The Human Right to Offend (now with comments on)
it no other rights can be asserted and defended. Free speech—the right of
anyone to criticize and evaluate the claims of anyone else—is the best
environment for discovering political, social, economic, and scientific truths.
Political, religious, and ideological absolutists cannot tolerate criticism that
punctures and wounds their delusions and dogmas. They look for ways to shut the
offensive speakers up, including murder.
In addition to killing specific critics, such murders also
terrorize others into self-censorship. That was the aim of the assassinations
earlier this year at Charlie Hebdo in Paris and at the Krudttonden Café in
Any attacks on free speech and the free press must be
fiercely rejected, Flemming Rose argues in his passionate new book, The Tyranny
of Silence. Rose knows whereof he speaks. He is the editor who commissioned
drawings of Muhammad to illustrate an article on free speech for the Danish
newspaper theJyllands-Posten in 2005. Rose was inspired by the news that
several illustrators had declined to draw Muhammad for a children’s book out of
fear of violent Muslim reprisals. His aim was to “highlight self-censorship and
its effects on cultural life”and “to fight fears that underlay
self-censorship.” Rose further argued that it was condescending and even racist
to presume that Muslims were intolerant and would react violently to cartoons
depicting their prophet.
Sure enough, while many Muslims found the illustrations
offensive, most did not react violently. But some Islamist extremists did issue
death threats, and several have attempted to murder some of the cartoonists.
For example, a Muslim named David Headley was arrested in 2009 for planning an
attack on theJyllands-Posten offices that eerily parallels the later assault on
Charlie Hebdo. Offended Islamists have twice tried to kill cartoonist Kurt
Westergaard, who drew the famous image in which Muhammad’s turban contained a
lit bomb. Rose reports an incident in which a Muslim man shouted at
Westergaard, “May you burn in hell!” To which Westergaard coolly replied, “Can
we talk about it now, or should we wait until we meet there?”
Riots broke out in many majority-Muslim countries, and mobs
attacked several Danish embassies. Officials from several Muslim nations
demanded that Denmark and other European countries apologize for the offensive
cartoons and prevent any similar offenses in the future. (“Muslims were now
demanding that non-Muslims, in non-Muslim countries, adhere to Islamic
precepts,”Rose observes.) And the Organization of the Islamic Conference has
stepped up its efforts to get the United Nations behind a ban on“ the
defamation of religion .” Such a move would essentially globalize
restrictions on blasphemy.
As alarming as the actions of Muslim governments and
individual believers have been, the reactions of many European governments and
some supposed guardians of free speech have been even more dismaying. In
Denmark, the public prosecutor considered bringing a case against the newspaper
for blasphemy or racism. Out of fear of Islamist attacks, art exhibitions have
been sanitized, movies suppressed, and people punished for “hate speech.” The
European Court of Human Rights has defined hate speech as “all form of
expressions which spread, incite, promote, or justify hatred based on
intolerance (including religious intolerance).” This completely turns the
concept of tolerance on its head.
As Rose correctly argues, tolerance properly understood is
the ability to accept speech one dislikes. “When we focus on non-discrimination
and equality, and aim to empower the aggrieved, tolerance is no longer about
the ability to tolerate things we don’t like,” he explains. “It becomes the
ability to keep quiet and refrain from saying things that others may dislike.”
Calls to ban offensive speech sacrifices diversity of expression in the name of
respecting diversity of culture. “If we accept the idea that people have a
right not to be offended, we will end up with a tyranny of silence, for almost
any speech may be deemed offensive,” declares Rose.
Insult fundamentalists justify their efforts to restrict
speech with the catchphrase, “Freedom of speech is not the same as the freedom
to offend.” In fact, there is no freedom of speech if people cannot offend
those who would deny women equal rights, persecute homosexuals, and commit
violence against people who do not share their faith. “The idea that if you say
something that might be construed as offensive, you somehow restrict the
liberty of others is nonsense,” argues Rose. He is entirely right.
Rose praises the United States for its strong protections of
free speech based on the First Amendment. And yet there are Americans who
believe that certain speech is so offensive that it warrants a violent
response. Last year Mireille Miller-Young, a sociologist at the University of
California, Santa Barbara, grabbed a graphic anti-abortion poster displayed at
a table on campus where two pro-lifers were handing out literature. Arguing
much like Muslims offended by the Muhammad cartoons, she defended her actions
by saying that the images constituted “ hate
speech ” that had “triggered” her vandalism. Happily, she was sentenced to three
years of probation for her attempt to suppress speech she disliked.
Nothing undercuts the power and propaganda of tyrants and
religious zealots more than the right of people to speak and write uncensored.
In a free society, people can pursue and propound their own versions of the
truth. In a fear society, everyone must submit to and live with lies. Societies
in which citizens can speak freely flourish; societies muzzled by despots
“We know from history that if we submit to terror and
threats; what we do not get is less terror and fewer threats,” writes
Rose.“What we get is more terror and more threats.” Self-censorship in the face
of intimidation has another name: cowardice.