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We Only Pretend To Defend Free Speech


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Jan,/Feb. 2012


Why write a defence of freedom of speech? The postmodern Left regards the idea as pernicious and contemptible. Few go as far as the American literary theorist Stanley Fish, author of There's No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It's a Good Thing, Too, who announced, "The only way to fight hate speech or racist speech is to recognise it as the speech of your enemy. What you do in response to the speech of your enemy is not prescribe a medication for it but attempt to stamp it out." But the professor is hardly the only "liberal" to believe that the state has the right to suppress offensive speech as if it were crushing an insurrection.




Leave aside if you can the sensible objection that the offence principle justifies the censoring of political debates — for do not many politically committed people find the views of their opponents "exceptionally offensive"? — and instead look at the boomerang that has whirled back through the air to smack the children of the 1960s in the face. They knew that racists, homophobes and misogynists were bad people with terrible ideas, and too few worried about the ground they were conceding when they accepted excessive restrictions on free speech. They ought to know better now.




How one writes about such a broad topic is a harder question to answer. Conservatives said I should condemn political correctness. As I do not want to go back to a country where jokes about the niggers, the Pakis, the yids and the micks were all over the television, I haven't, but instead looked at the failure of frightened liberals in the West to back censored liberal writers from the poor world. Ayatollah Khomeini's death threat against Salman Rushdie still casts its shadow, and I argue that fear of a violent reaction has created a culture of pretence in the Western democracies. The grand pose of intellectuals and artists is that they are the moral equivalents of the victims of repressive regimes. Loud-mouthed newspaper columnists strike heroic postures and claim to be dissenting voices bravely "speaking truth to power". Their editors never have to worry that "power" will respond by raiding their offices and throwing them in prison.





You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom


Book Description

Publication Date: January 19, 2012

From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the advert of the Web, everywhere you turn you are told that we live in age of unparalleled freedom. This is dangerously naive. From the revolution in Iran that wasn't to the imposition of super-injunctions from the filthy rich, we still live in a world where you can write a book and end up dead. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communism, and the advent of the Web which allowed for even the smallest voice to be heard, everywhere you turned you were told that we were living in an age of unparalleled freedom. You Can't Read This Book argues that this view is dangerously naive. From the revolution in Iran that wasn't, to the Great Firewall of China and the imposition of super-injunctions from the filthy rich protecting their privacy, the traditional opponents of freedom of speech - religious fanaticism, plutocratic power and dictatorial states - are thriving, and in many respects finding the world a more comfortable place in the early 21st century than they did in the late 20th. This is not an account of interesting but trivial disputes about freedom of speech: the rights and wrongs of shouting 'fire' in a crowded theatre, of playing heavy metal at 3 am in a built-up area or articulating extremist ideas in a school or university. Rather, this is a story that starts with the cataclysmic reaction of the Left and Right to the publication and denunciation of the Satanic Verses in 1988 that saw them jump into bed with radical extremists. It ends at the juncture where even in the transgressive, liberated West, where so much blood had been spilt for Freedom, where rebellion is the conformist style and playing the dissenter the smart career move in the arts and media, you can write a book and end up destroyed or dead.

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