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13 August 2001

Protect the freedom to shock

From Galileo to Darwin, heretics who offend have taken society forward, teaching us that free speech

By Kenan Malik

”To be tolerant,” Umberto Eco once wrote, “one must first set the boundaries of the intolerant.” One of the ironies of our more inclusive, more diverse society is that the preservation of diversity seems increasingly to leave less room for a diversity of views. To show respect for other peoples, other cultures and other viewpoints, the argument runs, one needs to be intolerant of people whose views give offence or who transgress firmly entrenched moral boundaries. Hence the recent furore created by Chris Morris’s satire on paedophilia and the High Court’s decision to overturn the immigration ban on Louis Farrakhan.

On the Saturday after the programme was screened, the Home Office minister Beverley Hughes declared Morris’s Brass Eye (which she had not seen) to be “unspeakably sick”. On the Tuesday, she was “dismayed” at the decision of Mr Justice Turner because the presence of Farrakhan would undermine “the social cohesion and racial harmony of this country”. The government hinted that it might strengthen the powers of the Independent Television Commission to censor offensive programmes and that it might appeal against the unbanning of Farrakhan. These views found considerable support among both liberals and conservatives. For many, those who make jokes about child abuse or claim Hitler to be a “great man” are clearly positioned beyond the boundaries of the intolerant.

The trouble with the “you have to be tough to be tolerant” argument, however, is that toughness inevitably trumps tolerance. Most strong views will give some offence to some people. So where do we draw the “boundaries of the intolerant”?

A few years ago, a national newspaper asked me to write an essay about the 18th-century revolutionary Tom Paine; the occasion was the 200th anniversary of his book The Age of Reason. I opened the piece with a quotation from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. As the greatest free-thinker of his age, I wrote, Paine would have not only approved of Rushdie’s novel, but been astounded at the pusillanimity of liberals in defending it. A few hours after I handed in my copy, an editor phoned me back. “We’ve discussed it with senior Muslim figures,” she told me, “and they find any quote from The Satanic Verses offensive. We can’t use it.”

A few years later, in the wake of the death of the Princess of Wales, I was talking to another editor on another newspaper. Diana was no victim, I argued. She was rich, privileged and a great manipulator of the media. Anyone else who ordered their chauffeur to drive them through a city centre at breakneck speed would be condemned for their idiocy, not revered for their compassion. “That would make a great article,” the editor told me, “but it’s too provocative; it would offend too many people.”

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Then there was the time I was invited, with the writer Marek Kohn, to debate with Chris Brand, an Edinburgh University psychologist and self-styled “scientific racist”. A disciple of Francis Galton, the 19th-century founder of eugenics, Brand believes that black people are genetically less intelligent than whites. We never got the chance to challenge these pernicious views. The Anti-Nazi League protested that there should be “no platform for racists” – and the organisers complied.

Muslims, monarchists, anti-Nazis – is there anybody left out there whom one can offend? The world, it seems, is peopled by sensitive souls, too weak to be confronted by strong opinions, controversial statements and provocative arguments. As a result, we all have to live our lives as if in a church service – all hushed tones and reverential attitudes, and no bad language, or bad thoughts.

Yet it is the freedom to blaspheme, to transgress, to move beyond the pale, that is at the heart of all intellectual, artistic and political endeavour. Far from censoring offensive speech, a vibrant and diverse society should encourage it. In any society that is not uniform, grey and homogeneous, there are bound to be clashes of viewpoints. Inevitably, some people will find certain ideas objectionable. This is all to the good, because it is the heretics who take society forward. From Galileo’s vision of the universe to Darwin’s theory of evolution, from the drive towards secularism to the struggle for equal rights, every scientific or social advance began by outraging the conventions of its time. Without such heresies and transgressions, society may be more ordered, and more polite, but it will also be less progressive and less alive.

It is true that many who today cause offence, such as Farrakhan or Brand, are objectionable characters with odious ideas, heretics who wish to drag society back to the Dark Ages rather than take it forward. But the right to transgress against liberal orthodoxy is as important as the right to blaspheme against religious dogma or the right to challenge reactionary traditions. “We believe in free speech,” claimed Greville Janner, the chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust. “But there’s a limit, and arousing racial hatred is beyond the limit.” Free speech for everyone except anti-Semites and racist demagogues is no free speech at all. It is meaningless to defend the right of free expression for people with whom we agree. The right to free speech has political bite only when we are forced to defend the rights of people with whose views we profoundly disagree.

Moreover, it is only through freedom of expression that we can articulate our disagreements with such people and challenge their ideas. Censoring ugly ideas will not make them go away. It is simply a means of abrogating our responsibility to deal with them. It is fanciful to suggest, as Beverley Hughes does, that Farrakhan should be banned in order to preserve social cohesion and racial harmony. During the past 15 years, when Farrakhan was excluded from these shores, those who wished to create social disruption and racial disharmony have done very well without his aid. Keeping Farrakhan out has provided an easy way of avoiding thinking about why Farrakhan’s views may have purchase on certain sections of society, and about how to tackle them.

In the same way, those who demanded that Brand not be heard, and those who today seek to ban the British National Party, sidestep the task of directly challenging their ideas. Putting on the censor’s hat suggests a lack of confidence in one’s ability to persuade an audience of an alternative viewpoint, not to mention a certain contempt for people’s capacity to consider the evidence rationally.

Easy solutions, however, have become the order of the day. In these post-cold-war, post-ideological times, there is a great desire for quick-fix political consensus and moral certainties. The disintegration of the traditional left and right, and the collapse of old moral codes, has become a source of insecurity.

In the search for novel ways of regulating society, politicians and intellectuals are trying to establish new boundaries of what is sayable and doable, increasingly replacing the politics of right and left with the pieties of right and wrong. It is no coincidence that the Morris and Farrakhan affairs touch on the two issues – child abuse and the Holocaust – about which few people have any doubt as to what constitutes moral right and wrong.

The very fact that we talk of ideas as “offensive” is indicative of the political shift that has taken place. There are many ways of disagreeing with someone’s views – we may see them as irrational, reactionary, or just plain wrong. But to deem an idea “offensive” is to put it beyond the bounds of rational debate. Offensiveness is an affront to an entrenched tradition, a religious precept or one’s emotional sensibilities that cannot be erased by reasoned argument. It is a notion that sits well with the moralising, emoting, often irrational approach to politics that we see too frequently today.

Far from being the cornerstone of a diverse, plural society, the refusal to give offence shows respect neither for oneself nor for others. Respect for oneself requires self-belief, a willingness to take a stand, to be unpopular, to refuse to see oneself as a victim. Respecting others means not ignoring them, but engaging with them by putting them on their mettle and challenging their ideas and arguments. Without heated, entrenched debate, a plural society becomes but a hollow shell.

Edmund Burke once complained that Tom Paine sought to “destroy in six or seven days” that which “all the boasted wisdom of our ancestors has laboured to perfection for six or seven centuries”. To which Paine replied: “I am contending for the rights of the living and against their being willed away, and controlled, and contracted for, by the manuscript-assumed authority of the dead.” Paine had no time for custom, no reverence for the past, no notion of deference to authority. Would that we had a few more Tom Paines and fewer Edmund Burkes today.

An archive of the writer’s work can be found at

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