Censorship is Offensive

The tension between freedom of speech and being offensive is becoming increasingly apparent in Australia. Where in the past a clause relating to incitement to violence was the only limit we would tolerate to free speech, Roxon’s panned offence laws suggest many people now think we should also prohibit statements thatare excessively rude. Is there any way to find a reasonable principle for censorship?

A good place to start looking for answers is the controversy around Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, whichearned him a Fatwah from the Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme ruler of Iran, for blasphemy.

The Satanic Verses is principally an exploration of the immigrant experience, but made use of satirical allusions to the Quran as literary devices. In particular, some passages suggested that the “Satanic Verses”, a small number of Pagan verses believed to have once been included in the Quran but later removed, were self-interested in origin, questioning the divine motives of the Prophet.

Arguably even more inflammatory were passages where 12 whores in a brothel eachtake the name of one of the Prophet’s wives.

In the wake of the Fatwah, a group of intellectuals from across Europe signed a declaration of solidarity, a World Statement (W.S.), with Rushdie. They approached Karl Popper, a notable philosopher of liberalism, who declined to sign. Here’s why:

“If a W.S. is published, it must, in my opinion, begin by saying that the signatories realise that every freedom(like the freedom to publish) involves a duty (like the duty not to hurt)…And the W.S. would have to continue by saying that Rushdie has now realised the hurt he has caused, and has apologised for it”.

This would seem to come down quite decisively on the side of offensiveness being not okay. But it must be remembered that in liberal nations we consider freedom of speech a right, not a duty.

This is crucial, because rights are institutionally enforced, while duties are the ambit of subjective, individual morality. Popper underscores this when he emphasises thatRushdie has apologised. The responsibility for restorative justice rests on Rushdie and the offended parties, not institutions.

Yet in Rushdie’s case and in Roxon’s laws, institutional power failed to defend free speech and instead sought to chastise people for being impolite.

Liberalism, which has coincided with the greatest period of human flourishing in our history, is predicated on fallibilism—the idea that we may be wrong. This is the bedrock of tolerance, cultural relativism, rational public debate and rule of law.

Nobody should be able to dictate what is “true” or “right”. These claims must always be contested in the public space.

So when people are offended it is appropriate for them to air their grievances through letters to the editor, newspaper articles and other public comments. This facilitates a discussion. But it is not appropriate for people to seek an institutionalresponse to something they find offensive.

Having institutions dictate truth gives overt power a means to exercise itself independently of collective will. This is precisely what the liberal institutional framework was designed to combat: the oppressive force of a state above the law, an infallible church and an aristocracy who justified their wealth through a moral order that kept the poor beneath “their betters”.

A citizenry tough enough to handle satire and criticism is crucial to the robust public space necessary for liberal democratic functioning. Someone will be offended by justabout anything. Try reading the ABC complaints compilation if you don’t believe me.

If we start to institutionally constrain actions on the grounds that they cause offence we won’t have a public discourse left. We won’t have the slack to courageously criticise institutions for fear of persecution, and then we’ll be right back in the dark ages before the enlightenment brought us out of Plato’s cave.

The freedom to offend is an increasingly mainstream controversy and we as a liberalsociety need to conclude it decidedly in favour of an institutional right to freedom of speech. Offence can be handled by individuals, freedom cannot.

The author blogs at markfabian.blogspot.com