January 30, 2014

@Kenanmalik "on the importance of the right to offend"

Kenan Malik (@kenanmalik) is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, including a presenter of BBC Radio 4's Analysis. His last book From Fatwa to Jihad was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. He recently wrote a piece on his blog, 'On the importance of the right to offend.' He said:
"There is something truly bizarre (and yet in keeping with the zeitgeist of our age) that someone should become the focus of death threats and an international campaign of vilification for suggesting that an inoffensive cartoon was, well, inoffensive. 
From the Rushdie affair to the controversy over the Danish cartoons, from the forcing offstage of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti to the attempt this week by members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to shut down the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s production of The Bible: The Complete Word Of God (a decision thankfully later reversed),  reactionaries have often used campaigns against ‘offence’ as a political weapon with which to harass opponents and as a means of bolstering their community support. The anti-Nawaz campaign is no different. Muhammad Shafiq and Muhammad Ansar both have had public spats with Nawaz, and both are cynically exploiting the claim of ‘offensiveness’ to reclaim political kudos."
Kenan Malik makes the point I made on LAD and Eamonnmallie.com here and here, that:
"[This is] A failure on the part of liberals for their inability to stand by their principles and fight movements, which are sectarian, homophobic and racist. This “liberal formula” is an illiberal bar on free expression. This “liberal formula” is not a recipe for pluralism or multiculturalism. To the contrary, this formula is the exploitation of pluralism for use against this very concept. This is a victory for bigotry, the anti-plural and anti-multicultural."
Kenan Malik put it like this:
"What gives the reactionaries the room to operate and to flex their muscles is, however, the pusillanimity of many so-called liberals, their unwillingness to stand up for basic liberal principles, their fear of causing offence, their reluctance to call so-called community leaders to account. This is why Channel 4’s stance was so obnoxious. The broadcaster’s role is not to take sides in these debates. It is to tease out the arguments, and to stand by basic journalistic principles, including the principle of free speech. What Channel 4 did was the very opposite. It abandoned its journalistic principles, refused to stand up for free speech and took sides with the reactionaries. The Liberal Democrats themselves have been equally spineless.  Though some have publicly defended Nawaz, leading figures have been noticeably reluctant to stick their necks out. It took almost a week before party leader Nick Clegg put out a statement, and then a relatively bland one, urging both sides to play nicely."
Malik then made four points on liberalism, free speech and causing offence. Firstly:
"There is a right to free speech. There is no right not to be offended. People have the right to say what they wish, short of inciting violence, however offensive others may find it.  Others have the right not to listen or to watch. Nobody has the right to be listened to. And nobody has the right not to be offended."
"It is minority communities who most suffer from censorship... In fact, it is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In such a society, it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Almost by definition such clashes express what it is to live in a diverse society.   And so they should be openly resolved than suppressed in the name of ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’. 
But more than this: the giving of offence is not just inevitable, it is also important. Any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. Or to put it another way: ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged.  To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged."
"What is often called offence to a community is actually a debate within that community. People often talk about ‘offence to a community’. More often than not what they actually mean is ‘debate within a community’. Some Muslims find the Jesus and Mo cartoons offensive. Other Muslims – Maajid Nawaz among them – do not. Some found The Satanic Verses offensive. Others did not. Some Sikhs found Behzti offensive. Others did not. It is because what is often called ‘offence to a community’ is in reality a ‘debate within a community’ that so many of the flashpoints over offensiveness have been over works produced by minority artists – Salman Rushdie, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Hanif Kuresihi, Monica Ali, Sooreh Hera, Taslima Nasrin, MF Hussain, and so on."
"There can be no freedom of religion without the freedom to offend. Freedom of worship is another form of freedom of expression – the freedom to believe as one likes about the divine and to assemble and enact rituals with respect to those beliefs. You cannot protect freedom of worship without protecting freedom of expression. Take, for instance, the Dutch populist politician Geert Wilders’ attempt to outlaw the Qur’an in Holland because it ‘promotes hatred’. Or the attempt by Transport for London to ban a Christian anti-gay poster because it is ‘offensive to gays’. Both Wilders and TfL are wrong, just as Channel 4 is wrong. Believers have as much right to offend liberal sensibilities as liberals have the right to offend religious ones.  Freedom of speech requires that everyone has the right to cause offence. So does freedom of religion."
From Kenan Malik you can also read The Pleasure of Pluralism, The Pain of Offence, Why Hate Speech Should Not be Banned, On the Right to Satirise, Provoke and Be Downright Offensive, When Does Criticism of Islam Become Islamophobia? and The Cartoon View of the Authentic Muslim. And do check out the Jesus and Mo website. Original Kenan Malik article in full here.

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