Liberals argue that a more diverse society requires less diverse opinion. Nonsenseby Kenan Malik / March 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
“I believe in free speech, but…” That has become the rallying cry for the liberal left in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy. The Guardian “believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression, but not in any duty to gratuitously offend.” For Jack Straw freedom of speech is fine but not if it leads to an “open season” on religious taboos.
So free speech is good, but has to become less free in a plural society. “If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict,” the sociologist Tariq Modood argues, “they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.” It seems that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.
I believe the opposite is true. I think that Danish newspapers should be free to publish insulting cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad; that Muslim demonstrators should be able to carry placards calling for the beheading of those who insult Islam; and that both the radical cleric Abu Hamza and British National party leader Nick Griffin should be free to spout racist hatred. And they should all be free to do so because we live in a diverse society, not in spite of it.
In a homogeneous society where everyone thought in exactly the same way, giving offence would be nothing more than gratuitous. But in the real world, where societies are plural, then it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable, and we should deal with those clashes rather than suppress them. Important, because any kind of social change or progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. The right to “subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism” is the bedrock of an open society.
Ah, say the would-be censors, the problem is that you secularists simply do not understand religious believers’ depth of attachment to their faith, and hence their outrage at any insult to it. As Ian Jack, editor of Granta, has put it, an individual might have the abstract right to depict Muhammad, but the price of free speech is too high when compared to the “immeasurable insult” that the exercise of such a right causes—even though “we, the faithless, don’t understand the offence.”
This argument reveals how little attached many liberals are to their…