It’s no joke if you’re on the receiving end

Mark SteelToday’s Independent includes an excellent piece by Mark Steel, entitled “It’s no joke if you’re on the receiving end”, on the issue of freedom of speech arising out of the Danish cartoons controversy. Steel points out that:

“… it isn’t just The Sun denouncing Muslims for ‘threatening free speech’. Almost everyone regarded as vaguely clever has appeared somewhere to confirm that free speech, however unpalatable, is the foundation of etc etc. I expect the Shipping Forecast has gone ‘Biscay, five rising to eight, a gale that, while I may not like it, I would die for its right to blow. Easterly.’

“But a debate about free speech is meaningless unless it relates to the society in which things are being spoken. When Goebbels commissioned cartoons of grotesque paedophile Jews, he was exercising free speech. So if you approach the matter as an abstract debating point, we should defend his right to do so. But that’s obviously mad. Similarly, it wouldn’t have helped much to advise Jews to draw their own cartoons of grotesque paedophile Nazis, saying ‘Then we’ll all be laughing at each other, so isn’t that lovely.’

“But you get the impression that if the academics discussing the matter now had been around back then, there’d have been an edition of The Moral Maze which began ‘Our first witness is a Miss Anne Frank. Now you’ve been complaining about some of the images that have appeared recently, but surely if you’re not prepared to accept other people’s viewpoints you’ve no right to be in the country.’

“Because speech leads to actions. The reason we no longer accept golliwogs and black and white minstrels and the joke of throwing bananas at black footballers is because their existence effects the status of black people in society. If it’s legitimate to portray an entire race as sub-human idiots, they’re more likely to be attacked, abused and made to feel utterly dreadful. And yet the debates about the reaction to this Danish cartoon have almost all ignored the position of those who feel most threatened by it.”