2008-10-09

Freedom of speech.

While having my hair cut I was leafing through today's newspapers. In the culture section there was an article about David Irving possibly visiting a literature festival in Norway next year. Understandably, this was quite the controversy and several well known Norwegian authors said they were either going to boycott the festival or they were considering it.

It is understandable that people feel uncomfortable about letting a known nazi sympathizer, anti-semite and holocaust denier attend a festival and give a talk. After all, in these election times, it is abundantly clear that if you ever should find yourself in the vicinity of an iconic asshole like Irving, someone might try to pin it on you later.

I had somehow expected more from professional authors. People whose living is so directly dependent on freedom of speech. People who should be more observant of the principles they expect others to uphold when they themselves try to communicate unpopular opinions.

Most of all I am a bit surprised at the naïve reaction of these authors: they are simply running away from an opportunity I think they are morally obliged to make the most of. The way to expose and oppose people like Irving is to make the most of the opportunity -- to let him hang himself with his own words. To confront him and to educate people on what sort of views he represents. To inocculate people's minds against the sort of rethoric that might convince those incapable of critical thought.

Where are the ideas about authors having a social responsibility of educating the common folk? Are today's authors such lightweights, such spineless, unprincipled cowards that they are easily scared off by an old crackpot nazi?

The most scary part of the article I read was when one of the authors seemed to favor the idea that freedom of speech "should have its limits". Exchange their values for those of Irving and articulate the same thought. Not a particularly pleasant thought, is it?

Well, in fact, freedom of speech does have its limits even in the most liberal of jurisdictions; and Irving has no doubt crossed that line before and is likely to do so again. If he wishes to turn up and do just that, nobody should be more delighted than the authors in question since it is then the duty of the authorities to meter out the appropriate penalty. But denying him the right to speak based on what he might say should be beneath any half intelligent, self-respecting person.

A couple of quotes come to mind. One by a real politician, one by a fictional one (see if you can spot which is which):

'You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, and who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.'

and

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

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