Malik on the Importance of Free Speech


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.

Comments

  1. neXus says

    Absolutely beautiful – the last paragraph could be used as a ‘free speech 101′ guide.

  2. doublereed says

    The ultimate question of rationality is “Why do I believe what I believe?”

    Free speech is the only way we can ask this question.

  3. frankb says

    There is a big difference between offense and injury. Keeping bigots and the intolerant from injuring others is right and proper. Some examples of speech can injure so there is a limit to free speech. But offense is only in the mind of the receiver so it cannot be prevented and wrong to try.IMHO

  4. Alverant says

    An excellent essay, but I may also include a bit about not being a jerk. Just because you can be offensive doesn’t mean you should be or actively go out and offend others on a whim. Even if it’s your right, some self-restraint and knowing when to and when not to speak would help everyone get along.

  5. caseloweraz says

    Malik: “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.”

    Did anyone else notice that this sounds very like the philosophy of IDIC?

    I think the canonical expression of the idea came in the ST:TOS episode “Is there in Truth No Beauty?”

    Miranda: I understand, Mr. Spock. The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity.”

    Spock: “And the ways in which our diversities combine to create meaning and beauty.”

  6. iplon says

    I’m wondering exactly must be going on in the brains of people who have convinced themselves “Diversity from Unity”, but it’s exactly the type of political nonsense you can imagine people finding compelling.

    I think it might even make a more realistic motto for a Nineteen Eighty-Four-like book.

    Time to get writing!

  7. Sastra says

    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.

    As I wrote elsewhere there’s a tendency here to confuse different models of “diversity” and what we mean by it in a pluralistic society.

    On the one hand there’s the Diversity Smorgasbord where people present their personal identities and methods of self-expression for public acceptance: no right, no wrong, just different. And on the other hand there’s the Diverse Problem-Solving Group where different people present their ideas, arguments, and beliefs so that they may be sifted and shuffled and judged and kept or thrown out. In the first framework, the more diversity the better; in the second framework, the ultimate goal is consensus. This makes a big difference in what is or isn’t acceptable: look then at the statement and figure out what it’s really supposed to be doing.

    Once this distinction between how we classify our need for diversity is pointed out, I think it becomes rather obvious that some people are ‘jumping ship’ and shifting an identity into the debate ring (“which race is best?”) or — what Malik addresses here — they’re treating an empirical issue as if there should be no debate. Religion regularly uses this as a defense tactic (a strategy which might be embedded in the faith methodology of deriving a conclusion by sifting it through identity.)

    Malik hits the nail on the head. Religion is supposed to solve a problem by describing a reality we all live in. It’s not special to the individual. “Your religion is not true” should never be placed in the same Smorgasbord category as “you’re not a valid human being.”

  8. Don Williams says

    Thomas Jefferson re the University which he founded:
    “this institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. for here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

    Note the word “combat” –which seems to be a concept foreign to the current leader of the Democratic Party.
    Tolerance should not excuse the intentionally dishonest — or those who repeatedly sabotage rational discourse re how to deal with the nation’s problems in order to promote the agendas of the Rich.

    Jefferson was also speaking of academia, not politics. After all, his Vice President shot the despicable whore Alexander Hamilton.

    In the gut.

    Although that may have been due to having to shoot on the fly. Rumor has it Hamilton took off like a pheasant after he fired early at Burr and missed.

  9. says

    I have a simpler way of shutting this down.

    I usually say “Not everyone’s beliefs and actions are consistent with reality. It is objectively true that many take actions based on beliefs that are inconsistent with reality. Those actions potentially threaten my reality and I assert the right to comment on them and oppose them. You have the same right. End of subject.”

    You can literally fit anything except actions and beliefs consistent with reality into that framework.

  10. erichoug says

    ” Because this is America, dude, and as long as I have my freedom of speech no one’s going to shut me up.” -Kumar Patel

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