Thomas Sutcliffe: Who wants the right to state the obvious?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

If you want to defend David Irving's right to talk nonsense, as I do now, you have to face the fact that you're going to find yourself in ugly company. At one shoulder the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, convinced that the entire weight of a covert Zionist world government is bearing down on a harmless scholar. At the other shoulder the racists and Nazi memorabilia enthusiasts with their fantasies of heroic opposition. And since even David Irving now admits that what he said 17 years ago was nonsense or - in his terms - "a mistake", this might seem like the very worst place to mount any kind of rearguard action in defence of free speech.

Unfortunately those of us who think liberty of expression has had a very bad time just recently don't have a lot of choice. You can't always choose the site of battle, and there's no getting round the fact that those who wish to qualify and trim the principle of free speech occupy what looks very much like the high ground. Religious leaders, sympathetic to the affronted sensibilities of Muslims, insist that freedom of expression must be exercised "responsibly" or "sensitively" (both euphemisms for not actually exercising it at all). Indignant MPs, furious at the hurt caused to grieving families, demand that Muslim zealots must be prevented from public "glorification" of suicide bombings. And the Austrian government, forgivably wary of its people's proven weakness for far-right demagogues, attempts to outlaw the public expression of some beliefs altogether.

The problem is that free speech has never been defended by protecting the saying of things that nobody minds being uttered. If that was so what kind of liberty would it be? The freedom to make inoffensive remarks? Or the freedom to state the obvious? And while it isn't easy to make a case for the hurtful, the irresponsible and the provocative, one can at least say this about them. They are all just words - and they can all be contradicted. It may be too that the act of contradiction is far more useful to a society than an effective prohibition. Would it really have been healthier if the young men who carried placards promising butchery for the enemies of Islam had cut straight to the action? And would it have been better if they had been arrested and imprisoned - rather than vigorously shouted down by fellow Muslims as they were? Instead of a clumsy gagging we had a kind of conversation - and, as uncomfortable as it was to absorb some of its elements, both halves of it told us something important. The exchange matters. Deborah Lipstadt's successful defence against the libel case brought by David Irving after she'd accused him of Holocaust denial furthered public understanding of the question rather than clouding it - as the Austrian court case threatens to.

There's a real danger in any case in moving to a position where the affront a speech might cause governs its admissibility. If Sir Iqbal Sacranie's obnoxious remarks about homosexuality recently had been followed by riots in Old Compton Street and the burning of Muslim businesses in San Francisco, would this be grounds to extend the laws against such opinions? Surely not. It is our civic duty to live peaceably with his folly just as much as it is his duty to live peaceably with what he sees as ours. More than that ... it would be wise of us to stand up for his right to be publicly foolish, however offensive we find it. The same goes for Irving. This particular right is too important to be withheld from the repulsive.

Sublime poetry in motion (minus the poetry)

I went walking on Ilkley Moor at the weekend and, on a day of winter sunshine, there was no shortage of sights to lift the spirits: a hawk that had found a ledge on the wind, patches of snowdrops ... even, rather mysteriously, a bright pink tree ... apparently the work of some Ilkley conceptual art guerrilla.

But nothing was quite as elevating as driving over the hill from Skipton to find all four of the Chelker Reservoir windmills carving the air with their white blades - the first time I've seen all of them working simultaneously. I simply can't understand how anyone can find windmills ugly. From close to they are sublime - and probably marginally more powerful as sculpture than they are as electricity generators - while from a distance they dwindle until they're just a glimmering fleck on the hillside.

What they need, I think, are not arguments about cost-per-kilowatt but their own latterday Wordsworth to open the public's eyes. People used to find crags ugly too, but they came round.

* I enjoyed the moment the other day when a BBC news presenter promised us "more on the dead duck later". Avian flu is no laughing matter, but it was intriguing to see how it had transformed the cliché for an issue that has ceased to be of interest into a headline cliffhanger. Should the virus reach Britain, it's clear that no bird-related imagery will be safe. As farmers prepare to move their flocks indoors we will, rather literally, have reached the moment at which the chickens come home to roost - though that idiom for condign retribution won't work effectively any more, since virtuous free-range farmers who allow their birds access to the open air are more at risk than the battery farms that keep them cooped up anyway. Similarly, swanning about will cease to be a blithely harmless activity, and wild goose chases, far from being a byword for wasted effort, will become work of urgent national importance.