Thursday, April 30, 2015

Free Speech II

If you have read many of my posts you will have noticed that I don't have much to say about current events. However, I came across this article about dissension within the PEN American Center and thought it might be worth a comment. Several members of this group of predominantly American writers, editors and translators have signed a letter denouncing PEN's decision to give an award to Charlie Hebdo. Apparently, though they support free speech, they feel that the publications of Charlie Hebdo are anti-Islamic and offensive to a marginalized group of people and therefore are not worthy of an award.

It is unfortunate that some outraged Muslims in France killed several of the staff at Charlie Hebdo, but it seems to me that the protesters at PEN are injecting naive political correctness into their thinking about free speech. When speech is restricted for any reason, it is no longer free, and that's all there is to it. Their position seems to be something along the lines of "We strongly support free speech as long as no one's feelings get hurt." This is an astoundingly obtuse way to look at the world, and, unsurprisingly, consistent with some of my earlier posts, several of the signatories are regular contributors to the NYRB.

Fortunately there are other people at PEN who still have their wits about them. Louis Begley said "Well, look, I think that Charlie Hebdo cartoons are vulgar and very often stupid. That is not, however, a reason for assassinating the staff of the magazine. To recognize the fact that they died in the cause of free speech is perfectly appropriate. Would I have chosen Charlie Hebdo to receive this award? Probably not. But that's neither here nor there. This decision strikes me as legitimate." Salman Rushdie more firmly said "If PEN as a free speech organization can't defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name."

For me, free speech is one of the most important elements of a democracy, with the proviso that democracy itself is a defective idea with many inherent limitations. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution wasn't written for fun or fashion. The rationale is that whenever citizens are denied the right to express their views publicly, no matter how offensive or just plain wrong they may be, the door is opened to authoritarian forces such as monarchs, churches or dictators to engage in the anti-democratic control of public discourse. Suppression of free speech is a key ingredient to every oppressive regime that has ever existed. Even the suggestion that a distinction must be made between "good" free speech and "bad" free speech, as the protesters at PEN have done, represents a fundamental violation and misunderstanding of the concept.

Political correctness, as evidenced in this instance, is a form of thought control that attempts to impose itself on others. Looking sociologically at the contemporary scene in the U.S., there are two primary schools of thought. In the media one encounters either the "conservative" viewpoint, which is generally a stand-in for corporate interests and capitalism, or the "liberal" viewpoint, which generally concerns itself with fairness and justice. Although my position is primarily that of an anti-capitalist, I often find the liberal camp problematic. In my view, the capitalists overemphasize self-interest and the liberals overemphasize religion. At the extreme end of liberalism, political correctness manifests itself as a form of inflexible dogma that looks theological and in some ways isn't much better than Fox News. At the heart of many liberal positions is the unexamined adherence to something that closely resembles Christian principles, now expanded to include "compassion," which has a trendier Buddhist ring to it but is of little substantive difference as used in the vernacular.

If I were PEN, I would not give awards to organizations or individuals in recognition of their exhibition of free speech. Free speech is a concept, and they might do better to explain what it means and how important it is, particularly as in this instance some of their own members don't seem to understand what it is. Charlie Hebdo may or may not be an appropriate example of the exercise of free speech, but the particulars of what they said are almost irrelevant. Why doesn't PEN just write an essay on the importance of free speech?

I must also point out that the existence of this blog is an exercise in free speech. It makes a difference to me that I can write exactly what I please without an editor or moderator stepping in and imposing his agenda on me. As it happens, I choose to exercise a degree of decorum so as not to upset some of my readers. For example, even though I know that some of them have religious views that I consider ridiculous, I don't see any reason to assault their views in an offensive or insulting manner. However, that is simply my personal preference, and in an atmosphere of free speech I can be as offensive or inoffensive as I like.

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