee. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and when people publish text or video that is likely to provoke violence, it is legitimate to censor that content.
Inciting violence and hate is what Britain First group appear to have been doing, so the Facebook decision to ban their page feels righteous. Good riddance? Nothing to see here? Move along?
The racist far right group Britain First have been banned from Facebook. BBC South East reported the story and interviewed yrstrly for English PEN. Here’s what I said:
We abhor what Britain First stands for, but nevertheless there are some unintended consequences with this move. Shutting down speech you don’t like is deeply problematic—It means that countries around the world can use it as an excuse to shut down speech they don’t like. And it also alienates certain sections of the British population, [with whom] we really need to have a dialogue…
Obviously this is just a small excerpt from a longer interview I gave to the news team. There is a lot more to say about this issue, in particular about how we appear to have ceded most of our political discourse to private companies running social media platforms. There is also a real issue surrounding the efficacy of counter-speech, and what both social media and the traditional broadcasters might do in order to give better, bigger platforms to the kind of options that can counter and neutralise the far right threat. I will post more on this soon.
In Prospect, the author, barrister and broadcaster Afua Hirsch has written an interesting essay on the ‘fantasy’ of free speech and how we ignore power dynamics in our free speech debates. Within the piece, Hirsch makes this observation:
And here we reach the heart of the matter. In an ideal world, views from privileged people who want to keep things the same would—like all other views—be presented in a marketplace of ideas, competing fairly with the perspectives that challenge it. This is how free speech is meant to work.
But free speech doesn’t work like that. The marketplace of ideas, like many other markets, has monopolies, rackets and biases. Long-established “suppliers” of opinions with entrenched positions in “the sector” enjoy huge advantages. Marketplaces, inevitably, require merchants, arbiters and traders to work well. Why? Because the space in which they operate is rarely level.
Over the past few days a debate has erupted concerning a tweet posted by the historian Mary Beard. Here it is.
Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere. But I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain “civilised” values in a disaster zone. And overall I still respect those who go in to help out, where most of us wd not tread.
This Tweet provoked a furious backlash from people accusing her of a kind of veiled colonialism. Professor Beard wrote a follow-up blog to clarify her remarks and posted a photo of herself in tears. One of her Cambridge University colleagues, Priyamvada Gopal, posted a scathing critique of Beard’s tweet and clarification, writing
I’m afraid that your good intentions notwithstanding, it is precisely this genteel patrician racist manner and this context of entrenched denial in which your tweet on Haiti, ‘civilised’ values (scare quotes noted but not enough, I’m afraid) and disaster zones was received. … Your subsequent blog post, to not put too fine a point on it, did little to help your cause and is regarded by many as a ‘no-pology’, a stubborn refusal to see what was wrong with your original post and taking refuge instead in the familiar posture of wounded white innocence.