Mr. Warburton, a philosophy lecturer at Open University, opens with that famous Voltaire quip, “I despise what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it,” explaining, “Freedom of speech is worth defending vigorously even when you hate what is being spoken.”
I agree completely with Voltaire. This concept of the freedom to offend people with one’s speech is extremely important. It is also something that Western culture is losing sight of. There’s a lot of talk on blogs about ‘hate’ speech. There are laws against certain kinds of hate speech. I have always thought that the only legitimate limitation to free speech is that which prevents harm to others. Emotional harm doesn’t count. My attitude toward free speech is ‘if you can’t take the hate, get out of the fire.’ I have every right to offend you. You have the right to offend me. I have the right to shock and disgust you with my words. Once you limit my right to do these things with words, you side with people who would eventually strip away all right to speech that disagrees with what they want.
The National Geographic pictured here shows the censorship of its cover by Iran to hide a photograph of a couple embracing. It does seem that most censorship is performed by people with some sort of religious motivation. It is most obvious in countries like Iran, but it is also happening here in the U.S. where the more religious people get the more they tend to want to limit freedom of speech or expression in their communities, schools and libraries.
In places like China, censorship is not religious but is rather a tool used by the government to prevent a population from gaining an understanding of what is happening in the world. (By the way, Candlelight Stories cares not the slightest if China bans its web site. In fact, I encourage China to do so. I don’t need their poison toys.) Western culture places huge importance on freedom of speech and constantly engages in an ongoing argument about how far this right extends. I see no limitation other than obvious harm that makes any logical sense. The cartoonists in Denmark who did the drawings a few years ago that so offended Muslims around the world and led to death threats had every right to draw anything they liked about a religious and historical personality. The Muslims who objected had every right to parade in the streets and shout their hatred as loud as they could. But they didn’t have the right to threaten the cartoonists with death. That is harm. That is where the Western world gets up to defend itself. It is the right to freedom of speech and thought that sets Western culture apart from almost every other culture on the planet. That is what the ancient Greeks went to war to protect. That is what we are supposed to fight for. Not oil. Not land. Speech and thought.
As we build these technological monoliths like Amazon.com and iTunes to distribute our intellectual and creative output with seeming efficiency, we also build systems that are capable of censorship beyond anything imagined in history. Books can be completely erased from consciousness with a single entry in a database. Music that some corporate employee thinks is offensive can be wiped out of the digital marketplace in five minutes. Recently, Amazon and Apple have shown themselves willing to eliminate books, music and applications that they have thought to be somehow offensive. Consolidation of distribution means that censorship will happen and will be excused as a private corporate decision. Any store has the right to choose not to stock any book it doesn’t want to stock. Right? But what if there’s only one store? What then? You might as well be living in China. The world’s biggest bookstore will also be the world’s most efficient censor. It’s coming. It’s already here. And we embrace it. We want to buy personal cash registers called iPods. We want to press a button and give a company the right to take our money and lend us a text that we are not allowed to share. These companies actually believe that they still own the things that we pay for and download. They still own them. That means they can alter them or take them away at any time they choose. Who will stop them from editing books they sell? Who will stop them from changing lyrics in songs they don’t like. Apparently, Wal-Mart already forces recording artists to change ‘offensive’ lyrics or they won’t sell the CDs. That’s what I hear.
Here’s a nice little sample of speech meant to mildly offend a rather large group of people in the United States: If you shop at Wal-Mart, you’re stupid.
But see, I live in a country with freedom of speech, so I don’t care if you hate me. And you’re so cute when you’re angry.