Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Freedom of speech an ideal to be revered but restrained

Freedom of expression in the West is hokum, I say. It's 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, remain unenlightened because they suppress the human voice. But I also believe that freedom without responsibility amounts to anarchy.

As do those European nations which have collectively agreed that Holocaust denial is an offence, that minorities should be protected from hate speech and that individuals have the right to privacy. Quite a list of limitations, eh? Libertarians proclaiming freedom of expression as an absolute, non-negotiable Western value say nothing on those restrictions.

If that manifesto was real, Kate Middleton would have to put up and shut up 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.

None of that is permitted, because in good societies there have to be curbs on what can be said, published or broadcast and sometimes freedom has to give way.

With Muslims, there is no restraint, or even fairness. Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine in France which printed demeaning cartoons of Prophet Mohamed, wanted trouble, so its editor could appear a really big man.

And because many Muslims are instantly and irrationally aroused to extreme frenzy, he expected it all to go off and his magazine 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.

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, or Christians to test their liberalism.

We have recently had a lot of Salman Rushdie. A memoir, hagiographic TV programme, a film of Midnight's Children, luvvie tributes have affirmed his eminence.

This novelist of exceptional talent 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.

In his book he turns on anyone with nuanced views of the Satanic Verses crisis or who, like John Major and civil servants, didn't give in to his many demands.

Serious writers who were critical of him - Arundhati Roy, Louis de Bernieres, John le Carre - are roundly trashed. Rushdie, a god of liberalism, proves that words and images hurt. They do, which is why we tell our children to watch what they say. The internet is free and look how ugly that space is becoming. Imagine that poison coursing through the real world. It may happen and then fanatical libertarians will think about the consequences of uncontained freedom.

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