Sonny Bunch

Lesotho Times - - Leader -

CON­SIDER, for in­stance, the vow from Bri­tish Labour leader Ed Miliband to “out­law” lan­guage deemed of­fen­sive to Mus­lims. “We are go­ing to make (Is­lam­o­pho­bia) an ag­gra­vated crime,” Mr Miliband said.

“We will chal­lenge prej­u­dice be­fore it grows, whether in schools, uni­ver­si­ties or on so­cial me­dia.”

Mean­while, oth­ers in the United King­dom are push­ing for anti-semites on so­cial me­dia to be treated like sex of­fend­ers: banned from ser­vices such as Twit­ter and Face­book for the good of all.

Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia and Ed Miliband’s Bri­tain share a dis­dain for free­dom of ex­pres­sion that might un­duly in­flu­ence oth­ers: Rus­sia in De­cem­ber passed a law for­bid­ding the prop­a­ga­tion of “Nazi pro­pa­ganda.”

One of the ca­su­al­ties of that law was “Maus,” Art Spiegel­man’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning graphic novel about life un­der the Third Re­ich. Be­cause its cover dis­plays the main char­ac­ters cow­er­ing be­neath a swastika, the book was pulled from store shelves.

“I’m afraid that this is a harbinger of the new ar­bi­trari­ness of rules in Rus­sia,” Mr Spiegel­man told NPR. “The re­sult will be like what hap­pened in the ob­scen­ity rul­ings that closed down a lot of theatre plays.”

Rus­sia isn’t the only en­tity to en­act ridicu­lously over­broad bans on swastika-re­lated ex­pres­sion. In the United States, the Foun­da­tion for In­di­vid­ual Rights in Ed­u­ca­tion re­cently high­lighted the case of a Jewish Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity stu­dent who was suspended for dis­play­ing a swastika he had pur­chased while in In­dia.

The sym­bol has a very dif­fer­ent mean­ing for Hin­dus than it does whitepower types. The stu­dent hoped to ed­u­cate his peers about the sym­bol’s his­tory. In­stead he got an ex­pul­sion no­tice.

In some cases — such as Paris, where the satirists work­ing at Char­lie Hebdo paid for their com­mit­ment to free speech with their lives or Texas, where an al­legedly Is­lamic State sym­pa­thiz­ing gun­man opened up on a “Draw Muham­mad” event — free speech is quite lit­er­ally un­der fire.

And the re­sponse from the world’s in­tel­lec­tual class has been less than im­pres­sive. Af­ter the PEN Amer­i­can Cen­tre de­cided to give its Free­dom of Ex­pres­sion of Courage award to the Char­lie Hebdo staffers who mar­tyred them­selves for the cause of free­dom of ex­pres­sion, sev­eral of PEN’S most pres­ti­gious mem­bers voiced their ob­jec­tions.

In­deed, the crit­i­cally ac­claimed nov­el­ist Peter Carey sug­gested that sup­port­ing the free­dom of ex­pres­sion of those who are threat­ened with death is lit­tle more than a “po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion.”

Mr Carey is a mem­ber of the “But Brigade,” as Sal­man Rushdie has dubbed those who pro­claim their love for free­dom of speech only to qual­ify it mo­ments later by de­nounc­ing those with whom they dis­agree.

“The mo­ment some­body says, ‘ Yes, I be­lieve in free speech, but ...’ I stop lis­ten­ing,” Rushdie told a crowd at Ver­mont’s Ira Allen Chapel in Jan­uary.

“I be­lieve in free speech, but peo­ple should be­have them­selves. I be­lieve in free speech, but we shouldn’t up­set any­body. I be­lieve in free speech, but let’s not go too far.’ The point about it is the mo­ment you limit free speech, it’s not free speech. ... You can’t slice it up, oth­er­wise it ceases to be free­dom. You can dis­like Char­lie Hebdo.

“Not all their draw­ings were funny. You can dis­like (them). But the fact that you dis­like them has got noth­ing to do with their right to speak.

The fact that you dis­like them cer­tainly doesn’t in any way ex­cuse their mur­der. And the idea that within days of this mur­der, sec­tions of the left as well as the right have turned against th­ese fallen artists, to vil­ify them, is, I think, dis­grace­ful.”

Grant­ing the right to ban some speech while pro­tect­ing the rest can lead to all sorts of odd out­comes (like, say, ban­ning “Maus” un­der a law for­bid­ding Nazi pro­pa­ganda).

Ad­di­tion­ally, fram­ing such con­cerns as mat­ters of public safety rather than mat­ters of prin­ci­ple em­pow­ers fringe el­e­ments and trans­forms the heck­ler’s veto into the as­sas­sins’ veto. Iron­i­cally, we make the world a more danger­ous place each time we cede a sliver of speech to killers.

Now, Mr Rushdie is prob­a­bly just one of those free speech fun­da­men­tal­ists so hated by the Garry Trudeaus and Matt Wuerk­ers and Eric Pos­ners of the world. His words likely mean lit­tle to those who make the (false) ar­gu­ment that there’s a distinc­tion be­tween “free speech” and “hate speech.”

But I’m old enough to re­mem­ber when it was not just the right of artists to push bound­aries and make peo­ple un­com­fort­able: it was their sa­cred duty.

And for those of us who value free­dom of ex­pres­sion — for those of us who think that it is wrong to use the power of the gov­ern­ment or the gun of a killer to si­lence artists and oth­ers who make peo­ple un­com­fort­able — th­ese are very trou­bling times.

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