Freedom of expression – and even the definition of this freedom – is not the same in different societies.
I am fortunate to live in a state (Israel) in which there is wide – but not unlimited – freedom to speak or write openly on most subjects. Not a single one of our neighbours -and, indeed, most of the members of the United Nations who constantly criticise us and vote against whenever possible -have anything even resembling such freedom. And yet there are still restrictions that irk me.
Along with most western style free democracies, the spectre of “political correctness” has already reared its ugly head. The usual buzzwords of “racism”, “sedition”, “incitement” etc. create the framework which can lead – and has already led – to criminal charges and the threat of incarceration. In relatively recent years the limitation on free expression started with the banning of the Kach party – and its leader Rabbi Meir Kahane – from the Knesset (parliament) for expressing a viewpoint which some considered racist towards Arabs.
Racism is a major issue in many societies and it could be argued that there has been no greater racism than that practiced against Jews over the centuries. And yet – should not people be permitted to hold views about Jews, Arabs, Blacks – or Irish or Italians for that matter – and be free to express those views? Maybe those views are based on prejudice or stereotypes – so what!
I know, of course, the familiar argument that words today can lead to actions tomorrow – but that argument depends upon the willingness of any given population to do something physically as a direct result of the written or spoken word only. One example frequently used to try to prove a direct connection was the undoubted oratorical skill of Adolph Hitler. The truth is – unpalatable as it may be to revisionist historians – that the German people did what they did as a result of an innate desire and belief in the philosophy expressed by their leaders. Hitler may have have been the catalyst , but he was not the cause.
The transfer of thought or speech or words into action lies at the core of the argument about free expression.
Immediately following the assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister, Itzhak Rabin, in 1995 a huge debate erupted over the extent to which speeches and articles criticising his policies had led his killer to take the action he did. It became unlawful to express any understanding or sympathy for the viewpoint or motivation of the assassin.
Recently a rabbi was indicted for expressing support for the views contained in a book of which he was not the author. In both of these examples a restriction was placed on what I would define as “second degree opinions”. Should freedom of expression have these limits applied to it?
Should there be laws against prejudice? CAN there be EFFECTIVE laws against prejudice? Irrational as prejudice may be – or may NOT be – can it be legislated out of the human psyche? Should society waste so much time and money on trying to force us to “love our neighbour” – or suffer the full force of the law? Is the old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones – but words can never hurt me” still valid?
Nowhere is this problem more obvious than in Europe – and, especially, in England. This is an example – if not the main example – of a state in which political correctness in its many forms has almost caused the destruction of the basic framework of the society. The unwillingness of the political leadership, the judiciary, the intelligentsia and the media together to face up to the fact that the experiment of trying to create a successful, integrated, multicultural society has proven to be a dismal failure is there for all to see.
This country – in which I spent a substantial part of my life – has become a place where one can longer call a spade a spade ( pun intended). The media – both written and visual – were meticulous in avoiding the obvious during the recent riots. Actually, had it not been for the TV and CCTV footage it would have been impossible to know that the vast majority of the rioters, looters and arsonists were black or Asian. Anyone who tried to point out the obvious was immediately vilified as racist – including this writer – who was banned for life by one major UK newspaper from submitting talkbacks on this -or any other – subject! I have yet to ascertain their specific problem but I guess I upset their “affirmative action”culture. It seems that “freedom of expression” in the UK today is limited by fear of upsetting the sensibilities of the minorities. I don’t think that this is a society which will even discuss “banning the Burka”!
So – should freedom of expression be without limits? The oft quoted definition that “freedom of expression does not give a person the right to shout “fire”in a crowded theatre”, does really address the realities in today’s media driven world. If there is to be freedom – who will define what can -or cannot- be said or written? And who is to judge that their criteria are correct?
On balance, I think that any restrictions are more dangerous than the lack of restrictions.
There should be NO limits!