Update: James Leyin response

1 May 2015: PEN and Freedom of Speech

Written in response to:

1 May 2015: PEN and Freedom of Speech

Asking people to decide for themselves how much offense they want to take misses the point, unless you are advocating open slather on offensive remarks. Surely the more important question is how, why and to what extent might this be offensive to someone from a particular background or who has particular beliefs. The degree of offense that I take from the cartoons as a white man is completely immaterial. Before reaching any conclusion about this I should at least make a real attempt to gain the requisite knowledge regarding why and how this might be offensive to someone else otherwise it’s just another form of cultural imperialism. I am also unconvinced by the argument in the concluding quote that those who are killed in the name of offense automatically become ‘our martyrs … carrying the flag of freedom’. It occurs to me that this argument is founded on a very narrow notion of what freedom is. For me, a far more fundamental freedom than that which was exercised by the Hebdo staff is the freedom to organise collectively to bring about social change, and therefore my martyrs, those who carry the flag of freedom for me, are those who have lost their lives in collective struggle against the oppression of various kinds of elites.

Ben Denham

Croydon Park

Fascinating as the subject of offence-taking is (and thank you, James Ley, for reminding your readers of Guy Rundle’s ‘robust’ review of my book; another year in therapy …), I was slightly taken aback at the way in which the atrocity in Paris was reduced so quickly to a debate about the limits of free expression. That atrocity was not an act of terror aimed at effecting a change in France’s hate-speech laws; it was an assassination carried out by people for whom terror is an end in itself. To concentrate so obsessively on the people attacked rather than on the religious fascists who attacked them seems to me to betray a certain lack of decency, almost as if some desiccated judge had interrupted an account of a horrific rape to ask whether the victim had been wearing a short skirt.

Still, this is the debate we are having, and both Ley’s editorial and Adam Gopnik’s article are excellent contributions to it. I want only to add that Charlie Hebdo is being honoured not for its controversial output but for the courage it has shown on many occasions in the past in the face of violent intimidation, and, in particular, for the courage it has shown in the months since its editors and contributors were murdered. In the last few years we have all learned to roll our eyes at the doctrine attributed (wrongly but plausibly) to Voltaire, ‘I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it’. But this battered Enlightenment lantern seems to me to afford as good a means as any of navigating the current fog of accusation and calumny. At the very least, you would think that writers – people who depend on free speech for their living and, indeed, to give meaning to their lives – could agree to sit through a couple of speeches in honour of a publication that behaved as if that doctrine meant something.

As for Ben Denham’s comment about the ‘narrow’ idea of freedom put forward by free speech advocates – I can assure him that many of us on this side of the line are quite aware that freedoms from need to be weighed against freedoms to; that freedom, in other words, is not reducible to the assertion of ‘negative’ rights like free speech. All we say is that there are certain freedoms – of which the freedom to express an opinion is one – that it is very unwise to tinker with in the search for greater social justice. Denham writes, ‘a far more fundamental freedom than that which was exercised by the Charlie Hebdo staff is the freedom to organise collectively to bring about social change’. But the right to free assembly, like the right to free speech, is not always conducive to social progress: the right that allows workers to gather in solidarity is the same one that allows Reclaim Australia to clutter up a park in Melbourne. (I would mention as well the snarling morons who appear under placards reading ‘Behead those who insult the Prophet’ but I don’t want to be accused of ‘cultural imperialism’.)

Richard King


I found it useful to read Richard King’s response here in the context of his review of Irving Howe’s essays. I would suggest that the question of how we might avoid ‘groupthink’ and approach ‘genuine thought’ is as relevant in this case as it is to any that Howe discussed in his essays. I think there a number of false equivalences that crop up in the discussion of Charlie Hebdo and the depiction of the prophet, which need to be dispelled if we are to genuinely think through this rather fraught terrain. It was what I see as a false equivalence in the Adam Gopnik quote that I cited above that motivated me to write my original response. As I said, the tragic deaths of the Charlie Hebdo staff does not automatically make them ‘our martyrs … carrying the flag of freedom’.

I think we can also find a false equivalence in those who suggest that any discussion of this issue is equivalent to a disrespecting the victims of the terrible crimes of fundamentalists. King’s own false equivalence is put in somewhat more extreme terms. There are so many reasons why this discussion is not the equivalent of raising the question of a woman’s dress in a rape trial that this question could easily become a rabbit hole that might distract us from the task of genuine thought that is required here.

Another of the false equivalences that I think is often implicit in this debate is equating fundamentalism with the prohibition on the depiction of the prophet. There are undoubtedly liberal, progressive and even secular Muslims who take offence at the depiction of the prophet. As a non-Muslim I can also find reasons to value the prohibition on the depiction of the prophet, not least of which is the way it has contributed to the richness of Islamic art and culture. The example of Mustafa Akkad’s film The Message (1976) comes to mind. It is a film about the prophet that is formally innovative precisely because of the fact that the figure at the centre of the film could not be depicted.

This leads to another false equivalence. My belief that the prohibition on the depiction of the prophet is worth respecting is not equivalent to me saying that such depictions should be banned outright. On the contrary, the reason for making these arguments is precisely because I value freedom of expression enough not to advocate for such a ban and therefore it is my responsibility to suggest why respecting the prohibition might be a good thing, without resorting to measures that would ‘tinker’ with ‘the freedom to express an opinion’.

I would also acknowledge that the freedom to organise collectively is not without its downsides but I see it as being a more fundamental freedom because it has a history of producing positive social change and empowerment in the face of oppression by controlling elites in a way that cannot be achieved by an individual asserting their right to offend.

Finally, the fact that I make this argument is in no way equivalent to suggesting that I support the ‘snarling morons’ (a fair descriptor) ‘who appear under placards reading “Behead those who insult the Prophet”’. I can oppose fundamentalism in all its forms; I can uphold the values of freedom; I can respect the prohibition on the depiction of the prophet; and I can do all of this without contradiction. The task of thinking how all of these things can co-exist, hopefully without resorting to false equivalence, is my attempt at genuine thought.

Ben Denham

Croydon Park