This letter of mine took a longish journey to you. I read with interest and earnestness your post ‘High Time’. In response I will request you through a flight in the past (time). Our waypoints will be a few minuscule samples of events which had a profound effect on shaping the society we live in today and also the people of that time.
Our wings of time take us to around 835 AD in the region of what 1300 years later would be called the ‘Middle East’. The Abbasid empire is in decline and its caliph Al-Mamun is dead. With Al-Mamun the decline of Mu’tazil(ism) has started. By 885 AD it has become a crime to make copies of any book of philosophy. The beginning of the de-Hellenization of Arabic high culture is underway.
By the twelfth or thirteenth century, the influence of Mu’tazilism will be nearly completely marginalized. In the place of Mu’tazil(ism), will soon rise the anti-rationalist Ash’ari school of thought. While the Mu’tazilites have contended that the Koran is created and so God’s purpose for man must be interpreted through reason, the Ash’arites will profess the Koran to be coeval with God — and therefore unchallengeable. Science, logic and reason have become the work of Satan.
We arrive in Rome in 1600. Crowds are standing in a public square in Rome. A human body charred and beyond recognition lies at the centre. This is the body of Giordano Bruno – an Italian scientist who supported the Copernican theory of Heliocentrism and he held the thoroughly modern view that distant stars are orbited by their own, possibly inhabited, planets. He stated that the universe is infinite in size and has no center. The Pope had imprisoned him for 7 years, eventually deciding that he should be burnt at the stake.
Time flies again and we ride it to the year 1633. The trial of Galileo of Galilei just got over. He has been found to be ‘vehemently suspected of heresy’. Galileo recanted in the court and stated that his support of Copernican theory was the result of “vain ambition, pure ignorance, and inadvertence”.
Galileo’s life has been spared and he has been ordered to house arrest for the remainder of his life. In 1638, Galileo, then elderly and blind will be visited by an English poet, John Milton. In 1644 John Milton proceeded to argue against licensing and censorship in a speech to the English parliament.
We fly with time 11 years ahead and into the English parliament. It is 1644. John Milton, by now a known literary figure in English society is making a speech where he says ,“this was it which had damped the glory of Italian wits; that nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian. There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition, for thinking in Astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licencers thought.”
Now we’ll race to 1859 where we pick a copy of Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’. Here we wait another 11 years and pick up a copy of another of Darwin’s master work ‘Descent of Man’. These two books have revolutionized our understanding of how life evolved on planet Earth and how we as a species came to be. However Darwin’s works were not met by universal acclaim.
Some felt that Darwin’s views were an attack on the role of a Creator in nature and drove a wedge between the moral and spiritual values and aspirations of mankind. Instead of tracing a lineage to the son of God, Darwin’s theory suggested man had only beastly origins.
In 1960, 30 years after the renowned novelist D.H. Lawrence had died, a landmark case was decided following a six day trial. Penguin House, the publisher of Lawrence’s novel ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, was tried under the ‘Obscene Publications Act’ for publishing a book that was likely to ‘deprave or corrupt’. It was seen by many including the ‘Director of Public Prosecutions’ as an affront to the morality of society and a danger to readers.
The prosecution’s opening speech of the trial contained a tally of the number of ‘obscene’ or swear words that could be found within the book – more than 80 in total. The prosecution called no witnesses. One of its arguments was “Is it a book you would have lying around your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”. The proposed price of the novel was also raised by the prosecution as a cause for concern – at just 3s 6d, it was deemed cheap enough for almost anyone to read. Thankfully, the prosecution did not win the case
In 1988, India born British author Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ was published. The title refers to the ‘Satanic Verses’, a group of Quranic verses about three pagan Meccan goddesses: Allat, Al-Uzza and Manat. The part of the story that deals with the “satanic verses” was based on accounts from the historians al-Waqidi and al-Tabari.
The book received wide critical acclaim. It also was perceived as blasphemy and motivated Islamic extremist bombings, killings and riots. The then Government of India rushed to ban the book, an act that was repeated in 1993 when Lajja by Tasleema Nasreen was published.
Our ‘Time Travel’ flight of fancy took off somewhere in 9th century AD in the now ‘Middle East’, flew through medieval Europe, sampled the happenings and reception to avant garde novels and scientific literature of the twentieth century. This is a less than minuscule sample of examples where freedom of speech or expression upset the socially acceptable norms of either the society, offended the religion of the land or posed a challenge to papal or papal like authorities or posed a direct challenge to the government of the day.
To take offence is a natural state and is one of the responses to a stimulus. There is a small gap between stimulus and response. However in that gap we have the freedom to choose what our response will be. If we were to be so preoccupied by what would be the response to the stimulus, our actions would be paralyzed with fear. If becoming offended is a natural response, then not being offended cannot be a right.
The world’s civilizations have at various points in history been held hostage to people feeling that they have the ‘right to not being offended’. And when the offence taken was actioned by a more than proportionate response, the wheels of progress ground to a halt. Entire civilizations retreated and were either taken over or obliterated.
Speaking of the specific instances of Charlie Hebdo’s hurtful and targeted publications, or the disgusting burning of the Holy Quran tour by Paludan – the response could be:
A vigorous condemnation by entire societies (which would be inline with use of freedom of speech and expression),
No response (not possible in this age of hyperactive media publication – I am including social media as well) – why provide free advertisement?
Education as to why acts like Charlie Hebdo and Paludan are wrong.
Freedom of speech and expression has been enshrined as a human right in many of the world’s progressive democracies. In some democracies, hate speech and speech inciting violence is unlawful – and even there the legal burden of proof is very high for the prosecution. I look at it as public policy. Public policies in progressive democracies are made to achieve the larger public good (at least that is the position that is taken in public policy related academia).
It is well understood that there is a leakage factor associated with all public policies – a certain percentage of inefficiency that will be the result of poor implementation and bad actors taking advantage of loopholes. Freedom of speech and expression is a public policy that needs to be guarded. It can’t be available on a selective basis or when convenience demands it.
I’ll end this letter by providing this:
Writing to the New York Times on the 20th of April 1940, Bertrand Russell reminded his audience (chiefly, the editors of the Times) of an unpleasant fact. His no-nonsense, that’s-the-way-it-is manner you will recognize as characteristic.
“In a democracy,” he urged, “it is necessary that people should learn to endure having their sentiments outraged.” The occasion of Russell’s letter was a Times editorial implicitly supporting a decision to ban Russell from teaching at the College of the City of New York.”
With Highest Regards,
First published at seek mediation.com on 16/04/23
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