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When is censorship not censorship? June 28, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Uncategorized.

Polly Toynbee, writing in yesterday’s Guardian notes that the UK-wide tour of the musical Jerry Springer: The Opera is coming to the end of its run, and that the co-author Stewart Lee doubts that it will ever be performed again.

Apparently, following the protests and pickets of fundamentalist Christian groups, a third of the theatres originally due to host the performance pulled out, making it nigh on impossible for the tour to even recoup its costs, let alone make a profit. This is a show, remember, that’s been one of the most successful musicals put on in the West End (and in the National Theatre) in recent years, so it does seem reasonable to make the link between the protests and the losses.

It’s also worth pointing out that many (although certainly not all) of those who were so quick to point to Muslim anger over the cartoons of Mohammed published in the Danish press as evidence of the fundamental incompatibility between Islam and life in a secular Western society haven’t been quite so vocal about this campaign. One might, therefore, be forgiven for thinking that their devotion to ‘Western civilisation’ is a little less sincere than their more unpleasant distaste for actual Muslims.

That aside, Toynbee argues that the Springer and cartoon protests, as well as other similar controversies (specifically the Sikh campaign against the play Behzti , and the withdrawal of the M.F. Husain exhibition represent a threat to freedom of expression in the United Kingdom, and she’s probably right.

She also argues that the homophobic ravings of someone like Iqbal Sacranie shouldn’t be restricted by law, and that “protection against being offended should never trump free speech”, and she’s probably right on that as well.

However, she does seem to be avoiding the far trickier implications of the Freedom of Speech vs. Don’t Offend argument, and of the view recently articulated by Christopher Hitchens at a Hay debate on Freedoms of Speech which argues that the real threat to freedom of expression in Western societies comes less from the state than from ‘society’ itself (that is, from various different groups who demand that they not be offended by anything).

Let’s, for the sake of argument, take two basic principles as read: (a) that no one should be prohibited by law from expressing any view, no matter how offensive any other person or group finds that view and regardless of how odious that view might be, and (b) that violence, or the threat of violence, against any person or group based solely on a view they hold or express cannot be condoned. Both fairly reasonable positions which, while not completely uncontentious, most liberals would share.

If everyone accepted and respected these, would this be enough to ensure the protection of freedom of expression and an atmosphere which encourages the dissemination of a wide variety of differing, even conflicting, opinions?

Well, no; not in the cases outlined above. There’s nothing there which, on principle, would restrict Christian groups from protesting outside theatres, or prevent them from pressurising cinemas not to show The Da Vinci Code. Similarly, it doesn’t provide a sure basis for opposing a Muslim boycott on Danish products as part of a campaign to get Jyllands-Posten to apologise for printing the cartoons and promising never to do it again.
It’s all very well (and proper) to argue that someone doesn’t have the right not to be offended, when you’re talking about legal rights. But the implication here is that the state should legislate in this area (the Incitement to Religious Hatred bill being a prime example, although personally I think it’s hard to oppose that while supporting the retention of Incitement to Racial Hatred legislation, which I personally don’t). The argument gets a lot trickier when you’re talking not about someone’s right to express themselves, but their right to have a platform from which to do it.

If the BBC had refused to screen Jerry Springer: The Opera because of the huge numbers of objections it received, would that have represented a defeat for artistic expression. I’d argue that it would. But does that mean that Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee had an automatic right to have it shown? Well, clearly not, as no one has such a right.

Similarly, if 100,000 people argue that a particular play shouldn’t be performed, and request that a particular theatre not show it (and say that they’ll boycott the theatre if it does go ahead), on what basis can you make the case that the production should go ahead, regardless of the wishes of the majority? In these kinds of cases, freedom of speech isn’t really enough. I can’t argue that a particular gallery is somehow obliged to exhibit the works of one artist, solely on the grounds that the artist has a right to have the work shown, if I can’t at the same time claim that the gallery must also show the semi-pornographic doodlings I produced on the fact of my copy-book in school (to do otherwise would restrict my freedom, would it not)?

It’s an important point, not just in terms of ‘art’ but also in terms of debate in general. If I discovered that RTÉ intended to show some strange, racist mini-series which glorified the Ku Klux Klan, or that it intended to give an hour-long weekly radio show to someone like Justin Barrett, am I entitled to object, or to organise a campaign to try and persuade them otherwise? If so, am I acting in a way inconsistent with support for freedom of expression? If I’m a member of a college debating society (I’m not, and never have been) and someone proposes that we invite David Irving to speak , can I be a liberal and argue that we shouldn’t give him a platform? Similarly, if my local bookshop decides it’s going to devote an entire shelf to selling copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and I inform them that until they remove that item I won’t be giving them my custom, does that make me the equivalent of someone who calls for the boycott of Danish cheese because of some cartoons? And even if it does, does that mean that my stance cannot be justified?

Frankly, I don’t have a clue one way or the other. At best I think it shows that sometimes, ‘Freedom of Speech’ doesn’t win every argument, and it may also be necessary to look at the nature of the speech. But that, inevitably, leads to its own difficulties.

If anyone has a better idea, answers on a postcard etc. Winners will receive the Collected Works of David Irving and a copy of The Satanic Verses signed by Christ himself (oh, and his wife).


1. WorldbyStorm - June 28, 2006

It strikes me that this is truly indicative of parallel, but diametrically opposed, dynamics within democratic western societies (to use broad brush strokes). On the one hand the societies have discarded many traditional norms relating to freedom of speech, on the other new and pre-existing groups are paradoxically impelled to use the language of ‘rights’ to mark out ground which they can occupy.

Hard to see a way forward on this one.


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