Paris massacre and free speech

I first arrived in New York at the time of Watergate, a few days after Nixon sacked the federal prosecutor Archibald Cox.

The city was awash with anti-Nixon posters, bumper stickers and newspaper headlines, and I was struck by both the vehemence and volume of the invective.

Some of the messages were meant to be humorous, and some of those did make me laugh.

Such as the bumper sticker ‘Impeach the Cox sacker’, which complemented my mirth with the vain pride of being able to get the naughty double entendre on my first day in an English-speaking country.

Some others made me wince, such as a large cartoon poster of Nixon being sodomised in a prison cell by a black inmate. ‘Justice at last’, said the caption, and I felt that sometimes freedom of expression went a bit too far.

Now, almost 42 years later, the Paris massacre brings back those memories and those thoughts.

For freedom of speech has to be balanced by freedom from speech. Your right to call me a fat bastard must exist in some kind of equilibrium with my right not to be called a fat bastard, even (especially?) if both parts of the designation may well be true.

One man’s freedom is another man’s licence and yet another man’s anarchy. My different reactions to the New York sticker and poster sprang from a knee-jerk choice of where the lines ought to be drawn.

Because I thought it funny and clever, the sticker was to me a worthy exercise of irrevocable freedom. Because I thought it unfunny and crude, the poster represented what I saw as revocable licence.

I was entitled to that view, just as someone else would have been entitled to its opposite. But a successful society can’t possibly accommodate every possible taste: it must decide where to draw the same line for all.

And a line must be drawn, for no freedom, be it creative or political, can exist without some discipline.

For example, free trade is wonderful but, when exercised without discipline, it can easily become gangsterism or at least double dealing. Every game must be played by the rules, and the injunction against, say, insider trading or price fixing is one of the essential rules of this particular game.

Even creative freedom can’t exist, or at least produce anything worthwhile, outside some disciplinary restraints, ideally self-imposed. Disciplined art produces Giotto’s saints and Vermeer’s women; undisciplined art produces unmade beds and animals pickled in formaldehyde. 

Yet even when imposed externally, reasonable restraints don’t demonstrably hurt the quality of the creative output – quite the opposite. For example, most of the world’s great literature was produced in conditions of some censorship, and next to none in the absence of such conditions.

Following the outrage perpetrated in Paris, it’s tempting to say that freedom of speech must not be restrained in any way, but one should resist that temptation. What is undeniable that this or any other freedom should be restricted by law, not by assault rifles.

Moreover, freedom of speech is already restrained everywhere, without raising objections from even the staunchest libertarians.

To use a popular example, everyone agrees that creating a stampede in a cinema by screaming ‘Fire!’ for fun ought to be punished. Similarly, it seems reasonable that, while newspapers shouldn’t be banned from criticising government officials, they mustn’t be allowed to call for their assassination.

The question is where the watershed lies between reasonable restraints and tyranny. In other words, what restraints are reasonable in each case?

With literature, the answer is easy. Proscriptive censorship, telling writers what they mustn’t write, has no noticeable deleterious effect on literary output. Conversely, prescriptive censorship, telling writers what they must write, kills literature stone dead.

Hence, for instance, the Russians produced one of the world’s greatest literatures under the tsars’ proscriptive censorship, and one of the puniest under the prescriptive censorship imposed by Col. Putin’s Bolshevik colleagues.

Since the monstrosity in Paris was provoked by cartoons lampooning Mohammed, it’s specifically religious freedom that has come into focus.

All religions are fair game for the most savage of attacks, say the libertarians, along with those who are so appalled by the massacres that they adopt the libertarian position ad hoc.

No religion must be insulted, say traditionalists, not only Islamic but also Christian. For example, many Russian Orthodox priests and laity have declared that the staff of Charlie Hebdo have only themselves to blame, and let it be a lesson to all blasphemers.

They have their own agenda, based on the gross mistake of lumping all religions together. I never tire of saying that there is no such thing as religion in general, and hence there can be no blasphemy in general.

There are only specific religions, each with its own relationship to God and man, each with its own philosophy, ethics and aesthetics. To say that they all merit equal treatment is only to say that they are all equally irrelevant.

I firmly believe that we must have some blasphemy laws, but they should only protect our founding religion, which is Christianity, or Judaeo-Christianity if you’d rather.

Unrestrained and savage mockery of it represents a sledgehammer taken to the cornerstone of our civilisation – knock it out, and the building collapses. This would spell, has practically already spelled, the end of the West in any other than the geographical sense of the word.

Machiavelli did write that “there is no surer sign of decay in a country than to see the rights of religion held in contempt”, but rest assured he was talking specifically about Christianity, not Islam or Buddhism or any other creed.

Freedom of speech is essential, but it’s not a suicide pact. Society has the right to protect itself, and surely defending its founding faith from abuse is essential to such protection, especially when both the faith and society are under threat.

Islam, to name an obvious example, shouldn’t be entitled to protection under our law. Tact, good manners and taste should be the only factors restraining the vigour of criticism or satire directed at Islam and its icons.

That’s why I find it abhorrent that the British government has no guts to say that while the wearing of a cross publicly is fine, wearing, say, a burka is not. Instead it issues a wishy-washy ban on religious symbols in general.

In terms of Charlie Hebdo, I may find their cartoons of Mohammed unfunny and tasteless, but I’m prepared to defend their right to publish them – to the death if need be, and I’m shocked that for the magazine’s staff this turned out to be not just a figure of speech.

Conversely, I’d be prepared to limit their right to insult Christians and Jews the same way. I’m afraid that in this matter, as in most others, égalité is the enemy of liberté.

The state shouldn’t put self-expression into a straitjacket, but neither should it issue a licence for the lunatics to run the asylum. This proposition seems fairly straightforward, except that no proposition is straightforward in the muddle of our terribly confused society. 





















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