Monday, February 8, 2010

Stifling free speech is not really free, by Salim Mansur

Free speech is not merely an ornamental bauble found in liberal democratic societies. It is the well-fought ground upon which the structures of such societies have been constructed.

It is free speech in practice, or its ideal subscribed to, that has distinguished Europe and western civilization from all others past and present. Its absence or suppression is the main feature of totalitarian culture.

Yet free speech has never been entirely free from siege by special interests.

Except for the United States where free speech is constitutionally protected by the first amendment, the exercise of free speech can still be constrained by the guardians of public interests as we see in the case of the Dutch MP Geert Wilders, indicted and brought to court for offending Muslims in Holland.

The trial of Wilders is as much a step backward from the ideal of free speech as it is indicative of how free people willingly compromise their freedom by forgetting their history.

In indicting Wilders for hate speech, the Dutch, and their Western supporters, have turned their backs to the long line of defenders of free speech as the cornerstone of liberty, from Spinoza and Voltaire to Emile Zola.

Mere footnotes

No modern thinker has written as clearly and forcefully on liberty, and what it means in the most fundamental sense of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, as did John Stuart Mill.

All subsequent writings on the subject are mere footnotes or parenthetical circumlocutions of those who have not abandoned the quest of abridging free speech — even as they present themselves as defenders of freedom — by claiming to protect the rights of others.

Mill contended it would be wrong any time for a government, even if it represented completely the will and opinion of the entire people under its rule, to control or suppress the opinion of an individual. Such coercion, in Mill’s view, was illegitimate.

He wrote: “The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exercised in accordance with public opinion than when in opposition to it. If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

Western societies in general have fallen short of Mill’s expressed ideal of liberty, but any infringement of that ideal has smacked of bad faith. In recent years, multiculturalism was propounded as if to ease the conscience of liberals — those who believe in liberty as Mill wrote about — when they do illiberal things such as penalizing free speech.


The irony lost upon those eager to protect others from being offended by the exercise of free speech, particularly when it comes to the subject of religion, is that such offence was the necessary solvent for the reform of Christianity and the church — reforms that contributed to the making of the modern, secular, liberal and democratic West.

In protecting Muslims from those who offend them, the West ill-serves Islam and those Muslims who seek its reform. Muslims need untrammelled free speech to awaken to the awareness of how totalitarian and comatose is their culture.

Source: Toronto Sun
H/T: Poste de veille

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