The International Writers Magazine: Comment
There is enormous irony and not a little hypocrisy to be found in the reaction to the massacre in Paris of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine. ‘Free speech’ is the cry rallying millions of people across Europe and elsewhere. Emotions are raised and individuals speak of our tradition of free speech. Muslim protests against the offence of insulting the prophet are dismissed out of hand with the allegation that freedom to offend is deeply embedded in our culture. Really?
Such claims ring a little hollow to someone who is accustomed to being reminded that freedom of speech cannot be boundless. As proud Britons gather in Trafalgar Square to voice solidarity with the French, I am bound to ask why consciously giving offence to a religion is acceptable while inadvertently giving offence to a race, sex, or sexual orientation is likely to bring significant sanctions, possibly in the courts? After all, mockery of Islam is just as socially divisive as would be mockery of a race or nationality. Nor am I persuaded by the argument that one cannot choose one’s race, while following a particular faith is a choice. Millions of people born into Islamic states have no choice.
I believe, as did J.S. Mill that ‘your freedom ends where my nose begins’. In other words, I should be free to do that which does not harm another, but there is a distinction to be drawn between physical harm and offence to one’s sensibilities. The latter should be constrained by common courtesy rather than by sanction. Mill, the ‘father’ of British liberalism, specifically excluded ‘offence’ from his definition of harm.
Leaving that aside, there is considerable duplicity in our society towards the act of giving offence. We are repeatedly reminded, as if it were necessary, that the murderers of the satirists do not represent ‘the millions of decent Muslims’. We receive the same message in relation to ISIS, and any other extremist group. I find it offensive that anyone believes I need to be reminded of that, but that is my problem. Nevertheless, when ordinary, decent Muslims were wheeled before the cameras to assert ‘not in our name’, a fair number, when asked, did feel offended by the magazine’s insult to the prophet. So, in the name of free speech it is OK to offend people of faith apparently.
This attitude to faith is not at all confined to Islam. We have seen Christ lampooned and I seem to recall Sikhs in London getting up in arms a few years ago. Faith, it seems, is a special case when it comes to giving offence. It is frequently subordinated to other considerations. Those Christians who believe that women have no place in the priesthood, or who think that homosexuality is a sin are openly derided for their ‘bigotry’, a word often used to describe any belief that is out of step with the new morality.
That said, not all religions are treated equally. There is a hierarchy with Islam at the top for the time being, with Christianity largely demoted to the second division. Despite their willingness to ignore the expressed sensibilities of decent Muslims many people, in their eagerness to display liberal credentials, rush to defend faith against criticism by others. Two examples of this behaviour came in the wake of the Paris assassinations.
In Australia, Rupert Murdoch apparently alleged that all Muslims should be held to some account for the murders. Immediately, others leapt into print to disagree, some deriding the publisher, including one who dismissed his remarks as due to his old age and failing intellect. So, offending the elderly is OK. Another person apologised ‘as a white man’ for Murdoch’s ‘offensive’ remark. Now, as an elderly man, so presumably with failing intellect, I find that ‘apology’ incredibly presumptuous. As another white man I say, ‘not in my name’.
In England, meanwhile, Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, has been rebuked from all sides for claiming that the existence of Islamic terrorists in Europe owes something to the imposition of multiculturalism in our various countries. Whether or not his remark was justified is neither here nor there as he was not asked to produce evidence, but simply castigated.
In a televised debate on free speech a number of participants thought it important to point out that Islam is a faith, not a race, with the implication that had it been otherwise giving offence would have been a more serious crime. Why? One person argued that a religious belief should be open to critical analysis, presumably to expose falsehoods or error. Apart from satisfying one’s own ego, why should exposing the error in another’s faith be an objective? More importantly, perhaps, why should exposing religious belief to critical analysis be acceptable, while exposing cultural norms to the same process be taboo?
I recall being told by advocates of multiculturalism that exposure to other cultures would broaden the experience of native Britons and would add colour to their lives, in the words of the late Labour politician Robin Cook. We were also advised that ‘all cultures are equally valid’. This was presumably why British feminists were at the time uncritical of certain cultures in which women were appallingly treated. However, accepting for argument’s sake that all cultures are valid in their places of origin, it does not follow that validity can be claimed if a culture is exported.
Given that there are no universally accepted norms for broad areas of human behaviour it follows that when two cultures collide one must prevail, albeit with degrees of compromise. That implies dialogue and honest examination of the two sets of norms. Yet, it is not at all uncommon in our society to have any attempt at critical analysis of the imported culture dismissed as racist. Nor is it uncommon to see long established norms of the native culture ignored or criticised in order to accommodate the newcomers.
Another distinction made during the televised debate was that between offending a category and offending an individual. That distinction is often overlooked in practice however. While common courtesy should prevent deliberate offence to an individual, we frequently treat inadvertent offence to a broad category as if an individual has been harmed. So, we might witness the outrage of a feminist at some insult to women perhaps in a joke or innocent remark. Similarly, the owner of a football club who made a loose remark using the word ‘chink’ was treated as if every citizen of Chinese origin was personally humiliated.
The label ‘racism’ has been used for decades to silence criticism of a number of issues in British society, and has prevented critical analysis of the concept and practice of multiculturalism. It is not religious belief alone that should be subjected to questioning if we are to bring to an end the philosophical drift that our society has suffered for so long. Let us have less self-righteousness and accusation, and a cooler appraisal of how we got where we are, and where we wish to be.
© Tom Kilcourse Jan 12th 2015
In 2015 we British will be asked to elect a new government that will be responsible for leading the country until 2020. The pre-election bun-fight has begun already