ijournaler (ijournaler) wrote in lj_uk,
ijournaler
ijournaler
lj_uk

Whatever happened to Free Speech?

While Voltaire probably never wrote : I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it, we grew up believing it and felt comfortable and safe in our own country.

Then 20 ago Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a death sentence on Salman Rushdie for 'insulting' Islam with his novel The Satanic Verses and things have never been the same since. Any book, play, opera or piece of visual art work with reference to Islam will probably never be shown (see yesterday's Guardian for more on this). Some right-wing Christian groups have tried similar protests and 3 years ago we came within a single parliamentary vote of a law (the Religious Hatred Act) that would have meant imprisonment for seven years for using insulting language (even if the insult was unintentional and referred to an established truth).

In August a customer who bought a book for teenagers by Jacqueline Wilson in her local ASDA store managed to get the whole lot removed and destroyed then later reprinted to replace what she considered to be an offensive word - 'twat' was altered to 'twit'.

Today we learn that St James Palace has had to apologise for Prince Harry's using racially offensive words in a 'secret video obtained by the News of the World'. Obviously taking after his grandfather who - in 1986 when speech was freer nevertheless made headlines by telling a British student during a visit to China: ''If you stay here much longer, you will go home with slitty eyes.''

To preempt any possible misunderstanding I do not admire or agree with these royal sentiments but I hate the way that self-appointed guardians of public morality can make a pious song and dance about it.

There is a lot to be said for tolerance, for allowing others to express unpopular or minority viewpoints without imposing a literary fatwa. I think this applies to what we write here as well. I've kept on line journals for a number of years and nowadays feel less confident about taking an unfashionable stance on  religion, morality, sexual orientation, feminism or parenthood. But sometimes you have to stick your neck out. I recall Martin Niemoller's poem

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.
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