Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. These were the pillars of the French Revolution and what nationalists in 19th Century wanted to propagate throughout Europe and beyond. The right to freedom of speech is taken by many to be the most indispensable aspect of a truly ‘free society’. But, ‘free speech’ has nowhere and at no time meant any speech. For example, we are often told that, “you can’t shout fire in a movie theatre” or that, “you can’t incite violence”. And, in no society is libel and slander—the written or spoken defamation of others by the utterance of falsehood—protected. So, are there legitimate limits on speech that would still allow us to call it ‘free’?
In theory, most Western societies reserve their citizens’ ‘right to offend.’ You can publicly say, “I don’t like old people”, or “hipsters”, or make disparaging comments about “women” or “men”. But, in most European contexts as well, there are limitations on the right to offend, namely, in the case of what is seen as constituting “hate speech”. In Germany, simply giving the Nazi salute is a crime. In many others as well, Holocaust denial is illegal. In Spain, a magazine was charged with ‘offending the crown’ for visually depicting the heir apparent and his wife (now king and queen) having sex. Here, one also cannot “apologize for terrorism”, namely, that perpetrated by ETA. By focusing on these cases, where the sensitive points of each society have been placed outside the boundaries of ‘free speech’, it could be argued that the insistence of Western journalists on depicting and lampooning the prophet Muhammad, despite the high sensitivity of Muslims with respect to the subject, constitutes a clear double standard and pure hypocrisy. Why can you offend Muslims in Spain, but not terror victims and the monarchs of the country?
Are there dangers in conceding censorship on the grounds of offending people? Or is ‘freedom of speech’ a neo-imperialist façade that is used selectively in Western societies to mock minorities such as Muslims while protecting nonetheless what each such society considers sacred for itself? In our first Humanities Discussion of the new year, we encourage you to use your free speech to decide what it actually is. And, if we all end up shouting at and hating each other by the end of the night, there will at least be some food and drink to compensate you for your offended feelings! Look forward to seeing you there.
The eventy will take place on Thursday, February 5, 7-9 pm at Sala Capitular (Segovia)