Belfast Telegraph

Louis Smith case is absurd... the fetishisation of 'free speech' is harming us all

By Syed Muhammad Tahir Nasser

Let me make one thing clear from the outset: this article has been long coming. If it contains references to things that happened a few years ago, forgive me.

I started writing this article after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. I then came back to it after the attacks in Brussels. This week however saw the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I read an article by Janet Street-Porter.

To be fair, it wasn’t just her, but she certainly didn’t help. Hers was a lazy re-hashing of arguments using principles of free speech to justify bigotry and antisocial behaviour in relation to two incidents that have occurred in recent weeks:

The first came from IPSO’s determination of whether Kelvin MacKenzie’s statement constituted hate-speech, when he wrote that headscarf-wearing presenter Fatima Manji reporting on the Nice attacks amounted to “editorial-stupidity,” as he questioned whether “it (was) done to stick one in the eye of the ordinary viewer who looks at the hijab as a sign of the slavery of Muslim women by a male-dominated and clearly violent religion.”

IPSO ruled that the complaint was not justified, since MacKenzie’s statement “triggered a legitimate subject of debate – whether newsreaders should be allowed to wear religious symbols.”

The second incident came from responses to Louis Smith’s apology for mocking the Islamic prayer and his visit to two mosques to learn more about the faith, while missing Olympic celebrations.

People seemed rather appalled that he apologised and missed the chance for a good party, in order to educate himself. Gosh, what a terrible tragedy.

In both cases, arguments on “free-speech” are used to give cover to mockery, denigration of others, ridicule and bigotry (in the case of MacKenzie’s statement). The ruling on MacKenzie’s statement is a classic example: whether his words prompted a debate on religious-symbols is irrelevant to the question.

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Further, the IPSO ruling is not even meaningful, because MacKenzie’s statement was clearly not made with the intention of “promoting debate” on religious symbols; he presumably would not have made that statement if Manji was wearing a crucifix around her neck.

His statement was as regards her Islamic religious symbol, and his words were chosen to promote the idea that Muslims who wear an Islamic religious symbol are sympathetic to terrorist atrocities committed by other Muslims, and therefore should not be reporting such news. If that isn’t hate speech, what is?

The Louis Smith case is even more absurd. Louis Smith’s apology and attempt to learn about Islam by visiting mosques is being called out as pandering to Islamic over-sensitivity. Yet, what would be the response had he mocked the Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist manner of prayer? Would anyone have taken him to task for apologising? Probably not. 

The question we need to ask ourselves is: what is the purpose of free speech? At the heart of free speech is criticism.

Free speech is a tool to enable people to voice their critique about any matter, free from recrimination. The same goes for satire – a tradition using humour, irony and wit to put across a point of criticism. Usually such satire is directed against a higher-authority as a means of holding power to account.

Indeed, as Will Self put it after the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, what is the point of satire directed against a minority community in a country? These examples show that the purpose of free-speech is to address power-balances and to ensure that no-one is subject to recrimination for voicing a legitimate criticism.

Yet, what criticism was Louis Smith levelling when, in his drunken state, he mocked the bowing and prostration of Islamic prayer? None. Similarly, what criticism was being levelled when Charlie Hebdo dehumanised Italian victims of the Amatrice earthquake, depicting them as different types of squashed pasta? None.

Does this mean that people have the right to not be offended? Absolutely not. But the right to not be offended is not the same as the right to deliberately offend, especially when that offence is devoid of any critique, and is done purely to insult and demean the other.

While “free speech” is increasingly paraded as a reason to get away with antisocial behaviour, actual violation of free speech goes unnoticed. RT has its bank accounts suddenly shut by Natwest, at the same time that Julian Assange has its internet cut by a “state-agent.”

All the while, our power against the security state diminishes daily, with Theresa May’s “Snooper’s Charter” being described by Edward Snowden as “mass surveillance” at its “most intrusive and least accountable.” Ironically, those seemingly most concerned about using free speech to insult Muslims and Islam, are often the least concerned about actual threats to free speech originating from state actors.

The fetishizing of “free speech” in our society today only exposes our failure to take responsibility for our words. Free-speech principles should not be used to protect speech that is gross, dehumanising, belittling and degrading, without any point of criticism being made. To do so violates the very purpose of free speech – the promotion of a society in which all are able to live free from fear, in peace and harmony. To use free speech to undermine the very purpose for which it exists, is perversity in the extreme.

Syed Muhammad Tahir Nasser is a social affairs commentator and medical doctor. Tahir is a regular contributor and commentator in the national media

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