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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, December 20, 2009

New Humanist on self-censorship

Over at The New Humanist, Caspar Melville has a balanced but strong piece on the decision by Index on Censorship to engage in self-censorship over the Danish cartoons issue. Melville openly acknowledges the safety issue:

Being the editor of a magazine that makes critical and satirical comments about many religions, and having written a book on the subject this year, I know too well what a thorny issue this is - staff safety does matter, as does the question of context. I can't say for sure what I - or my board - would do in these circumstances.

As he adds, however, it is very worrying when

a magazine whose very mission is to oppose censorship, who are publishing a piece precisely about the craven way in which Yale dropped the cartoons from a book where they would have clearly been relevant, on the basis of the possibility of a threat and no more

That is right, of course. We must take safety into account, but as Ophelia Benson also observes in various places (including in a comment on my earlier post, but most especially here), the prospect of violence was theoretical and remote. Furthermore, these acts of high-profile self-censorship merely add to the environment where certain kinds of publication are regarded as controversial ... and just might attract violence. The more responsible approach is one where publication of criticism of political Islam - or even of mainstream forms Islamic doctrine and culture - is considered routine. This includes satire, and it certainly includes straightforward reportage of satirical material produced by others - not attempting to hide what the discussion is actually about.

Every time a reputable, established organisation such as Yale University Press or Index on Censorship acts otherwise, it makes it more difficult for all the rest to act fearlessly. If The New Humanist does find itself in a similar situation at some point, as Melville contemplates, its decision has now been made that much more difficult.

As Ophelia suggests, this kind of action is also insulting to Muslims. Far from indicating respect, it amounts to a kind of profiling of Muslims, as a class, as potentially dangerous and violent. It would be better to have a bit of trust that most Muslims in Western democracies are good citizens of their various countries - just like most Christians, most freethinkers, most Buddhists, most Hindus, most New Age hippies, etc. - and that they can take a certain degree of robust discussion in their stride.


Anonymous said...

'It would be better to have a bit of trust that most Muslims in Western democracies are good citizens'

Whether or not you can trust most muslims is beside the point. Do you trust the one who would slit your throat to the bone for disrepecting his religiom? Because he is out there.

Greywizard said...

I should like to ask one question about this issue. If the threat were not theoretical and remote, but real and immediate, would this be a good reason not to publish? The question is about publishing, not about risk, and, like the protestors in Iran, if the risk were real and immediate, would it not be all the more urgent to continue to publish?

Russell Blackford said...

Greywizard, not really. If you are genuinely under duress, reasonably fearing for your own safety or that of other people, it excuses (even if it doesn't justify) all sorts of behaviour that would otherwise simply be wrong. The honest thing to do is to say, "I am acting against my better judgment because someone has a gun at my head, or at the heads of other people."

You can see that I am not some kind of purist who demands substantial self-sacrifice from people. That's true. What I demand of people is actually a lot less than that. Strangely, they still - in many cases - don't meet my fairly lenient standards for morally responsible action. Sometimes they seem to go out of their way to act badly without duress.

One of the worst cases of this was when Theo van Gogh was murdered. Index on Censorship would have been better off simply shutting up on that occasion, rather than saying, through one of its senior people, that he deserved it (or something very close to this that could quite reasonably be read in that way).

Don't even start me on how Salman Rushdie has been treated, without any excuse such as duress, by many people who should have been supporting his freedom of speech.

Greywizard said...

Of course, Russell, no one is obliged to put themselves at risk, and if they are really in great danger then obviously they have an excuse not to publish. However, I don't think we ought to let people off the hook for being cowards. Whether or not envisaging the mere possibility of risk is an insult to Muslims or not, it is simple cowardice not to act just because someone somewhere might act violently. If we continue on this course then free speech will be well and truly lost. It has already been lost to too great an degree, and that is dangerous.

That's why the response to Salman Rushdie was so outrageous and contemptible, with people falling over themselves to suggest that he had brought troubles down on his own head, and should have known better. And the claim that Theo van Gogh was responsible for his own death is alarming. But the obverse of these things is publishers and others going to great lengths not to offend, because offence might, at a hazard, prompt a violent backlash, as in the case of the motoons (and even that, I gather, is not so clear, though the book in which this argument is made was censored).

What is needed, I suggest, is for people to publish freely, and insist on their right to do so. And if it causes harm, then we should simply publish more, until people get the idea that they have no right not to be offended or to respond to offence in violent ways.

Governments should be in the business of protecting those freedoms. Freedom is expensive, but it is, I think, worth it, and recent events suggest that very few are prepared to pay even a small price for it. That should worry us all.

Self-sacrifice has already been demanded of many people, and from time to time we remember, with thanksgiving, those who lost their lives in defence of our freedoms. (The one thing that troubles me about the war in Afghanistan is that it is not clear how it relates to freedom.) In the 17th and 18th centuries many people knew of the risk of publishing anti-establishment writings, and some of them paid a high price for it. Eventually, the principle of free speech was more and more clearly enunciated. Popes and other reactionaries did not respond well to this principle, and some still want to limit freedom of speech, especially where religions are concerned, and a significant minority are, apparently, prepared to use violence to enforce those limits. If publishers continue to self-censor out of fear, in time we will scarcely even know what it is that we have lost. Radical Muslims, the pope and fundamentalists of all stripes will be pleased. The rest of us will live in fear, because free people lost their nerve when cowardice became a reason and not only an excuse.