The fuss over the Danish cartoons of Mohammed has not been the only recent event that has raised the issue of free speech. There was also the government’s failed attempt to make it more difficult to criticise religion. There were the trials of the BNP leaders and of the Muslim cleric Abu Hamza. The elected mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, was required to appear before an unelected body with the power to eject him from office for a remark made to a journalist from the gutter press. David Irving was arrested in Austria for holocaust-denial. All these were attempts – either by law or by direct action – to punish people for expressing an opinion.
We in the Socialist Party have always insisted on the advantages, for the advancement of the cause of socialism, of the fullest possible freedom of expression of political and social ideas, including when these take the form of religion (since all religions hold views on how society should be organised and are in this sense political). No view should be prevented from being expressed. And no view (not even religion) should be exempt from being criticised.
We have always practised what we preach. We opposed the banning of the Daily Worker in 1941. We have criticised the policy of “no platform for fascists” as censorship by direct action. We have debated against fascists and Islamists, exposing their views before their followers to the withering criticism of the socialist case.
The main case against censorship is that it considers that people are too ignorant to decide for themselves and so must be protected from hearing certain views. All censors, actual or would-be, consider themselves a cut above the rest. They are not corrupted by reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover but their servants would be. They are not affected by reading anti-Christian or anti-Muslim writings (as the case may be) but their followers would be. They are not affected by a BNP rant but other, less enlightened people would be.
Since ideas are thrown up by social conditions censorship never works to suppress them anyway. The Catholic Church was not able to prevent the rise in Europe of the secular, practical materialism generated by capitalism and has been forced to accommodate itself to this. The same fate awaits Islam, which seems to want to rival Catholicism for the title of the world’s most intolerant religion. At the moment its clerics are desperately trying to hold back the spread of capitalist secularism – and still have the power to mobilise fanatical mobs to rage against a few harmless cartoons – but, as capitalism progresses more and more in the areas where they now dominate they too will lose influence, painfully slow as this is turning out to be.
In any event, Socialists are opposed to the attempts made by Muslim clerics to prevent and punish criticism of their religion. We are under no obligation to respect the religious dogma of these obscurantists that places the so-called prophet Mohammed beyond criticism, not that he has anything relevant or sensible to say for 21st century conditions.
The last refuge of those who favour censorship is the proposition that people should be legally banned from insulting each other. It is true that if you want to persuade someone to change their views insulting them is not the best way to begin. But you can’t legislate for good manners or good persuasive techniques. To allow one side in an argument to cry “you’ve offended me” and appeal to the law to silence the other side would mean an end to free speech.
Our answer to all censors is to reaffirm that workers are quite capable of judging for themselves, quite capable of sorting out the wheat from the chaff and working out which ideas accord with their interests – and which do not. The best condition for the emergence of socialist understanding remains free and frank discussion.