The Limits of Free Speech

It is the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that were in the headlines this year, because of the murders of twelve journalists and cartoonists at its Paris offices in January. Not unnaturally, this prompted a huge outpouring of sympathy and support not only for the families and friends of the victims, but also for the principles of free speech. The murders, it seems, were viewed by the majority of people, certainly in the west, as an attack on democracy and the principles of free speech and, by extension, on all of our western values.

But, even in the west, not everyone would view them in the same way. Whilst condemning the murders as abhorrent, there were many who pointed out that the cartoons were distasteful and unnecessary, and provocative towards all Muslims, and to view the cartoons as offensive was not the same thing as regarding all western civilisation as beyond the pale. And not the same thing as condoning the murders.

Yes, we do have the right of free, or at least reasonably unfettered, speech, but it is important to remember that with rights come responsibilities. It is generally accepted that we do not lie under oath, and that it is unacceptable to malign or defame someone. It is quite rightly against the law to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded cinema if there is no fire, or to claim that an expensive nostrum that one is marketing is the elixir of life.

It is against the law to incite violence, but, to return for the moment to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, it could be argued that their publication was just that. Those responsible for the publication must have been perfectly aware that they would be regarded as deliberately provocative and would provoke anger and outrage. At the very least, they displayed an unnecessary lack of respect towards a large number of people; a complete disregard for their feelings. I cannot help but compare their actions to those of the hooligan who throws a brick through a window, just to enjoy the sound of the destruction, and the knowledge that he has hurt and offended someone who he may never have met.

So…censorship. There! BOO! I’ve used the C word! To suggest that there might be valid reasons why we might have limits on free speech, is to openly invite accusations that one would like to censor this and that and everything and that is obviously a bad thing, no? Well, that depends rather on whether or not you agree with what I have just written. I would not suggest that discussion of certain subjects should be taboo, but that the challenge is to find a way to discuss a difficult subject without causing unnecessary offence, otherwise we prevent that discussion happening in a rational and intelligent way, anyway. It is not wholly possible to avoid controversy, and indeed we should not wish to, but a healthy discussion is not the same as a slanging match.

If it is possible to speak out to draw attention to injustices in a state or a system, or to discuss controversial subjects without the fear of being persecuted for doing so, then one is enjoying freedom of speech. Deliberately insulting or slighting another person is no more than rudeness; technically, it is verbal assault.

How does all this pertain to the writer, then? Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Conrad’s ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’, if written today, would clearly need to be given a different title. But does that make Conrad racist? No, it was considered to be acceptable, when it was written, to use that as a title. It wasn’t then considered as provocative. If he was writing today, Conrad would surely avoid it.

Many of the Father Brown stories are quite racist in their content but, again, are of their time. If Chesterton were writing today, he would surely write them differently, without those racist overtones. Whether or not he had any particular feelings about the superiority, or otherwise, of any particular race, he would, hopefully, self-censor his writing. It is, after all, what we all do at times to avoid offending someone else (don’t we?).

A number of newspaper journalists and editors will use the phrase ‘in the public interest’ to justify publishing damaging stories of famous figures’ private lives that can have no possible bearing on the lives of members of the public, but are merely prurient and salacious and sell newspapers. Is this a misuse of free speech?

What are your thoughts on this issue?

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4 thoughts on “The Limits of Free Speech

  1. True, Mick, we have to work within the constraints of our own cultures, and these are forever in flux. Nobody objected when Olivier blacked up to play Othello in 1965 yet today, whenever Othello is produced, the character is inevitably played by a negro actor. In the unlikely event that The Black & White Minstrel Show was revived, the black characters would have to be played by negroes and the white characters by negroes with white-painted faces. (I presume that would be politically correct but who knows? Anything with a racial theme is likely to incite Pavlov’s dogs.)

    I have often said that a writer who offends nobody has nothing to say. But it’s counter-productive to offend one’s readers gratuitously, The pendulums of bigotry will swing back again within 50 years, I’m sure, but that’s small comfort to us today if we can’t get our work published!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, if we want to sell newspapers, we write to offend people (or so it seems). Otherwise, we need to tread very carefully. Apparently, Salman Rushdie was completely surprised by the reaction to ‘Satanic verses’, expecting only to have to debate a few points with scholars when it was published. I don’t think that there’s anything in my book to cause that sort of furore *fingers crossed*

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  2. All so very true. We can’t enjoy freedom of speech unless we also allow others to speak freely. We are not in this world alone. Not everyone is going to agree with our opinions on what is the proper response to bullying. Being intentionally offensive and hurtful, regardless of the reasons behind it, in my opinion, and it is merely an opinion, is bullying. Hooliganery if you will! 😂 From what I have witnessed, I think that in bullying, we frown upon the bully and defend the one being bullied; that is however until the one being bullied chooses, in retaliation, to trod upon our belief systems. Then the bully becomes the one who has been wronged. That type of thinking is riddled with hypocrisy. Things are never going to be balanced until we can learn to see things equally from all sides. If a journalist, publishing stories about a famous person, can imagine another journalist writing that same story about them, maybe they can then understand the weight and gravity of mere words spoken. But then again, journalism is a business, and in business, sometimes integrity is set aside. But what if everyone agreed to Imagine themselves on the other side of their own comments. I think with that technique, we can discuss anything and everything, with respect and honor for the speakers as well as the listeners. Although I must agree, with what we have become conditioned to find entertaining, being mindful of the feelings of others might end up being slightly boring. 😕 😂 Thank you for raising and allowing this platform. I toast a cheer to healthy discussions. 🍸 🎉😄

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. I think I would almost repeat the reply that I have just put up to your comment on ‘I am right and you are wrong’, and add that it is really all about treating people with respect. I think that a lot of the problems with discussions on any topic, are down to the fact that so many people feel it necessary to have the last word and so said discussion goes on and on and escalates well past its natural conclusion.

      Liked by 1 person

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