The latest attacks on free speech have arisen and sadly I am not surprised. This is just the most recent in a long history of our freedom to offend being not just questioned but openly attacked by extremists. This isn’t a new phenomenon either for those who wish to try and pin this down on our foreign policy or disenfranchisement. The renowned author of the satanic verses Salman Rushdie was given a death warrant for his works. Not only did a particularly nasty dictator call for Mr Rushdie’s death, but many seemed to agree with this man in so far that Mr Rushdie had caused ‘offense’, so his books must be burned, and protests against Mr Rushdie must begin as steadfastly as the British saying ‘keep calm and carry on’.
As Dianne Abbot recalled on This Week, her office was flooded with Imams and ordinary people ordering her to denounce Rushdie and encourage book burning; thankfully now that site is rarely seen or heard. It wasn’t just Mr Rushdie who suffered, his Japanese translator was murdered, his Italian translator was stabbed but survived, and his publisher in Norway was shot three times and survived. This was all done as a result of being offended.
The Rushdie affair was not surprisingly the first in a long line of attacks. These attacks have been perpetrated by lynch mobs, gangs, fascists and lunatics relatively frequently. Whether that is Mr Van Gogh who was killed in Amsterdam or the Danish state being held hostage or people trying to get Maajid Nawaz deselected from his candidacy in the Liberal Democrat Party. Not only are these attacks frequent but often they are not completely condemned by the whole of society. Yes, few side with the attackers but as seen with the reaction to this latest atrocity you hear people say ‘well of course it’s wrong but…’ and this reaction seems to suggest that while the attacks were wrong that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo had somehow brought it on themselves. This is a backwards line of thinking that leads to the conclusion of ‘don’t anger the mad men or else,’ which would soon disintegrate into a situation where we can never say anything thought-provoking.
It was inevitable that our newspapers decided not to entirely stand side-by-side with Charlie Hebdo. None of the major papers decided printing the cartoons was worth the risk; as Andrew Neil said “consider us intimidated.” Many columnists, chiefly Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch and Douglas Murray have all come out in support of the cartoonists and for our most fundamental and basic of rights. Sadly more and more they seem like lone voices in a confused and at times scared society which considers threats to our society worth heeding.
I am not going to go into the details of my belief in freedom of expression in this article as I have explained them here. What I will say is that freedom of speech and expression is the cornerstone of every functioning and healthy, democratic and free society. Without this, walls will build up against communities and our worst fears will be realised of living in a truly divided society. No-one has the right not to be offended, even if that is to grossly offend someone else. Without this not only is freedom of speech lost but so is freedom of religion. There is a price of living in a free society; we’re free to disagree with each other and free to offend one another even on matters which matter to us greatly.
As Heinrich Heine famously pointed out “where books are burned, that eventually they burn people.” This was a not so remarkable insightful into the mindset of those who believe the answer to other opinions is the destruction of them. We must not be cowered as we have been in the past by this latest attack: we have a right to offend, to satirize, to mock with incredulity and to insult. If people cannot stand that idea then they need to learn to accept it. As the late great Mr Hitchens once said; “My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.”