When I oppose things like European prohibitions on denying the Holocaust, or "hate speech" laws, people tell me that I Don't Get It, that these laws address unique situations and unique historical dilemmas, and that they do not represent a wholesale abandonment of the value of freedom of expression.
The problem is that censorship is legally and culturally self-perpetuating. Once you accept that it is legitimate to ban speech because it is offensive, or ban ideas as historically dangerous, that decision is used both as a legal precedent and — invoking the values of fairness and equality — as an argument for banning other offensive speech.
This week's case in point: the United Kingdom. Maajid Nawaz, a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate, tweeted a link to the cartoon Jesus and Mo. That cartoon depicts Jesus and Mohammed having conversations, often in a way that subverts religious doctrine and attitudes. I have previously written about how it has led to calls for censorship over in the U.K. This time, Nawaz' tweet — which said quite reasonably "This is not offensive & I'm sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it" — has led to death threats and abuse.
There's a petition on the ever-optimistic Change.org that illustrates my point. Demanding that Nawaz be removed as a candidate, the petitioners ask this:
2. Is it right that questioning the official 6 million figure in favour of e.g. 4 million, is tantamount to Holocaust Denial which is a criminal offence in Europe?
3. Was is right that the play Behzti was cancelled due to the sensitivities in the Sikh community?
4. Or that the poem "Education for Leisure" was removed from the AQA's (Assessment and Qualifications Alliance – an Awarding Body for GCSEs and A-Levels) Anthology, after complaints were received?
Though the argument requests action from a party, not from a government, it mirrors the argument we see put to the government all the time. Muslims demanding official censorship have have asserted this justification for censorship before. Why shouldn't they? It's an appeal to the Western value of equality and fairness. How can we be solicitous of offense to one group, but not offense to another? We're not racists or something, are we? Are we only protecting the people we like?
We can't control how other people will feel, or what they will find offensive. We can only govern what we do about it. We can only condition people to expect from us defense or free expression, on the one hand, or official and punitive solicitude to hurt feelings, on the other. Once we start using the force of the state to punish people for being offensive, we should expect everyone who has ever been offended to come knocking on our door, asking "What about me? Don't I have feelings?"
Kudos, at least, to the extent these protesters are only demanding party action — which is a form of party politics and freedom of association — and not state punitive action. But the Liberal Democrats might want to consider what they'll be asked to punish next.
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