Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Free(ish) speech

The family of Theo Van Gogh asked that attendees of his wake held at Dam Square, Amsterdam, make as much noise as possible rather than stay silent - they wanted to make a point that free speech will not be quieted.

I agree with their sentiments, but personally wonder how much freedom of speech we have already allowed to be taken away.

You see, the most likely motive for Van Gogh's murder is that he recently made a documentary critical of Islam, linking the Muslim faith to physical abuse. Understandably, some people were offended.

Instead of publicly and privately refuting Van Gogh's rationale, instead of suing him (if there were grounds) for slander, instead of using any of the tools available in a free society to fight what amounted to nothing more than the promulgation of an idea, someone decided to shoot him, stab him twice and slit his throat.

I don't think I really need to go into why this is such a horrid piece of news, anyone with half a mind already knows the answer.

I have another point to make.

We have, in our own society, recently seen someone make a blatant piece of slanted, biased, factually incorrect propaganda marketed as a documentary. I'd wager that that piece of celluloid tripe infuriated a lot of people with the power and desire to see this certain individual as dead as Van Gogh - but we all know he's still alive, well and waddling around the Western world peddling his venomous views.

Yes, he is an idiot, and a dangerous one, but there's nothing we can or should do to quiet him - we are civilised.

As Westerners we are taught to question authority and to accept other's criticism in turn. This has recently backfired when many in authority haven't had the tools to defend their actions and views against increasingly rabid media mavens and academics. This isn't a fault of Western society as a construct, merely one of the burdens that must be carried if we want freedom.

Islam, conversely, doesn't allow criticism or free thought. There is only adherence or blasphemy - we're talking about a religion, after all, which is a set of unquestionable, dogmatic beliefs. Those who are more diplomatically inclined will try to draw distinctions between fundamentalist adherence and it's more casual, contemporary counterpart. Unfortunately, the same doctrine is at the root of both, meaning that there is the potential for the same kind of thinking and action from all adherents.

This is what we're fighting. A society, nation and government where freedoms of all kinds that we take for granted are abrogated on a daily basis because of the foundation on which that society is built. We're fighting the kind of society that covers women in drapes, that doesn't allow them to work or vote. We're fighting the kind of society that produces people who kill dissenting filmmakers rather than gritting their teeth and dealing with a foreign point of view.

In a battle of competing ideologies, I think it's very important to have a very clear delineation of who 'us' and 'them' is, since it's often not race or geographical area but behavior and it's determinants that is the dividing factor. It's also important to ensure that we do not compromise or take on any of the characteristics of the enemy.

Unfortunately, I think we already have.

We're already conceding to a curtailment of free speech by allowing things like political correctness to spread, unchecked, through our schools, companies and government institutuions. Pressure groups are able to influence what we can and cannot legitimately, publicly say. Don't be fooled into thinking that PC is anything but mandatory, legislated self-censorship according to other's fragility of ego and arbitrary belief systems. Political correctness and freedom are not, and can never be, bedfellows.

This is why I was so disenchanted with the last sentence in this report of Van Gogh's murder:

"In The Hague, police arrested some 20 people for inciting hatred and shouting discriminatory and racist chants."

How very ironic that the death of a man sparked by speaking his unpopular views should be marred by arrests of people...speaking their unpopular views.

These arrests for the public airing of societally unacceptable ideas worry me. How much longer will it be before the illegality of public, verbal discrimination and/or racism will be extended to the kind of censorship that is rife in the very societies we are battling? How much longer until this post I wrote about the practice of veiling in Muslim societies is deemed illegal?

One of the things that freedom guarantees us is the right to be wrong, to state views that may not be grounded in the strongest of rationale and to make value judgements based on any criteria we deem fit. If I wish to think ill of someone because of their race, I am an idiot - not a criminal. If I wish to express that belief to them verbally, I should have every right to, even though it reflects extremely poorly on me and may be unpleasant for them. The law is not there to make life nicer, it's there to make life possible.

There are many ways to lose the war we're engaged in, not all of which involve an invading force with tanks and generals. The battle can be just as easily lost at home if we morph into their kind of society by simply not defending the ways and beliefs of our own. In the end, we won't have to shoot our filmmakers, they won't be allowed to make anything controversial in the first place.

The best way to honour Theo Van Gogh is to reinstate completely free speech - COMPLETELY FREE. By this I mean the obliteration of all censorship, of laws pertaining to inciting violence (I take issue with that one here) and to laws instituting various tenets of political correctness in our working lives.

Sound dangerous? Take a look around, you're on the internet and on a blog that isn't censored by any government body. You're a few clicks away from other blogs with some damned radical views. These have been around for years now and the world somehow keeps turning - in fact, I think we're better informed than ever.


(Cross-posted to A Western Heart)

(NB: Editing - Mis-spell of Van Gogh's name corrected)

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