Where’s the ‘freedom’ in the freedom to abuse?

In good societies there have to be curbs on what can be said. Sometimes freedom has to give way

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Sunday 23 September 2012 19:23 BST
Students protesting during an anti-government demonstration in front of the presidential palace in Jakarta on April 3, 2008.
Students protesting during an anti-government demonstration in front of the presidential palace in Jakarta on April 3, 2008.

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. Racist landlords would put “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” notices on their windows. Disabled and gay people would be liberally abused on trains and buses, and paedophilic material would be sold in corner shops.

None of that is permitted because in good societies there have to be formal and unofficial curbs on what can be said, published or broadcast and sometimes freedom has to give way.  I agree with the DPP that senders of silly tweets and tasteless jokes should not be prosecuted but surely we still need to take care when communicating with the world. 

With Muslims, there is no restraint or even fairness. Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine in France which printed demeaning cartoons of Prophet Mohamed, wanted trouble, so its editor could appear a really big man. And because many Muslims are instantly and irrationally aroused to extreme frenzy ( as I wrote last week) he expected it all to go off and the rag to make money and martyrs.

They don’t provoke Jews, Hindus, or Christians to test the muscles of their liberalism and actually are pretty rubbish at accepting criticism themselves

Well, it didn’t happen. French Muslims were banned from demonstrating, denied that democratic right. The anti-Islam internet film made by some dodgy Americans (we think) got the fire and fury it wanted. Throngs came out, people died, for no good reason, on either side. Now we find that some Libyans have come out against the murderous mobs and  for the American Ambassador and other victims, even for America itself. Not what was expected, a terrible disappointment for the Westerners who feel especially good about themselves when they can get many of my brethren to behave madly or very, very badly, which they do, too often.

Muslims need to calm down, grow up, learn to debate and become more self-aware. 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.

We have recently had a lot of Salman Rushdie, too much, like three plates of biryani. A memoir, hagiographic TV programme, a film of Midnight’s Children, luvvie tributes have affirmed his eminence. This novelist of exceptional talent and imagination spent the best years of his life living with fear and trauma. He is entitled to be angry for ever. But as he stands for freedom of expression, he should live by it. Mr Rushdie finds that very hard.

In his book he turns on anyone with nuanced views of the Satanic Verses crisis or, like John Major and civil servants, didn’t give in to his many demands. Sarcastically dismissed is this newspaper, apparently a “house journal for British Muslims”, while serious writers who were critical of him – Arundhati Roy, Louis de Bernières, John le Carré – are roundly trashed. Rushdie, a god of liberalism, proves that words and images hurt.

They do, which is why we tell our children to watch what they say. 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.

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