In connection with the British Library’s timely exhibition Taking Liberties, a number of events have been held since October last year. Last night’s spread in the Conference Centre was a little thin both in front of and behind the pulpit (I suspect) due to the recent snow event in London. This was evidenced by the absence of Germaine Greer who had her statement read out by the chair, but heeded the advice of many a meteorologist and stayed at home (in Essex). The event description at www.bl.uk says:
In recent years the government has introduced a raft of new speech crimes, including incitement to religious hatred and incitement to sexual hatred. They claim that this kind of ‘hate speech’, which disregards our values of tolerance and mutual respect, is beyond the pale and should be outlawed in the interests of community cohesion. However, many campaigners believe that free speech is a non-negotiable human right, even where it causes serious offence. Writers who investigate the tensions in the contemporary politics of race, religion and sexuality often find themselves on the front line of this powerful social conflict.
After an introduction by the chair of the evening, Lisa Appignanesi, President of English PEN, where the context of the evening was explained (as the above quote), each speaker made an opening statement.
The Nazi hypothesis
Peter Tatchell is a well-known political campaigner who added a valuable and pragmatic element to an otherwise ‘academically’ charged evening. He spoke passionately about the struggle against National Front in the 1970s and the ongoing campaign against murder music (homophobic lyrics as incitement to violence) in Jamaica. His closing historical hypothesis was sufficient to force the other two panellists to show their colours on freedom of speech: If the rhetoric of the Nazi party had been banned and Holocaust, prevented as a result, would such a curbing of free speech be justified?
Society is censored
Tatchell’s hypothesis made Rex Bloomstein uncomfortable. He told (us) the audience of his journey as a documentary film maker and how his views on freedom of speech and expression have changed with time. Whereas he may have been more in line with Tatchell in the past, Bloomstein today seems to be very much opposed to any further legislation restraining speech: ‘only the State has to justify censorship’. Society is censored, says Bloomstein, the question is to which degree.
Violence before speech
Salil Tripathi, stepping in for Greer, was the highlight of the evening. Speaking of Tatchell’s hypothesis, he happily admitted to being a ‘free speech fundamentalist’. The award-winning writer, best known for his story on the Indian ban of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, had the audience in stitches with his personal pardon of Danny Boyle and his Slumdog Millionaire, arguing that the continuous political, economical and social oppression of the ’slumdogs’ by the Indian state renders any charge against the British director void. On free speech versus legislation against incitement to hatred, Tripathi invoked a metaphor, saying we need sunlight to see the worms. Perhaps his most lasting contribution of the night, however, was to instil a sense of logic in all present, stressing the importance of prosecuting violence before speech.
An Independent Mind
The evening was closed with a screening of An Independent Mind, a documentary film by Bafta award-winning director Rex Bloomstein. The 2008 documentary features eight examples of bravery in the face of persecution against freedom of speech and expression:
- Tiken Jah Fakoly, a reggae star from Ivory Coast;
- The Moustache Brothers, a comedy trio from Burma;
- Mu Zimei, a Chinese blogger;
- Ali Dilem, an Algerian cartoonist;
- Soziedad Alkoholika, a Basque rock band;
- Marielos Monzon, a Guatemalan radio journalist;
- Faraj Bayrakdar, a Syrian poet and journalist;
- David Irving, a British writer and historian;