Tuesday, 21 February 2006

Freedom vs Censorship

The condemnation of the controversial, so-called historian, David Irving, to three years of prison by an Austrian tribunal for denying the Holocaust, raises some interesting questions about freedom of speech.

The concept has already been put to the test in the past weeks with the controversy surrounding those cartoons and periodically, a case arises, highlighting the difficulty of striking the right balance in those matters.

In the case of Irving, for example, it seems fair to say that the instinctive response of most people to the condemnation (including mine) is that he deserved to be sentenced and that justice has been done. Indeed, eleven countries in Europe have laws against denying the Holocaust. Likewise, last year when I heard of the condemnation of a Swedish priest who had compared homosexuality to a cancer for society, a subject obviously close to my heart, I was quite happy with the judge’s decision (it looks like the judgement has now been quashed).

Having thought a little more on the subject and read a few interesting posts on the subject in the blogosphere, I am now not so sure that this is the right approach. The temptation, difficult to refrain from, is, of course, to use laws to silence opinions that we don’t agree with or think contradictory to our values. But history, even recent history or current events, teaches us that dominant values, upheld by laws, are not always the most progressive one or the ones we support; or a shift in perspective can happen very easily.

It is also very easy to become extremist in our support of what we see as liberal values and actually undermine the very idea we want to support. By trying to muzzle opinions we feel don't fit the liberal mould, there is a danger of turning liberal ideals into a totalitarian ideology: "Our liberal way of thinking is the only way of thinking."

Recently, the lower house of Parliament voted in favour of a law criminalizing the glorification of terrorism. While the intention is probably right, it seems that currently laws are perfectly adequate to attain the goals of this new law (this is demonstrated by the recent condemnation of Abu Hamza, which happened without the help of the potential new law). More importantly, the concept of glorification is so vague that interpretation is required from the judge to come to a judgement. I don't think that subjectivity should be given that much space in the law. It is probably not such a problem at the moment but what would happen if the social and political climate suddenly turned to something more threatening than what it is now. Such pieces of legislation could become very dangerous tools indeed for a non-liberal government.

At the end of the day, such laws limiting freedom of speech, rather than changing outlooks, will only drive people underground. They will see themselves as victims of the majority view or even martyrs to their cause and will simply feel justified in their opinions. By definition, there can be no institutional limits to freedom of speech, except when someone is calling for violence to be perpetrated on someone else, in which case they forfeit their rights to freedom. As I said, the easy response is to shut people up but a solution more consistent with liberal ideals and probably more effective is to engage people with opposing views to ours and to argue for our values. This is what freedom of speech and democracy are all about.

Of course problems will arise when the other side does not recognise those values and is therefore is not ready to come to the same ground to discuss things but rather uses violence and threats to try and impose their view as happened in the case of the cartoons.

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