Monday, 9 June 2008

A Freedom to Blaspheme

It is now just over a month since the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 was passed, which abolished the common law offenses of blasphemy and blasphemous libel. Hurrah! An anachronistic, antiquated and prejudiced law has been tossed aside, this is a victory for freedom of expression and for the removal of privilege and double standards in the UK. Well this only applies in England and Wales and Scotland still has blasphemy offenses, but this is a step in the right direction.

Freedom of Speech

As I catch up on topical issues, this seemed a useful place to start and to look at freedom of expression and speech. The basic idea of freedom of speech only makes sense if someone or other were to get upset, annoyed, angry or worse over what someone else said. If no-one were ever upset by someone's speech then there would be no issue over freedom of speech. It is only because of actions taken in response to speech that the freedom of speech becomes an issue. This says that anyone can respond in kind, using speech, to counteract other's speech. However more severe responses such as discrimination, censorship, (threat of) violence and worse threatens freedom of speech. Under such circumstance one could be afraid to speak freely. A modern liberal state should provide a fair and justice environment where anyone can speak freely without discrimination, state sanction or (threats of) violence or worse. Why do we regard that a state is under an obligation to ensure this, why should we care?

No right not to be upset
First of all knowing that someone can always be upset at someone else's speech, shows that there can be no right not to be upset. Being upset is a subjective choice and, yes, it has and does lead to many outrageous responses when taken to an extreme - which are against freedom of speech. However as soon as one tries to safeguard one group from being upset at the speech and expression of others, then myself and people like me get upset. Why is their upset more important than mine? Because I do not and would not threaten violence? Why bow down to their threat against freedom of speech and institutionalize it and make it acceptable for exceptions to freedom of speech? Once you start having exceptions this is no longer freedom of speech. There is no way to protect one group from being upset without upsetting others, freedom of speech means there is no protection from being upset, there can be no such right not to be upset.

Social Forces
Another key element here is that some speech is intended to upset - not to intimidate, but, yes, to upset. People use expressive language all the time to encourage and discourage each other to have certain desires and not others, to affect each others' values, this is a key part of what culture is and does. When it is regarded that someone is doing something wrong, the use of expressive language, such as condemning them, is mostly intended to get them to realize their error and so to change their desires and values. That is they could get upset and feel embarrassed or ashamed of their actions and this might lead to them changing their desires and values. Or they might disagree and get annoyed and angry. If they just respond in kind and argue with words as to why they were in the right and have no reason to ashamed of their actions, then they are both exercising their own freedom of speech by criticizing their critics and not abusing it via any more severe responses such as threats of violence. Freedom of speech is a key mechanism of culture to provide mutual feedback to one another on how one's values affect and are affected by others. To deny the appropriate opportunity to speak - to avoid the recipient being upset - cripples, distorts and biases this social mechanism from working. Again there is no right not to be upset.

Rational and Empirical Forces
The most familiar justification for freedom speech and expression is not over changing one's values but over the facts of the matter under discussion and changing ones' beliefs. This is one of the most effective and safest ways to provide error-correcting feedback on our beliefs and institutions. To permit reasoned arguments and consideration of evidence by open debate is the best way to minimizing mistakes and eliminating errors to approach pragmatic truth, as the success of science has well demonstrated over the last few hundred years. We need freedom of speech to criticize and, hopefully, improve our institutions, particularly our state institutions of government and the law. Any barrier to this could lead to abuse - about which we would be unable to speak out. This applies also any institutions associated with the state and this most definitely includes an established church, in this case the Church of England. The laws just abolished were specifically to protect the Church of England and its successful removal is also a victory for freedom to dissent (over state policies and arguments) and against double standards and privilege - since only the state religion was protected and none else.

Did the Conservative really want to keep this law?
However this is not all plain sailing. Various Conservative MPs made arguments against the abolishment of these laws. This primarily revolved around worries over changing the UK from a Christian country to a secular one and that removing these laws is one further step in this direction. Indeed the Liberal Democrats recognize this, as part of their mandate, is to dis-establish the Church of England. Still the political landscape in the UK is changing and it looks more and more likely that the Conservatives will be our next government, so what they say on these issues is important. Whilst it is no surprise that these Conservatives were making an argument from tradition, that has been the historical position of Conservative thinking, I hope that a more realistic view on the changing circumstances in the UK in the 21st century will prevail when they are in power. The evidence is not good given their arguments here. Still it could be that they were quite happy for these laws to go, their opposition just a means of gaining a few more floating voters, such is politics.

A double double standard
It is difficult not to see that if these laws had been retained - however inert or dead they were, this retention of a limitation of freedom of speech and endorsement of a double standard could only cause more problems, not just with outspoken members of the Muslim community but in general for members of any religion. Indeed the blasphemy laws were a double double standard, discriminating also against other religions that were not so protected. Fixing the internal double standard it incorporated - making blasphemy apply to every religion - still leaves a double standard and a privileged restriction on freedom of speech. Did the Conservatives really want to be left dealing with this issue?

Evidence that Christian Values are not Liberal Democratic Values
Well one interesting insight from these Conservative arguments is that they were prepared to trump freedom of speech issues with preserving Christian values such as these blaspheme laws. Is this not a clear indication that that old canard that modern, western, liberal values are derived from Christian values is likely false? How can some of the most fundamental notions and foundations of modern liberal democracy - freedom of speech and equality under the law - be part of the so-called Christian values that led to these notions? How when these values are diametrically opposed to the clearly traditional Christian values of limiting freedom of expression and allowing unequal privilege under the law when it comes to religion?


Bing said...

Being hideously offended by someone is the surest sign that your freedom of speech is intact. Huzzah!


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure about your conclusion. The U.S., the most religious of the industrialized nations, seems to have more free speech than our Euro counterparts. Moreover, where liberal (specifically, left-wing)left and secular values dominate --i.e., our universtiies -- we have speech codes. They didn't exist when there was more intellectual diversity on campuses.

Given all of these well-known variables, we should be cautious when making such inferences.

martino said...

Hi Anonymous

I am not sure which conclusion you are referring to. I am guessing the last one.

First I am a liberal - I am arguing from a utilitarian perspective - but am no way left wing - Americans seem to confuse these concepts. Second left-wing values are often very different to secular and/or liberal values - hence speech codes at such universities are antithetical from my perspective and I would blame on left wing thinking.

The conclusion was over claim that xian values being the origin of the values of liberal democratic thinking. I do not see how your comment regarding the religiosity of the US contradicts this.