Archive for January 2014
Sometimes a journey of discovery is a choice, a feeling that the time for change has come; other times it is an experience we never aimed for nor knew we’d embarked on. The difference between the preconception of the idea and the contemplation of it in hindsight can be drastic. The arduous tasks of backpacking around Thailand or living for 6 months in Prague may seem like a dream to many, the expanding of minds, the experience of being immersed in a new culture with a different language and unfamiliar history.
This is all fascinating, spiritual and beautiful, but what of the guy that moved to Prague for a few months and was kidnapped; bailed into the back of a car at gun point and taken. With, still now, no knowledge of why his abduction took place, at the time he was alone in a foreign culture and genuinely not knowing whether he’d live to see tomorrow’s sunrise or experience the 90p beer in that quaint historic bar at the end of his street. It seems that the will to depart our comfort zones can lead us to remarkable and breath-taking places but can just as well leave us in a circumstance of danger and confusion. Nevertheless leaving our homely world of comforts, whether an adventure of blinding brightness or to walk an intrepid and lonely darkened path, we’re led to either death or to learn (unless of course we spent the whole experience bored, then it’s likely neither will have occurred).
My own journey of late has been trying. To this point my various adventures have been light and welcoming; marred only by hangovers, misspent finance and a noticeable weight gain, but not this last one. Some journeys don’t reveal an enlightenment but test us by darkening the shadows. My point however, is not in the detail of the story but in the weight of its shadow. Until I had walked many miles along my own winding, confusing, unguided and often misleading path, until I had spent evening after evening in the darkest recesses of blind alleyways and dead ends I could never have been sure that my preconceived ideals would really stand the test of pragmatic torment. Would that buoyant affirmation of youth be extinguished after spending time among feelings of solipsistic isolation?
It’s always been mysterious to me how being aware of your own frailty apparently makes you stronger. My impression so far is that this is untrue and the old saying about what doesn’t kill you etc., is mostly false. It helps you defend against your now known weakness, it forces you to stop thinking you’re invincible and take precautions, but doesn’t actually make you stronger, just more tactically proficient. So, I’m not back stronger and fitter and ready and willing; I’m back for sure, but more aware, less confident and perhaps less fearful, in an apocalyptic rather than courageous way. A feeling of necessity is the driving force, though it is not a feeling of hope nor the sharing of wisdom and is at best the need to fight.
A very real tale of the test of one’s principles became prominent this week. A test of one of the two most important ideals – the necessity of freedom of expression.
This tale comprises of two parts, the first is the story of Maajid Nawaz, who has a petition asking the Liberal Democrat party to suspend him from his duties because of his liberal views on Islamic cartoons. The charge is that he tweeted a rather mundane and largely unfunny cartoon portraying Jesus and Mohammed having a conversation less amusing than a Dilbert comic strip.
There is a counter-petition asking the same political party to fully support Maajid and not encroach on his freedom of speech. (I’ve signed the latter). The case for not punishing Maajid is that he has broken no law and has merely exercised his right to speak freely and express his opinion, an opinion that many people (19,000+ at time of writing) have said is offensive to them. If his opinion is deemed to break some internal code for the Liberal Democrats then let them deal with it in-house, and if they allow him to run for election the let his constituent voters decide what they think of him. But the idea of getting thousands of people from across (and from outside) the country to effectively bully a political party into dismissing a political candidate based on perceived offence is uncomfortable at best, an insult to democracy and free expression at worst.
However, within the same week we are faced with another case of a politician offending a large and vocal minority and another petition asking for him to be removed. Now I’m in an unfamiliar quandary where I probably would have signed the petition against David Silvester just last week, but this surely goes against my position on Maajid on allowing a politician to exercise their freedom of speech. If I am to sign the petition to remove David Silvester must I also follow that same principle and sign the petition to remove Maajid Nawaz? I would argue yes, necessarily so, the two petitions are significantly similar. Sign both or neither otherwise accept your doublethink.
All Silvester was doing was exercising his right to freedom of speech, the majority of people will find his comments utterly absurd not to say disgraceful. But if we start firing and suspending politicians for expressing their views where does that end?
To any reader it is clear that David Silvester has remained well within the confines of the law and has simply and clearly exercised his right to freedom of speech. From what I know of David thus far he seems like a vulgar bigot, ignorant in the most basic of principles of reason and a cretinous excuse for a politician. Nevertheless, if I were to call for his removal because he has offended me or because I think he’s offended someone else I would be setting the precedent about which Thomas Paine so eloquently speaks.
There are details of the cases that differ for sure; one is an insult to a person’s innate disposition while the other to a choice of belief; one subject is an elected official the other has yet to win an electoral campaign. I’ve tried to square these as justifications for taking action in one case and not the other but I just can’t see them as relevant details. This is not an argument of semantics or technicalities, it is about the fundamental premise of protecting free speech even when it offends your own beliefs (in fact especially in that case).
As for the political nature of either case, I’ll leave it to the relevant constituents to decide who represents them and to the political parties who they think are the best candidates for a particular area. Should Mark Lancaster or Ian Stewart enter the national sphere based on their opinions I’ll support or oppose them based on whether they represent my view and may even call for their resignation, but I’ll do this as a constituent and wouldn’t want the national collective to weigh in on the localised democracy to which I belong.
Neither David nor Maajid has tried to incite violence or attempted to start riots in the streets. Just as neither has prevented another person from doing something based on their beliefs, gender or sexuality. The true test of freedom of speech is not when it’s used to justify your own opinions but when it’s extended in direct opposition to them.
Persecution For Expression
This reminds me of two separate cases of well known authors; Salman Rushdie and David Irving (perhaps one author is more well known than the other). Both authors have been persecuted throughout a large portion of their careers for books they’ve written, for the opinions expressed in those books and based solely on the fact that those opinions caused offence. Salman Rushdie presumably needs no explanation, his case is arguably the most famous of its kind in the world. David Irving was imprisoned in Austria for his writing and opinions. He is a foul, bigoted racist whose texts would be offensive to any sane, rational and civilised person, but this, in my opinion, doesn’t warrant a prison sentence. In the same way that an author writing a book that “offends 1 billion muslims” (as is so often stated) does not warrant a death sentence. I mention this to highlight that David Irving and his opinions are in direct conflict with everything I stand for and believe in, and this should be not where freedom of speech is simply recognised but where it is given the most attention – since this is where it is most difficult to uphold.
Free speech must take precedence over my own offence and at the moment I don’t think I can sign the petition that calls for suspending or firing a politician for expressing his views within the confines of the law.
I understand that my opinions may not be particularly well received (I suspect I won’t have many backers) but having been interested in free expression for a long time it seems that it’s not just a phrase to be pulled out when required but rather a concept that reaches to some very dark subject areas indeed and when explored takes one along some extremely uncomfortable paths of thought.
“He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself” – Thomas Paine