Timothy Garton Ash argues for more free speech

The Munk Centre held a special lecture on Thursday October 8 featuring
British scholar and author Timothy Garton Ash.  Ash’s lecture, entitled
“Why Diverse Societies Need More Free Speech, Not Less,” was met with
enthusiasm by an almost full-house at the George Ignatieff Theatre.

Ash’s hour-long exploration of how we, as citizens of free societies,
should look upon diversity and freedom of expression as fellow
travellers rather than adversaries was well-reasoned and humorous, if
occasionally cliché-ridden. 

Ash began by laying out his three cornerstones of why free speech is a
fundamental right: a) without free speech, we can’t test and analyse
truth, b) democracy and self-government rely on the ability to argue
for and against laws and policies and c) free speech is necessary for
self-realization. Or in Ash’s words “I can’t be myself, if I’m not free
to express myself.”

Then Ash took the audience down the well-worn path of the balancing act
between free speech and hate speech, and in particular the potential of
hate speech to cause violence.  He argued that criminal laws about hate
speech increase intolerance and that the only way to combat bigotry is
to have plural views, freely expressed.

He showed perhaps the greatest passion when describing the censorship
of Jytte Klausen’s book about the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons
controversy “The Cartoons That Shook The World”.  Publishers Yale
University Press recently decided to remove all images of Muhammad from
the book.  The director of the press, John Donatich justified his
decision by saying “when it came between that and blood on my hands,
there was no question.”

Ash reasoned that by “yielding to intimidation” we are actually
contributing to the violence with this kind of pre-emptive
censorship.   Calling it “utterly shameful,” Ash said this kind of
thinking leads to the belief that the victim of the violence is in fact
the instigator, creating a world in which Salman Rushdie is seen as
responsible for the fatwa against him. 

Ash went on to warn that other groups are taking note and asking why
they should be reasonable, when the threat of violence is so much more
effective in getting ”respect” for their taboos .  In countries where
more and more cultures are living together, Ash predicts that if we
respect all taboos, we will be left with very, very little to talk
about. 

At one point, he challenged the audience to consider if they would
really want a world devoid of hatred, although he didn’t go on to
describe what that world might look like.  And his treatment of the
tangled and sometimes contradictory blasphemy laws in Europe was quite
powerful. 

For me, the least-satifying part of what Ash himself described as a
first run at this speech was the conclusion of his lecture, where he
indulged in some very pleasant dreams about what kind of free speech we
might want to encourage.  He said we must encourage respect – not
respect of the ”I’ll keep my mouth shut because I disagree with you”
type, but respect that honours others’ opposing opinions with spirited
rebuttals. 

The dream of what better speech might look like is a lovely idea
(though I couldn’t shake the impression that Ash’s version involved
middle-aged, white Oxford dons), but it does a disservice to the
staunch support of free expression that came before.  Real free speech
isn’t always pretty or fair, civil or well-argued.  But if we really
want to give this free speech idea a try, it is that sometimes-ugly
reality that we must defend.  Timothy Garton Ash stated that “the
answer to bad speech is more speech and better speech.”  I would have
preferred him to stop at “more speech.”

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