Only a robust defence of the right to be offended allows individuals to enjoy their own rights to self-expression.
Only a robust defence of the right to be offended allows individuals to enjoy their own rights to self-expression
It is a sad but inevitable irony that last week’s jihadist attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper for its exercise of its freedom of speech will be followed by calls for the freedoms of Islamists to be restricted, including their freedom of speech.
Indeed, this illiberal backlash by some ‘liberals’ has already begun.
Hours after the Charlie Hebdo attack on 7 January, the hacking collective ‘Anonymous’, in a sublimely irony-free moment, declared that “freedom of speech and opinion is a non-negotiable thing” and then hacked a French salafist website, knocking it offline.
Shortly afterwards, the Huffington Post and assorted twitter users pilloried a junior Conservative Party aide for posting an ‘offensive’ tweet (calling Mohammed “a child abuser and a paedo”) until he was agreed to delete it.
Government interventions are likely to be close behind. The Observer’s Nick Cohen has superlatively catalogued the UK police’s obsession with investigating and prosecuting ‘offence’.
It can only be a matter of time before newspapers that vigorously defended Charlie Hebdo’s rights to offend begin to harrumph about how Islamists are abusing their right to free speech on social media and to demand ‘action’.
This shows that while it is easy to defend the right to insult other people’s traditions, it can be harder to defend their freedom to criticise your own. This should not be surprising.
As any parent can testify, the desire to shock and offend appears an innate facet of human behaviour from an early age; likewise, the instinct to react angrily to supposed insults and slights inflicted by others. To be offended – and to be angered by offences – is part of being human.
However, that such reactions seem deeply embedded in all our DNA makes it all the more essential that liberals should clearly and consciously defend, both in the abstract and the reality, the right of others to insult our own deeply cherished beliefs, however difficult this can be.
The alternative is a scenario – perhaps, already coming to pass – in which the freedom of all us to freely speak, listen, think and access new ideas is gradually eroded.
This process of accepting offence, however, must be reciprocal; a situation in which one group defends its right to be attacked, and the other side simply defends its right to attack is ultimately unsustainable, leading either to a collapse of the attacker or a grotesquely illiberal backlash (as with Geert Wilder’s campaign in the Netherlands to ban the Quran, “that fascist book”, for hate-speech).
Indeed, the historic willingness of many on the Left to see the West portrayed as the root of all evil while dismissing crimes committed by the exotic ‘other’ as a mere ‘reaction’ has created a fatal synergy with Islamists who are also all too eager to see the West as uniquely evil and their own side as entirely blameless.
Willingness to be criticised must also be counter-balanced with willingness to criticise and mock others as needed.
Fortunately, for all the recent discussion of the Muslims’ supposed collective intolerance of criticism, there are signs that increasing numbers of prominent British Muslims are becoming willing to declare that their own freedoms depend on just such reciprocity.
The former Islamist Ed Husain, for instance, wrote last week that Muslims’ ability to live in Europe and promote their religion depends on them defending Europe’s freedoms:
“Islam and Muslims are secure in the west because of freedom of speech, conscience, press and religion. To attack those freedoms is to attack Islam’s existence.”
Similarly, Inayat Bunglawala, formerly a leading defender of British Islamist movements, wrote last week (in an article that began ‘Salman Rushie is right’) that:
“Everyone must have the right to satirise religions and religious figures – without exception. And that includes Islam and the Prophet Muhammad…. The price of … freedom is that some people may sometimes say things you do not like and will find offensive. It is in reality a very small price to pay.”
As this recognises, only a robust defence of the right to be offended allows individuals to enjoy their own rights to self-expression.
Following the lead of British Muslims like Ed Husain and Inayat Bunglawala, rather than responding to threats to liberalism by becoming less liberal, Western liberals – both Muslims and non-Muslims – need to become less touchy and more confident in the goodness and strength of their values.
This does not mean not feeling pain or hurt at offences committed against us; hurt, sadness and anger are defining aspects of being human. However, this does mean recognising that our freedom to offend others is best strengthened by more robustly defending the rights of those who offend us most.
James Brandon is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR). Follow him on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.