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'freedom of expression must include the licence to offend'

intelligence2  debate, royal geographical society, london, 7 june 2006

'I believe in free speech. But...' That's become the rallying cry for the liberal left particularly in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy. You can say what you like. Just so long as you don't offend anyone.

Free speech may be a good, runs the argument, but speech must necessarily be less free in a plural society. As the sociologist Tariq Modood puts it, 'If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others' fundamental beliefs to criticism'. One of the ironies of living in a plural society, it seems, is that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.

I believe the opposite is true. In a homogenous society in which everyone thought in exactly the same way then the giving of offence would be nothing more than gratuitous. But in the real world where societies are plural, then it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And we should deal with those clashes rather than suppress them. Important because any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. The right to 'subject each others' fundamental beliefs to criticism' is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. 'If liberty means anything', as George Orwell once put it, 'it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear'.

Ah, say the would-be censors, but should we not also ensure that minorities are not deliberately denigrated? Is it not incumbent on a civilised society to protect the powerless and the vulnerable? Indeed it is. But ask yourself this: who is it that benefits most from censorship? Not the powerless and the vulnerable but rather those that possess both the power to censor and the necessity to do so.

The impact of censorship is in fact to undermine progressive movements within minority communities. Take the controversy over the Danish cartoons. There's a general assumption that all Muslims were offended by the cartoons and that all Muslims wished to ban them. Not true. B├╝nyamin Simsek is a Muslim councillor in the Danish city of Aarhus who helped organize a counter-demonstration to the cartoon protests. 'There is', he says, 'a large group of Muslims in this city who want to live in a secular society and adhere to the principle that religion is an issue between them and God and not something that should involve society'. He is not alone. But such voices get silenced in the rush to censor that which is deemed to cause offence.

The censors are helping to strengthen the hand of the most conservative elements and to undermine those who want to challenge tradition and authority. That's why groups such as Southall Black Sisters - an organisation of Asian women activists that for more than 20 years has been combating both racism and discrimination against women - strenuously oppose the idea that the giving of offence should be forbidden. As Rahila Gupta of Southall Black Sisters put it recently, such censorship 'will strengthen the voices of religious intolerance and choke off women's right to dissent'. And this, she observed 'is too high a price to pay to appease an alienated community'.

Of course, many of those who give offence are not progressive at all, but bigots - racists or homophobes. But people must be as free to offend against liberal orthodoxies as against reactionary ones. Free speech for everyone except bigots is not free speech at all. The right to free speech only has political bite when we are forced to defend the rights of people whose views we despise.

In any case, you cannot challenge bigoted ideas by banning them. You simply let the sentiments fester underground. Free speech does not mean accepting all views. It means having all views in the open so we can challenge the ones we find unconscionable. Today, though, we do the exact opposite: there are certain views we ban because they are deemed too unpalatable. But there are other views we are too frightened of challenging because we don't want to give offence to diverse cultures.

But you've got us all wrong, say the censors. We're not out to censor. All we want is to do is ensure respect for all beliefs and cultures. What's being demanded, however, is not respect but obedience. 'You will only say or do what we think is acceptable' has become the credo of the multiculturalist censor. It's a view that turns the notion of respect on its head.

In its traditional Kantian sense, respect requires us to treat every human being equally as a moral, autonomous being. Every individual possesses the capacity to express political and moral views and to act upon them. And every individual is responsible for their views and actions and is capable of being judged by them. The importance of free speech is that it is an expression of individual moral autonomy, the capacity of people to engage in a robust debate about their beliefs and their actions - and to bear the consequences.

The multiculturalist censor demands respect not just for the person but for also his or her beliefs. And in so doing they undermine individual autonomy, both by constraining the right of people to criticise others' beliefs and by insisting that individuals who hold those beliefs are too weak or vulnerable to stand up to criticism, satire or abuse. Far from according respect, the multiculturalist censor treats people not as autonomous beings but as incapable victims needing special protection. The result is an auction of victimhood as every group attempts to outbid all others as the one feeling most offended. The latest to jump on to the bandwagon are Hindus; a group calling itself Hindu Human Rights successfully shut down an exhibition by the Indian artist MF Hussain in London last month on the grounds that his paintings of Hindu deities were offensive.

The irony of censorship in the name of multiculturalism is that it undermines much of what is valuable about cultural diversity. When we talk about diversity, what we mean is that the world is a messy place, full of clashes and conflicts. That is all for the good, for such clashes and conflicts are the stuff of political and cultural engagement. The censors, however, seem frightened of the mess, and want everything nicely parcelled up, free of conflict, all neat and ordered. 'Respect' has become the major tool through which they hope to enforce such order.

Well, it's time we stood up for a little less respectful order and a little more messy engagement. It's time we recognised that giving offence is a normal part of a plural society. And it's time we defended free speech. Full stop. No buts.