Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: No 'freedom' in the freedom to abuse

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The Independent Online

Freedom of expression in the West is hokum, I say. It's hypocrisy dressed up as high virtue. Worse still, it is now used as a missile aimed mainly at Muslims. Freedoms are sacred and easily snatched by the powerful and it is a blessing to live in a country where prime ministers and princes are berated with impunity. Authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia and China and many others remain unenlightened because they suppress the human voice. But I also believe that freedom without responsibility and sensitivity amounts to anarchy.

As do those European nations which have collectively agreed that Holocaust denial is an offence, that minorities should be protected from hate speech, that individuals have the right to privacy and legal protection against libel, that big businesses must be allowed to keep information confidential, as can governments, defence companies and Nato. There are also the constraints that have crept in over the decades: Muslims thinking evil thoughts or reading about them are now tried and some are jailed; influential folk can buy silence about their affairs and journalists self-censor for an easy life. The Chief Whip, who allegedly called a police officer a "pleb", is finding out he wasn't really free to do that. Quite a list of limitations eh?

Libertarians proclaiming freedom of expression as an ABSOLUTE, NON-NEGOTIABLE, BEAUTIFUL Western value say nothing or little on any of those restrictions. If that manifesto was real, Kate Middleton would have to put up and shut about those pictures, David Irving, the anti-Semitic historian, would be allowed to publish his revolting spiel and not be imprisoned as he was in 2006 in Austria, and we would have no libel or defamation laws.

Muslims need to calm down, grow up, learn to debate and become more self-aware. But Western liberals who feel they have a duty to incite Muslims need self-awareness too and a bit of honesty. They don't provoke Jews, Hindus, or Christians to test the muscles of their liberalism and actually are pretty rubbish at accepting criticism themselves.

The internet is almost absolutely free and look how ugly and frightening that space is becoming. Imagine all that poison coursing through the real world. It may well happen, and then maybe the most fanatical libertarians will think about the consequences of feral, uncontained, goading freedom. But by that time it will be too late.