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Huff Post: Rowan Atkinson Is Right – We Need More Free Speech – But We Also Need More Responsible Speech

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This post was originally published on my Huff Post blog, here

Comic Rowan Atkinson has reignited debate over free speech this week through his campaign to ‎reform Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act which outlaws “threatening, abusive or insulting ‎words or behaviour that is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress”. Specifically, Atkinson ‎believes, and I share his concern, that the term ‘insulting’, in addition to the phrasing “likely to ‎cause”, are far too subjective and as such, threaten free speech. That the law has already been ‎used in Kafkaesque fashion, is well illustrated by the case of the Oxford University student ‎arrested for asking a policeman: ‘Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?’ and pertinently, by a ‎‎16-year-old boy held for holding a placard reading ‘Scientology is a dangerous cult’. (For the record, ‎yes I would still be defending his right had the placard read “Islam is a dangerous cult”). Civil ‎liberties campaigners, Liberty have stated Section 5 “can have serious implications on peaceful ‎protestors and others exercising their freedom of expression, as someone who uses insulting ‎language that might distress another were they to hear it could be guilty of an offence.” ‎

The concern lies in a scenario where meaningful criticism can be curbed under this banner, where ‎accounting leaders through peaceful protests, or any other language or behaviour that might be ‎deemed ‘insulting’, could be curtailed. While we should be able to say something which might be ‎perceived as insulting about someone’s religion, more importantly surely is the fact we should be ‎able to say something insulting, or even act ‘insultingly’ towards those who enact regressive ‎policies, who threaten the NHS, who cut support for the disabled and vulnerable, those who make ‎higher education unobtainable for the majority. As things currently stands, the poor phrasing of ‎Section 5 joins a host of other worryingly vague limits placed on free speech which, rather than ‎protecting minorities, carry the seeds of state censorship.‎

However, in the words of Spiderman (and possibly someone else!), with great power, also comes ‎great responsibility. The right to insult means we should have the right to express our views ‎without fear of prosecution, even if they happen to insult someone. What it surely doesn’t mean is ‎the obligation to intentionally trample upon people’s sensitivities. One might express a view which ‎might be deemed insulting by someone, but surely the objective of seeking to insult them, for ‎insult’s sake, is simply egregious. It shouldn’t be illegal, but it should be deplored. In real life, ‎people who walk around insulting people for the sake of it are called idiots. They’re not lauded as ‎the human embodiments of free speech.‎

Should we have the right to say things to one another which might be deemed insulting? ‎Absolutely. Should we define the European ‘creed’ as the obligation to insult one another – ‎definitely not. None of us want to see free speech used as an excuse to go back on hard fought for ‎tolerance, for bigots to have free rein to spout racist/homophobic/sexist/islamophobic/etc tirades ‎unchallenged, just as much as one might not wish to see such statements prosecuted or censored. ‎It is possible to believe in the need for clearer, less restrictive legislation whilst also calling for more ‎empathy and understanding of the experiences of those minorities who will inevitably be on the ‎receiving end of some of the less palatable free-speech. ‎

The concern is that the free speech debate actually masks an underlying concern that religion in ‎general but Islam in particular, represent an inherent threat to the secular liberal worldview. From ‎this perspective, insulting Islam and Muslims represent not merely a right to free speech, but an ‎obligation to confront values assumed to be incompatible. According to a YouGov poll, more ‎Britons (43%) than Americans (39%) believe in a fundamental clash of cultures between Islam and ‎the West, and this has bred the sadly widespread view that not only are religious people not ‎worthy of protection but that their ‘pre-enlightenment superstitions’ must be derided at all costs, ‎including the cost of our social cohesion. There surely is some irony in discussing the ‘issue’ of the ‎integration of Muslims, if they’re deemed inherently incompatible by virtue of that religiosity. As ‎with all minorities, the two-way process of civic integration requires broader society to ‎acknowledge the particular sensitivities of those we regard as our democratic equals. It doesn’t ‎mean minorities will never be insulted, it just means there won’t be a concerted campaign to insult ‎them. When comedians or satirists choose to mock the most marginalised and disenfranchised, ‎rather than the powerful and the corrupt, it poses much more significant questions than ‘can we ‎insult Islam’. It raises rightful concerns over the use of such arguments as a smokescreen to ‎obscure some of the crudest forms of racist vilification. In some cases, rather than representing ‎the best of the European tradition of satire, such material can be located within a tradition of racist ‎representation.‎

When the way we discuss minorities impacts their life, through discrimination and sometimes even ‎violence, there is a responsibility upon us all to ensure the vilification is not afforded a credence ‎which bolsters the hate-mongers. Studies of hate crimes suggest a link between negative ‎representations of minorities and their targeting by violent individuals or groups. Protecting the ‎psychological and physical wellbeing of fellow citizens is as about as axiomatic as any value gets. To ‎do so should not require further ambiguous legislation but rather a shift in our perception of ‎Muslims – as an integral part of our society, their grievances are, like the grievances of any ‎minority, our grievances. Freedom of speech may well be a central British value, but so is live and ‎let live. It’s a mistake to assume they’re mutually exclusive, but it’s also complacent to assume that ‎either is immune from erosion.‎


Written by Myriam Francois

October 19, 2012 at 13:41

3 Responses

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  1. Salaam ,
    really great article, and I agree that far too many times hate/racist speech is excused under the guise of free speech. Your article made me think of another article I recently read about the integration of Somali Canadian Youth and the effects of growing up in a post 9/11 world on their identities. In it you can really see the horrible long term effects of stereotyping (based on race/religion) by teachers, profiling by police and barriers to social services. And although I am not saying it was all caused by speech that is insulting to individuals, there most certainly were stereotypes that were discussed and commonly promoted within many sectors of the public service that have certainly help shape their experience.
    The community has been extremely resilient mostly because of the incredible mothers, but it has fallen quite behind most newcomers to Canada (37% drop out rates for Somali males in the Toronto District School Board). Free speech can be hurtful to individuals sometimes, but sometimes the effects upon individuals carry far greater effect on the whole community – creating even more challenges to integration.

    Mohammed Hashim

    October 30, 2012 at 04:59

  2. Very true 🙂


    November 1, 2012 at 16:03

  3. I do not see “Muslim” grievances as necessarily society’s grievances. It seems to me that many Muslims regard their inability to impose their ideas about blasphemy on the rest of us as a legitimate grievance. It is not. Only when the majority of Muslims can shrug off the mockery of religion in general and individual religions in particular ( including their own) that is part and parcel of living in a modern secular democracy will they be truly integrated citizens. But it seems to me that many Muslims are hypocrites of the worst order – if they live in the West they want kid glove treatment and respect for Islam but in the so called Muslim lands they treat their non Muslim minorities like shit see Egypt Pakistan Iran etc etc. Maybe if you directed your energies to calling for equal treatment for the persecuted Copts Hindus or Bahais in these countries instead of always whining and wallowing in victimhood you might hatve more credibility. Very few satirists or comedians target Islam- they are too afraid some nut case (sorry overly sensitive ) Muslim will come and kill them for it.

    Madge Hirsch

    November 19, 2012 at 00:19

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