Muddled thinking over freedom of speech
Published in: Jewish Chronicle
What a right old muddle we've got ourselves into over freedom of speech. Among other recent excitements we've had the fight over the religious hatred bill, the uproar over the Danish cartoons, the jailing of David Irving and the suspension of London's Mayor Ken Livingstone over insulting a Jewish journalist, Oliver Finegold.
In every case, the controversy has been defined as over where the line should be drawn between protecting freedom of speech and preventing the giving of offence. But other issues are at play here too. And it is the assumption that treating these cases differently means double standards which has caused the confusion.
If we think it was wrong to have tried to censor the Danish cartoons, then we must think it was wrong to jail Irving. Right? Wrong. If we think it was right to jail Irving, then we should have supported the law against incitement to religious hatred before it was all but neutered by a Commons revolt. Right? Wrong.
If we were against the law against incitement to religious hatred because it threatened to shut down democratic debate, then we must be against the 'undemocratic' suspension of Ken Livingstone. Right? Wrong.
This last argument, that only the voters and not a regulator should punish a politician for offensive remarks, is quite the silliest of all. MPs are suspended from the House of Commons if they insult other members or otherwise bring Parliament into disrepute. No-one then starts screaming that democracy itself is being undermined. So what's the difference?
The implication is that Livingstone's offence wasn't that serious. But what brought his office into disrepute was not so much the original comparison between Finegold and a concentration camp guard as his repetition of the insult, having been told the reporter was a Jew, and then his subsequent refusal to apologise. Does anyone think that if the Mayor had repeatedly told a black reporter he was an 'Uncle Tom,' and then refused to apologise, that anyone would have defended him?
The Danish cartoons were an entirely different matter. These were not intended to insult either Islam or the Prophet Mohammed. They were rather a political protest against the religious intimidation which had caused artists to turn down a commission to illustrate a wholly innocent book about Islam because they feared they would be murdered.
The attempt to suppress the cartoons was a further example of precisely such clerical fascism. That's why the Danish cartoonists and editors should have been defended to the hilt. The core issue was not freedom of speech but the defence of life and liberty against a potentially lethal threat.
Freedom of speech is not sacrosanct because speech can be abused to threaten life and liberty by whipping up racial hatred. That's why it was right to jail Irving. I actually dislike the concept of 'Holocaust denial' precisely because it suggests the issue is merely a dispute over historical interpretation. The reason it is such a toxic form of prejudice, however, is that it necessarily implies a global conspiracy by the Jews to fabricate the Holocaust for their own allegedly nefarious ends.
It is therefore an incitement to hatred against the Jews. That is why Irving was on his way to address neo-Nazis in Austria and Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial hate-fest in Iran. He was fomenting neo-Nazi hatred. That's why his treatment was appropriate.
We rightly limit freedom of speech where it is abused to incite racial hatred or violence. Criminalising hatred of religion, though, is quite another matter. Religion arouses strong passions which routinely include dislike of other faiths - which might be quite understandable if such faiths threaten others.
Criminalising such expression would have shut down legitimate and, indeed, vital debate about religion. That's why it was right that the measure was finally restricted to instances where an attack on religious dogma is used to camouflage an attack on people.
Of course, the supreme irony is that Livingstone is the first person to want to stop people from 'giving offence'. Indeed, he is now reportedly setting up an inquiry into anti-Muslim prejudice in the media - a brazen attempt to silence legitimate debate. Meanwhile, those who denounced the cartoons for giving offence denounce the censure of Livingstone for giving offence. And he still hasn't apologised.
One of the most disturbing things about all this is the way radical Islamists are exploiting this confusion. So the agitators at the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, whose website regularly features vile attacks on Israel and the Jews, say that neither Irving's Holocaust denial nor the Danish cartoons should have been published, and further claim that double standards are at work showing that public debate is being manipulated by the Jews.
Now there's hate-speech for you.