Friday, 22 May 2015

[Straits Times] Pleading of offence shuts down discussion

SOME readers have framed the free speech discussion in terms of East versus West, colonialism and racism.
Such views generate a lot of heat but shed very little light on the merits, or otherwise, of free speech itself, nor the growing threat we all, both East and West, face from violent extremists.
There is, indeed, much inconsistency in the West about free speech, but this is not a case of having taken free speech too far, but rather having retreated from first principles.
Instead of maintaining that all citizens are equal before the law, societies are catering to an ever-expanding list of identity-driven sub-groups who demand special consideration and "safe spaces" free from criticism and offence.
As others have noted, free speech is not absolute in any society ("Preach respect and sensitivity" by Mr Huang Zhushan; Tuesday). But if free speech is to mean anything, it cannot include the right for citizens not to be offended.
The pleading of offence shuts down discussion as soon as someone doesn't like what he is hearing, and we are not going to solve difficult problems without having difficult conversations.
Those who have quoted articles of French law in order to suggest that the Charlie Hebdo victims were acting illegally are wrong on at least two counts ("Double standards when it comes to free speech?" by Mr Tan Keng Tat and "Dangers of racism not to be taken lightly" by Mr Toh Cheng Seong; Forum Online, both published on Tuesday).
First, Charlie Hebdo was not inciting anyone to violence against anyone else, quite the contrary. Second, the actual targets of Charlie Hebdo's satire were not oppressed minority groups, but, in fact, the terrorists, extremists and ideologues who hide behind religion, ideology, or politics in order to divide us.
Those implying that free speech is the cause of, or in any way justifies, such violence are playing directly into the extremists' hands, and those willing to cede any of their freedoms have already surrendered to them.
Free speech can be confronting and no doubt will continue to be abused from time to time at its extremes.
Thus, instead of granting a freewheeling licence, it imposes a serious responsibility for all citizens to shoulder as opposed to just leaving it to the Government.
So, adapting E.M. Forster slightly, let us give two cheers for free speech: One, because a better future for us all depends on dialogue, rather than denial or violence; and two, because it is our best hope for bringing the truth to light.
Craig Ower