Free Speech

“Of course women must earn less than men, because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent, they must earn less that’s all.” Those were the words the Polish MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke spoke in the European Parliament on March 2nd. This week he was suspended and lost his allowances for 30 days. He has form too. Last year he called Syrian refugees “human garbage” and in 2015 he was suspended for making the Nazi salute. He reminds me of  a more sinister version of the old major in Fawlty Towers with his derogatory anachronistic sentiments. But should he be censored for voicing his views? No. As repugnant as his opinions are he should not be prevented from expressing them.

I remember the first day of my politics undergrad course in UCD. Our lecturer asked the class a hypothetical question about whether or not a book should be published. It contained horribly discriminatory statements about women, minorities, gays and others. Highly offensive material. A poll was taken and a little over half the class sanctioned the publication of this fictional work. It was a close call. I voted for its publication but I could certainly see the other side of the argument. I remember weighing up the merits of both sides considerably. What seemed like a trivial exercise clearly contained a more germain lesson. Since that day, and helped by studying my other university major of history, I’ve come to realise the importance of protecting free speech.

Last month the former Breitbart News contributor and flamboyant contrarian Milo Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking at Berkeley University by violent protesters who disagreed with his right wing views. The irony of this incident was that it was on the very same Californian campus in the 1960s where those on the left scored a victory for free speech by speaking out against the Vietnam war. Now, 50 years later, the left has regressed to the point of shutting down the right to speak of those they disagree with. As the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell said when he was being prevented from teaching at another US university, “In a democracy it is necessary that people should learn to endure having their sentiments outraged.”

Anti-democratic right wing authoritarians are renowned for shutting down dissent. Current skilled proponents include President Erdogan of Turkey who has locked up over 3,000 people since last year including judges and journalists, and of course, Vladimir Putin in Russia who goes so far as to have his political opponents assassinated. What’s striking now is to observe the common ground that the far right and the far left inhabit. The political spectrum has curved to a more circular rather than linear shape with the extremists uniting at the opposite end to the moderates. The bond that betroths them most saliently of all is their disdain for free speech.

I find this meeting of right and left fascinating and perplexing. It seems to be more sincere than the Nazi Soviet pact of 1939, which was more practical than ideological. How is it that Wikileaks now serves to propagate Putin’s agenda and put Trump into power? Why do others on the hard left like Jeremy Corbyn defend Putin and Hamas? Somewhere along the way the left has lost its mind. They now serve to enable an emboldened and ascendant right.   

In 1996 the inimitable Christopher Hitchens came to the aid of the Holocaust denying historian David Irving after St Martin’s Press cancelled plans to publish Irving’s book about Joseph Goebbels. Hitchens described Irving as his “political polar opposite” and some of his views as “repugnant,” but believed so strongly in his right to be heard as to defend him. The Austrian government took a different view and had Irving locked up because his view of history differed from theirs.    

That’s what free speech is. It’s supposed to make you feel uncomfortable at times, challenge your way of thinking and demand that you - through your own right to free speech - undermine and ridicule outlandish views with sustained logic and argument. The only time free speech should be curtailed is if it incites violence. This can be difficult to define. There’s no doubt people like Ian Paisley encouraged people to act violently, but as far as I know he never explicitly called for violence or for people to join violent groups. This is also why it took British authorities so long to lock up Anjem Choudary, the Islamic State and jihadi supporting Muslim preacher. Choudary, a London lawyer, for a long time was careful in the language he used not to directly encourage terrorist acts, though his statements appealed to those enticed by violent extremism.

At a time when liberalism appears besieged from anti-democratic forces it is vital that its fundamental pillar of free speech be defended. As one of liberalism's founding founders, John Stuart Mill, wrote in ‘On Liberty,’ “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary 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.” It’s non-negotiable.

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Photo Credit: The Independent