It would be a fair assessment to conclude that many people consider some statements not what they would like to hear — whether by Salman Rushdie, Geert Wilders, Ingrid Carlqvist, Douglas Murray, Lars Hedegaard, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, Theo van Gogh, the Mohammad cartoonists, Stéphane Charbonnier and other editors at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, among others. To say their remarks are sometimes regarded as controversial would be an understatement. Often, they are vociferous and vocal critics of extremist Islam, immigration, censorship and other policies — and they have been accused of Islamophobia, hate speech, and inflaming racial and religious tensions. Several have been threatened with jail and death. Some have been murdered for their warnings.
Importantly, though, none of them has ever directly incited violence against a religion, ethnic minority, or sexual orientation.
Do not these voices, however repellent to some, deserve the chance to be heard without threat of retaliation? Their opinions are often not of the mainstream, but should that lead to censorship, death, or for Wilders and Sabaditsch-Wolff, court trials, for expressing their views?
On May 31, the European Commission announced its decision to control s-called “hate speech.”
As democratic societies, we presumably believe that what strengthens our democracies, and separates free societies from the many authoritarian regimes, is free speech: the ability to air thoughts freely without fear of punishment. There is a saying that the founder of civilization was the first person who threw a word instead of a stone.
Throughout history, it is the minorities or the lone voices that need from the majority to allow everyone to question, comment on and criticize opinions with which they disagree. Freedom to be wrong, heretical or “blasphemous” — as we have seen with Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Darwin or Alan Turing — is the only way that civilisation can grow.
All of us are free not to listen to people with whom we disagree. We are also free to expose their arguments as false. Currently, those who defend free expression are not discussing ideas; they are discussing whether or not one should have a right to speak. Censorship moves debate away from the issues, then the issues remain undiscussed.
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