Should speech - in any verbal, written or performed variant - that incites, promotes or celebrates violence be permitted?
Are there any no-go areas for incendiary or hateful criticism, including that against religions?
Such questions have been brought to the fore following production of the anti-Islam film, Innocence of Muslims, and 'responsive protests' across the Islamic world.
Yet, any useful enlightenment here lies not only in considering the 'liberal problem' of how to reconcile 'civil liberties and responsibilities', 'rights and duties', but in how to identify the loaded power narrative within these very questions.
Under the laws of many 'liberal democracies', the position is supposedly clear: there is no actual right to free speech which openly incites hateful violence. Such is the UK's defence for seeking to deport Abu Hamza al-Masri, convicted "under the provisions of various British statutes, including encouraging the murder of non-Muslims, and intent to stir up racial hatred."
There may be little public sympathy for such a media-hated figure - with even the Queen intimating her concerns to BBC 'confidante' Frank Gardner about the delay over his arrest.
But who decides what part of public speech constitutes hate against other persons and, more crucially, what part represents actual encouragement to violence against such parties.
The selective interpretation of such was all too evident following last year's riots, with the severest possible sentences handed down to those caught on social network sites 'encouraging violence'.
Others, most notably Muslims, have been detained and heavily jailed for (rhetorically?) advocating violence against states they deem to have invaded, bombed and occupied foreign countries.
Yet, if, like Abu Hamza's extradition, these prosecutions are deemed 'in the public interest', why aren't politicians also being pursued for hate speech and inciting violence when calling for the same invasion, bombing and occupation of such countries?
This point is at the heart of a fine and thought-provoking article by Glenn Greenwald who, while declaring his unequivocal support for unfettered free speech, asks why the same punishment is not applied evenly to those promoting illegal wars and violence against foreign others.
Greenwald's case rests not just on any classic liberal defence of free speech, including, most critically, the words of those we may loathe, but on a timely warning about speech considered 'hateful', 'violent', 'offensive' or 'subversive' by the state.
In another such question, Greenwald asks us to consider the First Amendment 'rights' of Bob Beckel who, quite openly on Fox TV, called for the murder of Julian Assange. Is this free speech or hate speech? Permissible speech or criminal speech?
Greenwald's inclination is still towards tolerance of speech we may find abhorrent, but he's also inviting us to ask why this kind of incitement is permitted while those calling for resistance to Western occupying forces are being hounded and charged.
Again, the state's selective interpretation and prohibition is all too telling, as suggested by French reaction to proposed Islamic protests against the film:
"France is to take a zero-tolerance approach to any protests over the Mohammad cartoons, Reuters reports. Interior Minister Manuel Valls said prefects throughout the country had orders to prohibit any protest over the issue and crack down if the ban was challenged. "There will be strictly no exceptions. Demonstrations will be banned and broken up," he said." (Guardian.)
|France, the land of Voltaire, 'protecting the inviolable right to free speech', we must
suppose, but not the inviolable right to free protest.|
Amid this 'great liberal debate', it's seemingly unspeakable to suggest that the only speech which really counts is not free speech or hate speech but power speech.
One might, of course, object: 'but what about your own freedom to say these very things here on your own blog?'
In reality, that 'freedom' rests on a much more contingent set of power observances and liberal constraints than is commonly recognised, much of which comes down to the question of how dangerous or threatening such speech is to the dominant order - in this case, I'm sure, amounting to very little.
Yet, the rise in punitive sentencing for 'errant blogging', coupled with intensified surveillance of online speech, gives a clue as to the limited and narrowing extent of that 'tolerance'.
Likewise, Tory toff Andrew Mitchell can freely swear and rant at a policeman, it seems, but not any other member of the public. Liberal chatter over a Minister's indiscretions for some, jail and a criminal record for others.
In practice, there is no such thing as free speech. What we have is the cultivated illusion of such, reinforced by sacred liberal notions of 'plural opinion', 'civil participation' and 'parliamentary accountability', all of it reinforced by a liberal media-speak that encourages us to cherish those 'hard-won Western liberties'; a system-serving output which depends on the same self-cherished notions of 'free, uncensored journalism'.
Belief in these 'self-evident truths' are zealously upheld by liberal journalists and editors who, rather than conservatives or ultra-rightists, perform the vital task of policing and marginalising serious dissident output.
Such is the experience of Media Lens which has been maligned and smeared mainly by liberal writers, such as George Monbiot and, more lately, David Aaronovitch in his gross misrepresentation of ML over the US embassy killings.
In openly defending Media Lens against Aaronovitch and others, one can only anticipate the same 'in-house' liberal hostility towards Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian's new critical columnist, and the extent to which the Guardian itself might allow Greenwald continued 'free rein' to say things it deems 'too close to home'.
Whatever incentives, financial or reputational, the Guardian has for retaining notables like Greenwald and Seumas Milne, its unspoken intention is to keep such voices confined to the realms of safe, 'alternative' speech.
This process of liberal-policing and guarding of selective media context keeps us attuned to how the issue of free speech, religious protest and Western 'intervention' should be interpreted.
Thus, the 'protest attack' on the US embassy in Benghazi was filtered as a specific reaction to the anti-Islam film rather than any pre-planned or/and wider action against US presence in the region.
As the latest Media Lens alert notes:
Like most other media, the BBC instantly concluded that the 'protest' and killings were expressions of religious rather than political anger. As late as September 22, the BBC reported: 'The attack on the US consulate was triggered by an amateur video made in the US which mocks Islam.'
Lacking any balancing comment on Obama's claims or America's own violent extremism around the globe, the piece openly approved the preferred US context that this and other such attacks across the region were the product of an irresponsible amateur movie rather than wider, hateful reaction to US/Nato policy in 'liberated' states like Libya.
So, what we're encouraged to see as an earnest liberal discussion on free speech is really a diversionary indulgence of power speech and endorsement of what people like Obama claim to be 'freedom-preserving' values.
The whole 'free-speech-hate-speech debate', thus, takes us on a convenient detour, as we, in turn, seek to weigh these 'ideals and responsibilities', try to bridge the 'ideological dilemmas', take 'noble positions' of support.
Thus, it's not surprising that those who 'rush to the liberal barricade' see only the 'liberal imperative' of free speech. Such was the perceived need to defend Rushdie.
What most liberals couldn't, and still don't, recognise was/is the power speech working the ideology from behind, urging us towards the 'civilizing side' of Western 'reason'.
This appeal has also been extended outwards to the 'liberal foreigner', with a similarly responsive genuflection to power, the likes of which endeared the now Sir Salman himself to a rewarding establishment - as well as 'interventionist' warmongers like Blair and Sarkozy.
Following Innocence of Muslims, the responsive message can, as before, be seen in the media headliner 'Muslim rage', a crass generalisation of 'menacing Islam', tainting 1.8 billion Muslims alike, intimating the 'urgent need' to contain this 'viral threat' by 'choosing the liberal side'.
But even where doubts exist over whether we should 'reaffirm our liberal duties' or contemplate some more balanced respect for others' religious beliefs, it's the actual agenda-setting liberal narrative itself which is so vital here, either in pushing us towards specific boxes of support or sitting on uncertain fences.
Thus, most media discussion of the film promotes either pole positions on 'liberal rights versus incitement of Islam' or, at least, the view that it's a 'difficult liberal dilemma'. Such is the dominant discourse, using the cloak of liberal media-speak to prompt, guide and influence how a general public should receive and contextualise such questions. Very rarely will that include exploration of how liberal speech itself helps to limit and temper radical speech all in the service of power speech.
'Free speech' is also something the 'civilized liberal' may 'graciously' accord the 'non-deserving' other, all the while reminding its audience that there can be no moral equivalence in their respective utterances.
Consider, thus, the loaded liberal commentaries of Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman and correspondent Matt Frei at the UN in New York, where Ahmadinejad, the West's "matinee villain", so we're told, is ridiculed at every possible turn in delivering his "belligerent speech", while Cameron is accorded gravitas and praise for his "strong speech", most notably in his denunciation of Assad.
Speech for all, even the 'menacing Ahmadinejad', may still be claimed as 'free', but there's a world of difference in how it's reported and how equally we're encouraged to absorb it.
Julian Assange's persecution and predicament is being narrated as a similar liberal-styled question of whether the right to disclose classified information is more important than his desire to avoid questioning and extradition. Again, we see here the vital role of liberal journalists/editors in setting the debate around these 'difficult choices' rather than speaking up in unqualified support of someone now declared an "enemy of the state" by a seething, revenge-seeking US.
And while Obama and Cameron, both principal directors of war and murder in foreign lands, were free to speak in person at the UN, Assange's own speech to the Assembly had to be delivered from the confines of a foreign embassy.
These are the true indicators of how powerful forces and an attendant media control and present the issue of 'free speech' and how 'hate speech' is selectively attributed to official enemies like Ahmadinejad rather than favoured leaders like Netanyahu.
Some speech is more equal, more favourably covered, more easily-spoken than others. That's something worth remembering next time we're asked to ponder or take 'free-speech or hate-speech' sides over 'issues' like this film.
The real question we should be addressing is how to see, expose and challenge the violent intentions, hateful promotions and divisive propaganda lurking behind power speech.
Otherwise, here's to a world of more harmonious dialogue. All we have to do is keep talking.