How to defend free speech
With the persecution of Salman Rushdie, the continuing furore over ‘offensive cartoons’, and polluters, dictators and terrorist bagmen using British libel law to shield their misdeeds from public scrutiny, the opponents of free speech have never had it so good. This is Nick Cohen’s ten-point plan to stop the rot, protect free expression and turn back the tide of outrage that threatens our right to speak
1) The political is not personal
The private life of civilised society is built on white lies. Our relations with others would break down if we did not restrain free speech and treat them with respect. No one, however, should demand respect for public ideas that have the power to oppress others. Religious and political ideas are too important to protect with polite deceits because their adherents seek to control all aspects of public and private life.
2) The personal is not political
However hard journalists find it to argue for the suppression of the truth, demands for a right to privacy are justifiable. They will grow as the Net replaces the anonymity of the 20th century city, which was so well suited to anonymous liaisons, with a global village. As in all villages, tell-tales, peeping Toms and poison pens will proliferate. The Net makes ineradicable proofs of past indiscretions available to employers, police forces, corporations, democratic governments, dictatorial states and malicious gossips. Soon many will realise that the new technologies are a secret policeman’s dream.
It is symptomatic of the banality of contemporary debate that the only argument we hear about privacy is the argument between celebrities’ lawyers and tabloid editors – a struggle that recalls the joke about the Iran-Iraq war that “it is a pity they can’t both lose”. As we must deal with celebrities before we can move on, the best solution would be for the courts to offer them protection, but override their privacy rights and allow publication if there is even a small public interest in exposure. To do that we need judges who instinctively value free debate and are alert to the dangers of the wealthy manipulating the law. If such judges are impossible to find, we should restrict privacy rights for all public figures as the Americans do.
3) Respect is the enemy of tolerance
The loud calls from the religious for censorship in the name of “respect” reveal the fatuity of modern faith. The religious do not say that they are defending the truth from libellous attack because in their hearts they know they cannot defend the truth of their holy books. So, like celebrities’ lawyers trying to hide dirty secrets, they threaten the gains made in the struggle for religious toleration by saying that those who ask searching questions of religion must be punished for invading the privacy of the pious.
Religious toleration allowed freedom of religion and freedom from religion. The demand to “respect” religion is an attempt to push back the gains of the Enlightenment by forbidding the essential arguments that religious toleration allowed.
4) If you are frightened, at least have the guts to say so
Once one did not write the word “liberal” and add “hypocrite”. Since the Rushdie Affair, the reflex has become automatic. The worst aspect of the fear the Islamists spread was that Western intellectuals were afraid of admitting that they were afraid. If they had been honest, they would have forced society to confront the fact of censorship. As it was, their silence made the enemies of liberalism stronger.
5) Once you have paid him the Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane
The slide from religious fanatics calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie because he had written a blasphemous novel to murdering Salman Taseer merely for opposing the death penalty for blasphemy shows how appeasement feeds the beast it seeks to tame. All dictatorial systems, secular and religious, have a capacity to go postal: to move from attacks on their enemies which can be rationally explained to random, almost meaningless assaults on the smallest transgressions. It is best to stop them before they get started.
6) Democracy does not end at the office door
Demands for elected worker-directors and stronger protections for whistleblowers are always justifiable because they restrict the power of the plutocracy. The banking crisis revealed that they could also protect national security. Sensible countries should treat banks as if they were hostile foreign powers, and enable, protect and honour those who reveal the threats they pose to wider society.
7) The wealthy have means enough to defend themselves, they do not need the law to add to them
Free speech has advanced by a process of declaring subjects too important for states to censor. The American revolutionaries of 1776 said the law had no right to interfere in religious debates. The gains of the Enlightenment and the struggle against the European dictatorships led to the acceptance by democracies that no one should regulate political ideas. The battles of the Civil Rights Movement in the American South established that public figures in the United States could not seek the law’s protection unless they were victims of “malicious” attack – that is, from critics who showed a reckless disregard for the truth. Europe should import that protection and ensure it covers business as well as politics. Given the dangers the financial system poses to modern democracies, the law should not allow CEOs, corporations and financiers the right to use their considerable wealth to limit free discussion of their affairs.
8) Beware of anyone who begins a sentence with “there’s no such thing as absolute free speech so…”
…for they will end it by saying something scandalous. John Stuart Mill’s principle that censorship should be applied only in extreme circumstances remains the best guide to follow. British libel lawyers’ assault on scientists shows that when society gives censors vague powers they never confine themselves to deserving targets. They are not snipers but machine gunners. Allow them to fire at will, and they will hit anything that moves.
9) Location, Location, Location
It is not what you say, but where you say it. The freedom the Net brings is illusory if it confines writers to working under pseudonyms in obscure corners of the Web. Writers who wish to be heard must break from the fringe into the mainstream by arguing for their ideas in the open. If they live in a dictatorship or a democracy with oppressive laws, they will find that on their own the new technologies offer few ways round the old restrictions on free debate.
10) The Net cannot set you free
Only politics can do that.
This is an extract from Nick Cohen’s You Can’t Read This Book, published by Fourth Estate