This Barefoot Bum business has set me reflecting, yet again, on the rocky state of free speech and candid debate in our febrile so-called ‘open’ societies.
When I was growing up during WW2 and at university in the years immediately following, we were taught, and believed, that freedom of thought, expression, and debate was the bedrock of a healthy society. Indeed, it was this very principle, above all, that the War had been fought to defend. Apart from the necessary limits of direct incitement to violence [which included ‘hate speech’] and libel, we believed that the more robustly opinions, however extreme, were expressed the better it would be – because poisonous views are less harmful when out in the open and liable to vigorous contradiction than when they fester secretly underground.
During the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s I was actively engaged in campaigning to protect and preserve free speech, serving on the executive committees of both the National Council for Civil Liberties and the Defence of Literature and the Arts Society, which had been set up to defend reputable publishers accused of ‘obscenity’ for publishing avant-garde works by modern authors. As the Society’s chairman once said:
“I believe that freedom of expression is in many ways the quintessential freedom and in fact the key to all human rights, because through it we can win or defend all our other liberties, besides its importance for the establishment of truth. Any derogation from it, however small, is to my mind repugnant as well as a dangerous precedent.”
Nowadays, however, there is a cant ‘politically correct’ doctrine that an open society can best be protected by curbing free speech. Not only do we have laws banning expressions of racial hatred, but there are vigorous attempts to extend a similar legal ban to the denigration of religion. A prime ground for the alleged necessity of such censorship is that those whose feelings are hurt or offended by vigorous expressions of dislike or opposition may themselves resort to violence in ‘self defence’, and therefore free speech must be curbed in order to preserve the peace.
I find this argument singularly unconvincing – in fact, poppycock. If people aren’t able or willing to stand up for themselves and their beliefs in vigorous debate, I fail to see why my freedom of expression, and therefore of opinion, should suffer because of their namby-pambyism. What these folk are really after, of course, is the power to shut down criticism of beliefs and practices which may in fact be injurious or incompatible with a truly free society.
It’s high time that everyone who values their own freedom lets it be known loudly and clearly that there is no ‘right’ not to be offended. Indeed, in a free society there is a duty to ALLOW oneself to be offended.
To all those who are so quick to take umbrage, I say “TOO BAD!”.