• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Shots to the heart of freedom of speech

AS in Paris, the shooting spree in Copenhagen began with an attack on a site that symbolised free speech before going on to assault a building used by Jews and kill people for being Jewish. I did not watch the unfolding of this tragedy and had no idea that these callous murders were going on until I listened to a message left by a friend on my phone. My friend sounded upset and her voice was strained as she asked “after this mess in Copenhagen are you still going to go to Amsterdam to debate?”

Although her message was framed as a question her tone clearly communicated more than a hint of warning regarding my impeding debate on “Free speech after Charlie Hebdo”.

My immediate reaction to this message was to dismiss it as an over-the-top response to the tragic events in far away Denmark. After all, Western Europe is one of the safest regions of the world and exercising the right to free speech rarely exacts a significant cost. However, the more I thought about this unsolicited warning the more my mind began to wonder about concerns that thankfully I never needed to think about before.

The Krudttoenden cultural centre in Copenhagen was holding a peaceful and civilised discussion on free speech when it came under gunfire. When I looked at the pictures of this cultural centre my thoughts turned from reflecting on the plight of the victims to the realisation that this event was held in a building that was very much like the one hosting my debate in Amsterdam.

Did I feel a slight pang of unease when I realised that the topic of this debate in Copenhagen was not a million miles from what I will be discussing in Amsterdam? The answer is yes. But what really disturbed me was the realisation that we have now moved into a world where the very idea of a genuine clash of views on a controversial subject is increasingly associated with physical threats.

The likely target of the Copenhagen attack was the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, who has gained a reputation for his provocative satirical drawings. He has faced many threats to his life, since the publication of his cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in 2007. In 2013 he, along with “offensive” artists, was placed on a hit list published by al-Qa’ida.

Like his ill-fated Charlie Hebdo colleagues who were massacred in Paris, Vilks is considered by many to be inflammatory and insulting and offensive to many Muslims. His critics argue that his provocations have brought the wrath of angry Islamists on himself.

Many institutions and publications have been wary of giving him a voice and he has had numerous lectures and exhibitions cancelled by cultural organisations.

Sadly, far too many public figures and institutions take the view that anything that provokes Muslim sensibilities cannot be said. Indeed their argument sometimes goes so far as to imply that the only way to prevent murderous attacks, such as the one in Copenhagen is to cease publishing provocative cartoons and articles that Muslim people find offensive.

I must confess that I am not a fan of Charlie Hebdo or cartoonists who instead of making a deeper point opt for insulting their target. I find that such self-consciously in-your face cartoons tend to infantilise discussion about difficult problems that require serious deliberation.

But we don’t get to choose whose freedom of speech we uphold. Cartoonists have every right to offend since that is what free speech is all about.

By its very nature the free exchange of views and sentiments will inevitably offend someone. Throughout history every new and important idea has been deemed offensive.

Aside from standing up for the principle that regards the freedom of speech inviolable regardless of the offence it causes there is an absolutely compelling argument for not making concessions to the “I am offended” lobby.

In the Western world, the sensibility of feeling offended has acquired an expansive and unrestrained quality. Those who are offended by the work of Vilk will not be placated with the censoring of his cartoons.

Tomorrow they will raise objections to an “offensive” essay that criticises one of their cherished beliefs. The day after tomorrow they will express their offence at a supermarket that sells pork in the wrong neighbourhood. And other groups of offended will pile in to demand the silencing of their critics.

The concessions already made to the offended have led to situations where the number of words that can no longer be said steadily expands and there is a continuous expansion of what is deemed as unacceptable behaviour.

What has also expanded are the death threats. You don’t need to be a cartoonist to invite a threat to your life. Today the media reports that the artist Paul Cummins whose poppy installation drew millions people to London has received death threats because some of the money raised by his project has gone to charities who have connections with the military.

Many, including Vilks, have predicted that after the Copenhagen murders it will be even more difficult to organise open debates on issues that hard-line groups of the offended regard as offensive.

We need to defy those malevolent forces that want to shut down free debate. Instead of looking for excuses we have to insist that speaking out and defending the freedom of speech is more important than before.

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