Kenan Malik has a terrific essay on freedom of speech, by which he means the freedom to say something that offends someone. He argues that this freedom is never more important than in a pluralistic and diverse society, despite arguments to the contrary.
At the heart of the argument for restrictions on offensive speech is the belief that while free speech may be a good, it must necessarily be less free in a plural society. For diverse societies to function and to be fair, so the argument runs, we need to show respect not just for individuals but also for the cultures and beliefs in which those individuals are embedded and which helps give them a sense of identity and being. This requires that we police public discourse about those cultures and beliefs, both to minimise friction between antagonistic groups and to protect the dignity of those individuals embedded in them. As the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, that ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’ One of the ironies of living in a plural society, it seems, is that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.
It is an argument that seems to me fundamentally to misunderstand the nature both of diversity and of free speech. When we say that we live in a diverse society, what we mean is that it is a messy world out there, full of clashes and conflict. And that is all for the good, for it is out of such clashes and conflicts that cultural and political engagement emerges. Diversity is important because it allows us to break out of our culture-bound boxes, to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgements upon them, and decide which may be better and which may be worse. It is important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can held create a more universal language of citizenship…
I take the opposite view. It is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In a mythical homogenous society in which everyone thought in exactly the same way then the giving of offence would be nothing more than gratuitous. But in the real world where societies are plural, then 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…
The notion of giving offence suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. This is why free speech is essential not simply to the practice of democracy, but also to the aspirations of those groups who may have been failed by the formal democratic processes; to those whose voices may have been silenced by racism, for instance. The real value of free speech, in other words, is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them. And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged. The right to ‘subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’ is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. Once we give up such a right in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to confront those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.
Exactly right. Very well said, Mr. Malik.