There are, of course, social settings where it pays to watch your words. Saying you fancy the looks of a mafioso’s new girlfriend could well prove fatal. Spending time with a bunch of Hamas terrorists while expressing your love for Israel might not lead to your premature demise. In London today, young men who make remarks or play music to other youths on the street can wind up stabbed to death. A recent comment on The Independent website claims, “In this country [the UK], some views, regardless of how valid and logical, can result in anything from public rebuke to loss of a job to violence.”
For the most part, we learn how to avoid words or actions that may offend someone or some group, especially if it is known to be prone to violence. Yet these misfortunes are rare and we live our lives on the assumption that in democratic countries, we can speak freely within the norms of civil society. We recognize that in many countries, racist, homophobic, antisemitic, or “Islamophobic” hate speech can be reported to the police and lead to the arrest and eventual trial of the speaker. The United States’ First Amendment to its Constitution protects its citizens from prosecution for free speech, except where there is a credible threat of “Imminent lawless action.”
If angry exchanges take place, they are just a consequence of living in countries where free speech and unfettered opinion are cherished. We have seen what happens in countries where there is no free speech –as the Soviet Union or present day Pakistan (here, here and here); it often is not pretty and in much of the West is regarded as well worth the trade-off.
Particular sensitivities surround religious ideas, and histories. Nowhere is this more apparent today than in the instance of Islam, where anything untoward, especially statements that even a few people may consider blasphemous — such as young schoolchildren naming a toy teddy bear Mohammad, a common enough name in the Sudan — might be treated as criminal offences. In the West, within secular democratic states, most churches mercifully appear no longer interested in controlling matters such as blasphemy. When I lived in the Irish Republic in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Catholic Church held a tight grip on society. Books were banned, including by James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and all of Sigmund Freud. Films and plays were also banned or censored. The intolerant ban on Catholics studying at Trinity College Dublin perpetuated injustice. Since the 1960s, however, we now have same-sex marriage, women’s right to abortion, and an openly gay Taoiseach (Prime Minister). This year, on October 6, a majority of the Irish voted in a referendum to abolish the blasphemy law that had been in its constitution since 1937. The country has liberalized remarkably.