Wednesday, July 27, 2005

 

The Limits of Free Speech

Like a lot of people I've been chatting in the pub about recent events. Last Monday my mate and I discussed what should be allowed to be said and published on the Net by radical islamic fundamentalists. He took the impeccably liberal line, characteristic of our sixties generation, that there should be no censorship whatsoever and that people will sort out good stuff from the bad through innate common sense. This assumes though: a) that everyone is possessed of common sense b)exposing society to such messages has no really bad consequences and c) it is easy to sort out the 'good' stuff from the 'bad'. In Panorama's programme on Al Quaida last Monday we saw a Dr Al Masari, showing the presenter, Peter Taylor, examples of videos of beheadings and suicide bombers killing soldiers in Iraq. They were perfect for recruiting new supporters said the good doctor. Apart from the moral question of whether such obscene images should be shown, it seems to me that new supporters means more potential suicide bombers and still more innocent victims it. So such sites should be pursued and closed down as soon as possible.

More generally on free speech and censorship I think anyone or any organisation which preaches intolerance, racism, violence should be curbed at some point. Our democracy is fairly robustly founded on hundreds of years of debate and solid democratic institutions. But such systems are essentially value based and can be quickly undermined- witness the Weimar Republic. Bernard(sorry, Sir Bernard)Crick makes a distinction between 'procedural' values and other kinds of value concerned with political activity. Procedural ones are those which are 'enabling': they allow the system to work. So, for example, free speech allows us all to discuss a wide range of issues; non violence enables us to function secure in the knoweldge we won't come to harm; tolerance of other religions, races and types of lifestyle enables diversity to flourish and contribute to the general good.

As long as the vast majority subscribe to these procedural values the system will work well with huge benefits for all in terms of freedom and general quality of life. However, if groups declare war on these values, for example supporters of totalitarian movements like Communism or Nazism, then the viability of the whole system is threatened. As long such movements are small and weak the threat is easily contained. The British system has laughed off both extremes in the past but both have tended to be feeble and relatively harmless. The new Islamic radicalism is weak numerically but is powerful in terms of what it is prepared to do. Its aim is to disable the system and create a chaos from which it hopes to benefit. Any messages which undermine the fragile values on which liberal democracy is based, should be closely watched, and, if they become too strident or ubiquitous, steps should be taken to curb them. As a sixties liberal myself this point of view does not rest easily but recent events have shown we no longer live in tolerant times and our attitudes have to change for our own safety and the future of our democratic system. Unfettered free speech is a luxury the bombers have made too expensive for us to afford.

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