Journalists, including the local fraternity, celebrated World Press Freedom Day last Thursday, and our minister of information, in a Senate statement, basked in Jamaica's enviable record of press freedom. Fine. But there are some disturbing contemporary trends regarding free speech which are not getting any attention from our media here, but which are now mainstreamed in America, which sets the trends here.
There is an ever-widening definition of 'hate speech', which threatens to erode our traditional notion of free speech. It is increasingly becoming accepted that people have a right not to be offended; that it is a violation of their civil liberty to offend them by using strong language or expressing certain oppositional views - even if one evokes a free-speech defence.
For example, conservative Christians should not have the right to condemn homosexuality as abhorrent, abominable, inherently degrading, something which God will punish by hellfire. No, that is abusive 'hate speech' which demeans and dehumanises human beings and should not be allowed in any civilised society.
I strongly disagree with any attempt to block people's right to condemn any behaviour or orientation. I believe people must have the right to express their stupidity and absurdities. Some people in the gay-rights movement, who claim to be so cosmopolitan, sophisticated and liberal, would take illiberal steps to shut down anti-gay rhetoric by conservative Christians. That's dangerous and can have major unintended consequences for free speech generally.
When we start shutting down Christians' right to use strong language to attack homosexuality, by what moral authority or rational consistency can we tell the Chinese Communist party bosses in Beijing that they can't shut down any Internet site that attacks their rule and which condemns their autocracy? How can liberal, sophisticated, free-speech libertarians attack the Saudi authorities for banning certain types of literature and for not allowing Playboy in Riyadh?
Of course, these sophisticated Western gays would say they have science, rationality and common sense on their side, while the Chinese Communists and the Saudi leaders are just in a gigantic time warp, railing against the winds of history. Settled truth is on their side. It might well be. But a pluralistic society has to allow space for other voices, other 'truths' in this postmodernist age. If truth is a social construct, as postmodernism asserts, and there still exist communities which believe, as fundamentalist Christians do, that homosexuality is an abomination, they must be allowed to speak their 'truth', however unpalatable and repulsive it might be to modern, urbane ears. It's the price of living in a democratic society.
But Europe and North America (especially Canada) have gone overboard with political correctness and their hate-speech bogey. No wonder some conservative Christians here, like Shirley Richards, are afraid that if civil rights are accorded to gay people, they might eventually threaten Christians' freedom to preach. I heard one fundamentalist express that fear vividly on 'Direct' with Garfield Burford two weeks ago when he said, "Garfield, somebody has to be in the closet. If the gays come out, it is we Christians who are going to have to go into the closet."
Now that does not follow, of course, but his fears are fuelled by actual experiences in countries like Sweden and Denmark, which lock up people who are simply preaching what Leviticus says about homosexuality. That's a denial of the European heritage of free speech. Voltaire was said to have remarked (though some have contested it), "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it." That was the old view of tolerance.
The old view of tolerance says, let all views contend in the marketplace of ideas. No one has any monopoly on truth; humans are fallible and finite and, therefore, the best way to ferret out truth is to let contending views have their place and, perhaps, we might determine what is right. The new view of tolerance says it is inherently intolerant to believe that you are right or that there is anything called absolute truth. The new view of tolerance says we can't determine objective truth, so no one should have the right to condemn anybody else's 'truth' or lifestyle. This is a genetically bad philosophy.
The United Nations actually has a Declaration of Principles of Tolerance which says, "Tolerance ... involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism." No wonder it lobbied so hard to get countries to pass a resolution that would make criticism of Islam akin to hate speech. The US, for its own reasons, strongly opposed it, and it was eventually defeated. But some of those same people in the US, Canada and Europe who saw through that anti-democratic, anti-free-speech ruse are willing to persecute Christians and others who feel they have a right to criticise others.
In 2005, the Cooperative Bank in Manchester, England, asked a Christian organisation, Christian Voice, to close its accounts at the bank because its views were "incompatible" with those of the bank. The bank explained: "It has come to the bank's attention that Christian Voice is engaged in discriminatory pronouncements based on the grounds of sexual orientation ... . This public stance is incompatible with the position of the bank. Cooperative Bank publicly supports diversity and dignity in all its forms for our staff, customers and other stakeholders."
What about the freedom of these Christians to publicly preach their beliefs - however wrong-headed or stupid one might think they are? Muslims in the West have rioted, burnt buildings and caused unrest because their prophet was insulted. Now insulting any religious founder might be in poor taste and could be considered uncivil, but people must have the right to do so. Christians will agree with me when that is in reference to Muhammad, Buddha, Bahá'u'lláh or Joseph Smith, but would swarm the blogs if I dared suggest that people should be free to insult Jesus! Now it's true that most Christians are not likely to be violent if Christ is blasphemed (as they would see it), but the fact is that Christians, too, are inconsistent about this matter of free speech. They would ban carnival, horse racing and shut down dance halls if they had theocratic power.
One French writer was taken to court by Muslims because he had made "derogatory remarks" and "incited religious hatred" by attacking the Koran and Islam.
Intolerant view of tolerance
Today, free speech suffers not only in the 48 countries that Freedom House in its latest Freedom of the World survey describes as "not free", but in the heart of the liberal democracies of North America and Europe, particularly Nordic Europe. There is now what I call an intolerant view of tolerance. It is a very dangerous view. We are reverting to those backward days of seditious speech and blasphemy laws, even as we celebrate World Press Freedom Day.
In 1798, the US Congress passed a law that punished any disrespectful comment on the president. In that year, the Senate passed the Sedition Law - which attracted the death penalty. A century later, under another congressional statute, some men were sentenced to 20 years for criticising a policy decision of President Woodrow Wilson. But before that in Britain, King Henry VIII issued a proclamation requiring anyone who wanted to print something to get a licence.
I believe that even racist ideas have a right in the public square (to forestall the regular rejoinder of anti-libertarian gays.) As has been stated, the response to hate speech should be "more, better speech", not censorship or suppression. (Don't come with that regular canard about "shouting fire in a packed theatre", used by assorted totalitarians to justify repression and abuse of free speech.) More, better speech. Let the racists be free to say Ian Boyne is a nigger, is not fully human, is intellectually inferior to a one-day-old Caucasian and that his race was created by Satan having sex with Eve (which is actually taught by some, by the way.)
It was recently reported that Bavaria, Germany, will soon be republishing Hitler's racist rant, 'Mein Kampf', a despicable anti-Semitic book not published for more than 70 years. Germany should rightfully republish, and so should the literature of the KKK. Let not just a hundred flowers bloom but let the weeds bloom.
There have long been people giving 'eloquent' defences of the suppression of free speech. In 1800, a supporter of the Sedition Act, Henry Lee, said in the Virginia House of Delegates in contradiction of James Madison: "To contend that there does not exist a power to punish writings coming from within the description of this law would be to assert the inability of our nation to preserve its own peace and to protect themselves from the attempts of wicked citizens who, incapable to quiet themselves, are incessantly employed to devising means to disturb the public repose. But government cannot thus be secured if, by falsehood and malicious slander, it is to be deprived of the confidence and affection of the people."
It is the same kind of arguments used by homosexuals, Muslims, theocratic, ultra-fundamentalist Christians and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem who believe those who disagree with them should have no right to offend them and their sacred beliefs. I say the right to free speech must include offensive speech. Let your emotions be disturbed in the interest of democracy!
This rage against dogmatism and exclusivism has become ridiculous. Noted social psychologist Professor Jonathan Haidt, a self-described atheist and liberal, in his just-published and enlightening book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012), has this story: "A graduate student was surprised by my claim that religions are often good for society and she said, 'But religions are exclusive.' I asked her what she meant, and she replied, 'Well, the Catholic Church won't accept anyone who doesn't believe its teachings.' I couldn't believe she was serious. I pointed out that the graduate programme of the University of Virginia was more exclusive than the Church - we rejected almost all applicants."
That is where this intolerant and anti-liberal rage against exclusivist claims has reached. We must watch out for signs of that same pernicious spirit here.
Ian Boyne, a veteran journalist, is the 2010-11 winner of the Morris Cargill Award for Opinion Journalism. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.