Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Free Speech and Islam

Just watched the Channel 4 free speech and Islam "debate", and it seems to me to open a number of interesting questions about the difference between theoretical and effective free speech. Everyone on both sides of the debate seems to be wrininging their hands and saying that something must be done. The radical muslim side say they want speech offensive to Islam regulated in much the same way that Holocaust denial is regulated in parts of Europe. I strongly disagree with that, but then I strongly disagree with Holocaust denial laws as well. It seems to me that idiocy like that should be allowed to fail on its own weaknesses.

The thing is, I'm not sure exactly what it is that the other side does want. They keep on talking about a crisis of free speech in Europe, but (other than France's passion for passing ever more laws about the historical treatment of genocide) I don't see exactly what the problem is. The argument has two variations that usually get lumped together. The first has been that people are scared of what radical muslims may do if people go and exercise their right to free speech on the subject of Islam. That's an understandable position, as the murder of Theo van Gogh shows. As far as I'm aware, though, it's already illegal to kill or threaten to kill people who denounce Islam, so free speech seems to me to be as protected as it reasonably can be.

The second version of this argument is that people are practising "self-censorship" because they're worried about offending Muslims. There's a horrible tendency to conflate the two, and confuse "scared of" with "scared of offending", but it should be obvious to anyone with a brain that these are very different concepts. No-one's co-ercing anyone into anything here, it's a case of manners. There's nothing in the doctrine of free speech that dictates that you must offend, only that you can if you want to.

It's at about this point that people start talking about political correctness. The point, for them, is that this is not just simple politeness, but an institutionalised mentality. News organisations, businesses and governments all shy away from offending or finding fault with Islam because the norms of PC prevent it.

Again, this has more than a grain of truth to it. Show me the person who didn't laugh their primary sexual characteristics off at the Samuel L. Jackson episode of Extras, and I'll show you the most boring person at the party. But PC covers a whole lot more than just Islam. I think most of us can see the problem with saying that women, the disabled and the short people are curtailing our free speech rights by forcing us to be nice to them. How much you want to legislate for that depends on your confidence in the state as an enforcer of those norms - the point is that no-one quarrels with a social norm that says you shouldn't be a arsehole, even if that norm is institutionalised.

The argument, of course, is that, where it concerns Islam, the norm infringes on important areas of debate within institutions and societies more broadly. I s'pose that could be true - although it does strike me that there hasn't been that much of a taboo on talking about "the problem with radical Islam" of late - but it's hardly the most important constraint on the block. Depending on your issue, everything from internet search engines to the Hutton report acts to shape norms of free speech. You don't have to be Noam Chomsky to think that using the market-place as one of the primary means to distribute speech (in the form of newpapers, TV and professional web-sites) is also going to have some fairly profound effects on what sort of speech is likely to get distributed (or suppressed).

The various methods by which institutional norms can effect speech should really be the subject of a whole other post (or perhaps blog). Suffice it to say that there are a lot of them and that some of them are very powerful: when a normative constraint on free specch does its work well enough, you don't notice it. Say that you think there are institutional constraints on the press when it comes to talking about foreign policy, and everyone looks at you like you should be wearing a tin-foil hat (even if you find a less wordy way of saying it). The fact is that few people no-one buys WMD as a cause for Iraq any more, and only morons swallow the "bringing democracy to the middle east" thing: there's a gaping hole in the media coverage where some sort of explanation should be. Talk to anyone in the pub of most political stripes and they'll give a more or less coherent explanation involving oil, and there are some very beleivable explanations along those lines, but you'll only very rarely see that in a paper. An entirely plausible cause for a multi-billion dollar war that most of the public believes but the papers avoid like the plague - now that's an institutional free speech problem.

There's a whole host of things that can undermine the effective exercise of free speech in a country, and I for one, would put a PC attitude towards muslims pretty low down the list; the fact that everyone's singling the muslims out seems to me pretty good evidence that, as a curtailer of free speech, it isn't that effective.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

what's better than winning gold at the paralmpyics?

Being able to walk.

everyone laughs, but then apolgises for laughing

remember the first rule

22 November, 2006 01:09  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

by the way - can you please if you find the time add a little rant on Section5 of the Public Order Act (or whatever it may be called)? i will give you 10p if you do.

22 November, 2006 01:15  

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