Archie Bland: Free speech is a right, but be careful what you say

FreeView, from the editors at i


There's nothing more boring than people chuntering on about free
speech, mainly because the general wisdom of the principle is so
thumpingly obvious.

For two-bit commentators to trot out that old saw about how they will defend until the death a bigot's right to say what they please is as comical as it is overblown. If you want the EDL to be allowed to say what they want, that's fine. I agree with you. No one is going to kill either of us for saying so. Stop making such a fuss.

Those arguments, although still hackneyed, become a little less laughable when we start talking about images of the Prophet Mohamed. Instances of extremist wingnuts getting attacked for saying racist things are relatively rare. Incidences of satirists who make images of Mohamed getting the same treatment are, troublingly, less so.

We all remember that such treatment hasn't been limited to the people who have made those jokes: when a Danish newspaper printed cartoons mocking Mohamed in 2008, five people were killed in a bombing on the Danish Embassy in Pakistan. It is far from the only such incident.

Tiresomely, this argument looks like it will come up again this week. A French satirical magazine has decided – presumably giggling excitedly as it did so, and patting itself on the back for being so tremendously daring – to devote a special issue to the mockery of Mohamed, after the victory of a moderate Islamist party in the Tunisian elections.

Leave aside the fact that the party in question, Ennahdha, has so far proved a model of good sense, willing to go into coalition with secular parties, and fitting exactly the model that Western democrats should aspire to in the Middle East. Assume instead that they're a bunch of dastardly extremists. The joke is still old, unfunny, and dangerous.

It's obvious that, for all the editor's claims that they're innocently applying the same standards to political Islam that they do to everyone else, they're really just seeking publicity. If they would lean on such a tired theme when satirising French domestic politics, they're still less funny than they seem at first glance.

In regard to these morons, the defend-your-right-to-say-what-you want line still applies, I suppose. They are several fathoms less appalling than anyone who would turn to violence in response. I'd like to modify the statement a bit, though, to the following: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. BUT ALSO, YOU ARE AN IDIOT. And, actually, if one of us is going to get clobbered for your stupidity, I'd sooner it wasn't me.

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