Voltaire’s Nightmare: Pussy Riot and the Hypocrisy of Free Speech

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is a political maxim oft called upon in robust democratic debate. Yet the furore over the jailing of three Pussy Riot members demonstrates the selectivity in how the West and its Russian liberal allies promote free speech. Support for free speech nowadays largely depends on sufficient numbers of people agreeing with a political message, rather than actually allowing open discourse.

Chancellor Merkel, heading a country with its own draconian speech laws, argued the sentence “calls into question Russia’s commitment to protect… fundamental rights and freedoms”. Amnesty International, which ironically claims to promote respect for the religious traditions Pussy Riot trampled on, declared them “prisoners of conscience”. David Cameron, the US State Department and Madonna formed just part of a wider chorus condemning the jailing.

People claiming to fighting for liberal values immediately magnetise our support for almost all their actions, despite their sometimes questionable antics used for publicity. In reverse, non-violent campaigns for social assimilation, reductions in immigration or other taboo issues can lead to a prison sentence. Before we claim the moral high-ground and condemn Russia, we need to reflect on the curtailment of free speech in liberal-minded societies.

The entire world reacted strongly last year when US evangelical Terry Jones publicly burnt the Koran. But in Kiev last week, a topless Pussy Riot sympathiserʼs destruction of a Cross commemorating victims of Stalinism drew scarce condemnation at all. It’s hate for conservative Christians to burn the Koran, but we’re nonplussed to see young feminists desecrating religious memorials for genocide victims. Why?

Geert Wilders, the popular Dutch far-rightist, found himself prosecuted for comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf. A hardly fantastical stance given the language of the Bible and Koran, his plight illustrates how legal problems abound for those challenging politically correctness. While many still consider his assertion hate speech, the West deems Pussy Riot singing an altar-side prayer parody, “Holy, holy shit of God”, peaceful freedom of expression.

Prosecutions for racist verbal abuse, especially in Britain, give a more everyday insight into uneven free speech restrictions. A black woman is now under investigation for an anti-Caucasian tirade; typically the trend is drunken white women filmed abusing Subcontinental and African Tube passengers. One offender, Jacqueline Woodhouse, copped 21 weeks in jail. London knife crime incidents, by contrast, can attract suspended sentences. Joining them are recent cases of Olympics spectators arrested for disparaging athletes or their families. If a former cradle of liberalism wants to regularly imprison people for offensive language, however tasteless, we cannot defend a band for comparably abusing a religionʼs freedom to worship in peace.

Common justifications for Pussy Riotʼs right to freedom of expression are untenable and self-serving at best. This is because a defence of their stunt also necessitates similar defences for countless non-liberals and non-feminists pursued under comparable Western laws. After all, the band members intruded into the most sacred part of Christ the Saviour Cathedral. Their words may have been intended to target Patriarch Kirill, a Putin supporter, but they deliberately profaned a liturgy holy to 125 million Russian Orthodox Christians. Moreover, if their ideology had been Stalinism, no Westerner would have blinked over their jailing, let alone rallied against it. Western society cares because they are feminist and anti-Putin, not because of any inalienable right to freedom of expression.

Should society feel compelled to impose prison terms on controversial figures while it backs Pussy Riot, it should not pretend to be furthering free speech. It is instead butchering the term, endorsing narrows conceptions of acceptability in public discourse. Nonetheless, the argument here is not for uninhibited freedom of expression. Calls to violence and clear forms of defamation mark the end of a right to say what one wishes.

To invoke free speech, we actually have to consistently affirm our belief in it. Our ideologically selective interpretations are only making Voltaire shudder in his grave.