If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Goebbels was in favour of freedom of speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favour of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.
Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992)
Terrorists don’t care about rights or laws so any debate about freedom of speech isn’t directed at them. I’d be more encouraged by the show of solidarity for dead cartoonists if I didn’t believe that many of those currently declaring their support will continue burning up social media in the next few months with demands that something be banned or stopped. We live in censorious times. Censorship (or the urge to see it enforced) never disappears, it migrates along with whatever happens to be taboo to current generations. In the 1970s much of the heat was around sexual content; today it’s predominantly about identity politics. Whatever the provocation, the results are the same: angry people step forward with a demand that something be forbidden. Last September a showing at the Barbican in London of Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B was cancelled after a petition and a demonstration outside the venue. Bonnie Greer wanted to make up her own mind but she didn’t get the opportunity:
These people largely reacted from hearsay, ideology, photos and the reactions of others who had seen it—not their own experience. I’ve seen people like this before, self-appointed judges, roaming the internet in search of what displeases and offends them. One protester went so far as to issue an absurd analysis of the possible psychological damage Exhibit B could cause the actors involved. It was ignorant and insulting psychobabble.
I don’t want to be stopped from seeing a work because, in their opinion, it’s “inappropriate”, “incorrect” or “racist”—words which are, at best, moveable feasts. I want to think for myself.
You’ll be seeing more movable feasts in the next few days when Anglophone commenters begin to discover that Charlie Hebdo was a full-spectrum offender rather like my colleagues at Savoy Books. When David Britton’s novel Lord Horror was being subject to Crown Court disapproval in 1992 The Independent wrote a prissy editorial complaining that the novel and a death metal album by Dismember were hardly worth the trouble of defending. These things weren’t art, they were trash, something that one of the UK comics mags (I forget which one) also complained about when discussing the Meng & Ecker prosecution. You can defend the principle of freedom of speech (or art) without agreeing with anything that’s being said, but for some people this often seems to be a step too far. Lord Horror escaped the obscenity charge thanks to Geoffrey Robertson QC but Meng & Ecker didn’t (comics being deemed trashier than novels by the court); my artwork for Hard Core Horror #5 was deemed obscene three years later in a separate trial in which Savoy were also declared to be unworthy of trial by jury because they were “not a bona fide publisher”. We don’t have a freedom of speech defence in Britain which is why history continues to repeat itself.
In the end all discussion about censorship comes down to this: who decides what is art and what is trash, what should be defended and what should be thrown to the dogs (or the gunmen)? You? Me? The Pope? Some guy in a ski-mask? Is freedom of speech only for the responsible people, for you and your friends? Or does it also apply to the irresponsible, the contentious, the trashy and the downright offensive? If freedom isn’t for everyone then someone, somewhere is willing to decide it’s not for you.