12/22/2004|||110371828581177129||||||
... OR SHOULD THAT BE CIVILITY FOR CIVILITY'S SAKE?

But do we really want unfettered free speech? Jonathan Freedland puts the other side of the case in a thoughtful Guardian op-ed. I know this extract is long (and its use of the term "progressive" sets my teeth on edge) but it's worth reading:

"The conflict played out in Birmingham, and elsewhere every day, is between two values - one that liberals have cherished for centuries and another acquired much more recently. The ancient, almost defining liberal ideal is freedom: of expression, of movement, of protest. The newer value is an approach to society's minorities that aims to go beyond mere tolerance, and it reaches for understanding and sensitivity."

"Today's good liberal aims to be both. Stop one in the street and ask if artists should have the right to say what they like, and the answer will be yes. Ask if Muslims or Sikhs or Jews have the right to have their feelings respected, their differences understood, and the answer will be yes again. And yet now we know that in the 21st century these principles, both noble, keep colliding.

"...Until now, too many progressives have sought to muddle through, to pretend that this tension does not exist. But just as Isaiah Berlin once forced the left to see that freedom and equality were very often at odds, so it is time for today's liberals to be honest - and admit that the ideals they have clumsily bolted together for three decades often chafe badly. Sometimes one of them is sacrificed for the sake of the other. Better to admit it and to decide consciously which value we are preferring in this case or that, than to pretend there is no conflict. Hard-headed liberalism means hard choices.

"I am having to make some of these awkward choices myself. All of my instincts set me against the government's proposed move to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. An admirer of America's first amendment, I start as an absolutist on free speech: let everyone say what they want. Once politicians or lawyers start deciding what's acceptable and what isn't, the trouble begins.

"But that position would, applied consistently, require me to call for the abolition of the current law banning incitement to racial hatred. And yet, though that law places a limit on free speech, I cannot deny that it has done more good than harm. It has helped establish a social norm in Britain, rendering the once acceptable racism of the 1970s beyond the pale today.

"If I don't want the law which effected that change repealed, then logic demands I should want it extended to everyone who needs protection. If it's good for black, Sikh and Jewish Britons, then it can hardly be denied to Hindus and Muslims. (To say the first group is racial while the latter is religious is to make a distinction that does not fit the real world.)

"I side with the Birmingham Rep against the protesters in part because for some of the latter, as in the van Gogh case, the chosen method of censorship was violence. But I also wonder why those who are so determined to see the theatre stand firm are not equally vigorous in demanding that Madame Tussauds restore its Posh-and-Becks nativity scene, which was also taken off after a violent protest (by a vandal) staged in the name of religious sensitivity. What's called for here is some honesty - no matter how uncomfortable."
|||Clive|||http://clivedavis.blogspot.com/2004/12/blog-post_22.html|||12/22/2004 11:26:00 am|||||||||
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