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UK Liberal party opinion about Censorship

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 10, 2005 12:32 am    Post subject: UK Liberal party opinion about Censorship Reply with quote

This is an article I found in the last issue of The Liberal Magazine The Liberal

Claire Fox wrote:
Consenting To Silence

Since the London suicide bombings, there have been numerous declarations about defending freedom of and 'our way f life'. However the swathe of illiberal measure proposed to combat terrorism suggest that the version of freedom we are being asked to defend, does not include freedom of speech.

It is hardly surprising that opportunistic politicians use the events of 7/7 or 9/11 to sharpen their censor's pencil. But more worrying is the lack-lustre opposition to recent authoritarian measures. The lack of outrage at the new 'catch all 'indirect incitement' legislation, which threatens to deport and imprison individuals for expressing unacceptable views on terrorism, demonstrate that when it comes to free speech, too many liberals and sections of the left are compromised. Long before the bombs, it was they-not the traditional state censors or authoritarians-who argued more vigorously for limits to be placed for free expression.
When Mary Whitehouse-the epitome of priggish Middle England-died, it felt like the end of an era. Yet now we live in a climate more censorious than ever. Today, concerns about sexual imagery are justified in terms of anti-sexism rather than moral degeneracy. As I write feminists have welcome the Home Office proposal to outlaw the possession of extreme adult pornography downloaded over the internet.

But it is around the subject of hate speech that the left has become more compromised in relation to freedom of expression. The 'hate speech' category suits radicals keen to defend minority groups. Nowadays bans and censorship-couched as a defence against racist, sexist or homophobic hate speech-are perfectly acceptable. How has this happened?

In the eighties and nineties, the focus for anti-racists lifted from politics to culture. Many anti-racists abandoned the hard arguments-for racial equality and against immigration controls- and concentrated instead on censoring the opposition; demanding 'no platform for racists' in student unions and trade unions. Ironically those who advocate an Incitement to Religious Hatred bill, do so in the same censorious language of official anti-racism. Guardianista Madeleine Bunting justifies the law as a way of "choke off the stream of virulent racist propaganda that uses Islamaphobia as a cover".

And when it comes to so-called ’murder music’-music by dancehall and reggae artists such as Buju Banton and Beenie Man, each accusing of inciting the murder of gays and lesbians through their homophobic lyrics- their chief accuser is none other than Peter Tatchell from Outrage. Is this the man who campaigned against the censorship of Frankie goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’, correctly dismissing the idea that young people become gay by simply by listening to lyrics or reading certain ‘dangerous’ books?

Conceding any aspect of free speech to control hate speech is dangerous; it elides the crucial distinction between opinions and deeds. Reminiscent of Orwell’s Thought Crimes, the current insidious confusion between speech and action is enrooted in contemporary radical thought. The suggestion is that for victims of oppression , ‘causing offence’ through hateful speech or representation and ‘causing physical harm’ are one and the same. Recently deceased feminist Andrea Dworkin conflated pornography and rape. American academic Stanley Fish’s 1994 book, “There Is No Such A Thing As Freedom Of Speech And Its Good Thing Too”- formulating the notion of “speech related injuries” – provided the intellectual back-bone for PC speech-codes throughout academia.

Because the category ‘hate speech’ has its origins in identity politics, it elevates the subjective. “I find that offensive2 becomes a way of ending an argument and deeming certain topics off limits. Being offended carries with it the moral power to silence. Consequently, various groups now queue up to be the most offended. Sections of the Sikh community closed down the play Behzti claiming that the rape scenes in the temple were offensive, while BBC3 cravenly pulled a satirical cartoon because it offended Catholic lobbyists (channel controller Stuart Murphy explained that “Balancing creative risks and potential offence to parts of the audience, we have decided not to transmit”). Unsurprisingly, Christian Voice felt justified in campaigning against jerry Springer the opera because it caused “hurt and offence to those who love God our saviour” .

There are some principles of free speech that are worth reminding ourselves of. Voltaire’s much parodied: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” has been updated by Noam Chomsky. He says: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all”.

And yet, even this does not do justice to why free speech is so important in a healthy society. Fighting for free speech is not so much about the right of a handful individuals to paddle hateful content or sing prejudicial rubbish. It’s really freedom for the rest of us , all of society, to hear and discuss everything and to decide for ourselves what we believe-without official interference. This means taking the audience seriously as rational autonomous human beings able to make up their own minds. There’s the rub; liberals and others who have been won over to support censorship of some sort -of incitement or hatespeech- all betray an underlying contempt or the public.

The notion that speech incites others to act assumes that the audience is so gullible that we can be stirred into anti-gay, racist or terrorist violence simply by being exposed to barely decipherable reggae lyrics, the semi-literate rantings of the BNP, or the obscure shibboleths of Islamic theology.

We are all impugned by this patronising view of the public. When Hazel Blears threatens seven years in prison to anyone who uses “offensive words… (intended, or) likely to stir up hatred”, she implies that the white working class are so mindlessly stupid hat all they need to do is hear or read hateful content and they will be turned into Islamaphobic monsters. This attitude reduces us all to the role of command dogs- someone says ‘kill’ and so we do. Actually what distinguishes humans is their capacity to assess , reflect and filter what they hear, and to decide whether or not to act on it.

The idea that Muslim youth have only to hear extremist preachers to turn themselves into suicide bombers, whips up unnecessary fears and avoids understanding why some young British Muslims find the arguments of Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed, for example- who said that the Birmingham tornado was retribution for the arrest of th alleged 21/7 bombers- persuasive. But then again, it’s easier to silence him.

What are we afraid of? Are we so insecure in our arguments that we cannot cope with Tottenham Ayatollah’s rhetoric? Are we so fearful that talking about suicide bombers is considered the same as detonating a bomb? A commitment to freedom of expression embodies a confidence in winning important arguments and believing in the public’s capacity to engage with alternative points of view.

It is precisely free speech, which enables us to expose prejudice, stupidity and false information to the full glare of the court of public opinion. Let us be clear: upholding free speech for people whose views we find abhorrent doesn’t mean allowing objectionable ideas to go unchallenged and undefeated, and smoulder under the surface.

Deciding where we stand on free speech will shape the kind of society we want to live in . Tariq Madood articulates one such version in his new book “Multicultural Politics”, in which he suggests that “If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent they subject each others fundamental beliefs to criticism”. Madood might find a world without criticism acceptable, but for many of us it would be stifling. As Richard Halloway, ex-Bishop of Edinburgh and Chair of the Scottish Arts Council recently argued: “A culture of intelligent disrespect and combativeness is a healthy culture”. Otherwise, Ian McEwan says w are in danger of creating “an atmosphere in which free expression will be weakened by nervousness of hedging “. In the cultural sphere, ‘artistic timidity’ will mean no more Bezhtis, no more Satanic Verses, no more Jerry Springers.

The situation will be even more dangerous in politics. As Home Secretary, David Blunkett argued that “Religious and political extremists are a scourge of modern society”, who have to be reigned in so that people can settle their differences in ways that don’t develop hate and where people feel free to be able to express sensible views and have sensible arguments”. For those of us with any sense of passion of belief, this sanitised worldview should send a shiver down our spines . As Salman Rushdie says : “Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around and make polite conversations… They argue vehemently against each other’s positions. (But they don’t shoot)”.

How can we defend that which we hold dear- whether it is our way of life or our political principle –without freedom of expression? Indeed, how might we win the hearts and the minds of the young, or argue for a better world, if we are forced to limit ourselves to the anodyne world of never causing offence and always being ‘sensible’? It’ time for progressives to stop backsliding on censorship and start arguing vehemently for free speech. Then we might have a way of life worth defending.

Tom Petty wrote:
Well I know what’s right, I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground and I won’t back down
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PostPosted: Mon Oct 10, 2005 2:41 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

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