Free speech and open debate are never guaranteed, says Pádraig Reidy
First of all, a declaration: as someone who works at the coalface of anti-censorship activism in the UK with Index on Censorship, I have encountered Nick Cohen more than once, and would personally count him a comrade. Many of the cases cited by Cohen in this book have been campaigning issues for Index on Censorship.
When he writes in You Can’t Read This Book of encountering the “angry nerds” who propelled England’s Libel Reform Campaign, or the shamingly perseverant actor-activists of the Belarus Free Theatre, it is because the Observer columnist and author was there among them as their stories unfolded.
Cohen is – to use the language of the liberal who prefers to paint his unwillingness to commit as a sign of nuance and cleverness – a “free speech fundamentalist”.
You Can’t Read This Book begins with a quote from Christopher Hitchens: a blast at the religious fundamentalism that has dominated the debate on free speech since Ayatollah Khomeini’s open-tender assassin’s contract (let’s not insult intelligence or Islam by calling it a “fatwa”) on Salman Rushdie, issued on Valentine’s Day 1989:
“There is an all-out confrontation between the ironic and the literal mind: between every kind of commissar and inquisitor and bureaucrat and those who know that, whatever the role of social and political forced, ideas and books have to be formulated by individuals.”
And there is the root of all censorship: the will of one section of society to have power over what individuals say and ultimately think. It’s seems so obvious to say, but is worth remembering every time you hear someone say (as they do) “I’m all in favour of free speech, but…”. Whether it is through the methods of a genuine old-time dictator such as Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, the abuse of England’s (and indeed Australia’s) archaic libel laws, or the growing culture of “offence”, the impulse is always the same: control.
As I write, the UK parliament is debating the 2012 Defamation Bill, the campaign for which is detailed in the chapter “The March Of The Nerds”. The campaign, fought since 2009, found its cause celebre in the case of Simon Singh, a scientist who had playfully used the occasion of “Chiropractic Awareness Week” to write a comment article for the Guardian drawing attention to what he said were the misleading claims of the British Chiropractic Association.
Singh’s short article would most likely have passed unnoticed if the “alternative medicine” practitioners had not decided to take offence and attempt to make an example of the author. What followed was an absurdly protracted lawsuit, which cost Singh two years of his life and, despite the fact he eventually won, tens of thousands of pounds.
The chiropractics complained of Singh’s assertion that they “happily promoted” “bogus treatments” for which there was not “a jot of evidence”. The UK sceptic movement, a disparate but enthusiastic bunch desperate for a cause, saw a threat to their two great loves: scientific evidence and free debate. Their guru (if such a label is appropriate) Ben Goldacre, author of the Bad Science book and a column in The Guardian and himself a victim of a libel suit from a pseudoscientist, welcomed Cohen to the movement with the Obi-Wan Kenobi quote: “Strike us down, we shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine”.
Goldacre was perhaps even more prescient than the old Jedi he invoked. The geeks did not wait to inherit the earth: they took things in their own hands, and, 57,000 petition signatures (gathered by the Libel Reform Campaign led by Index on Censorship) and a general election later, the reform of London’s libel laws was written into the coalition agreement that formed the basis of the new UK government.
This unfortunately is a rare success story in Cohen’s account of the free speech battleground. The single greatest victory for censorship, as detailed by Cohen, has been the movement of the perception of censorship from being seen as a weapon of the strong to a defence for the weak. Many censorious moves now, such as the Organisation of Islamic Conference’s repeated attempts to ban “defamation of religion” are couched in the language of protection of minorities.
This is not completely without basis. It is all too easy for any of us to fall into the trap of believing that vulnerable minorities can be protected merely by shutting down language they may find offensive. It is also much too easy to dismiss people’s genuine upset and alarm as touchiness and reaction.
While Cohen is right to point out the political motivations behind the Satanic Verses and Danish cartoons controversies (both episodes detailed at length and with relish here), it is worth pointing out what led some older South Asian Muslims in Britain to feel defensive. Particularly in 1989, many of those protesting would have memories of sectarian violence in India, where an attack on Islam would often be followed by an attack on Muslims by Shiv Sena religious radicals (a threat that has not disappeared for today’s Indian Muslims).
But to acknowledge genuine offence is not the same as to acknowledge the right not to be offended, which cannot and should not be guaranteed.
In fact, Cohen, in this book goes some way to reclaiming our right to be offended: by bigotry, misogyny, small-mindedness, institutionalised mediocrity, and Hitchens’s concept of the “literal mind”.
Cohen may be a “fundamentalist” for free expression, but he makes a compelling argument that free speech and open debate are, in the final sum, for the benefit of all. In an atmosphere where cries of “free speech” are too often caveated with that fatal “but”, it is an important point to make.
You Can’t Read This Book by Nick Cohen, published by Fourth Estate (HarperCollins), RRP $24.99.
Pádraig Reidy is news editor for the Index on Censorship; www.indexoncensorship.org