Free speech was too hard won to be cavalier about censorship now | Kenan Malik

IIf the great free speech activists of the past, such as Baruch Spinoza or Mary Wollstonecraft or Frederick Douglass, were alive today, “they would surely declare the 21st century an unprecedented golden age.” So suggests Jacob Mchangama in his new history of freedom of expression.

It’s a claim that might raise a few eyebrows. This, after all, is a time when, from China to Saudi Arabia, dictatorial rulers imprison and kill political opponents with impunity. A time when the governments of formally democratic nations like India are using the judicial system to try to silence critics. A time when more than 1,400 journalists have been murdered in 30 years. A time when governments around the world are desperately looking for ways to limit speech on social media that they deem dangerous. And in which, in the West, there is a constant debate about the “culture of cancellation” and the erosion of academic freedom.

Mchangama, one of the leading freedom of expression activists, does not try to dismiss the reality of contemporary censorship. Rather, it suggests that in historical terms we have never been so free to say what we think. But this leads to a paradox. The very fact that, certainly in the West, we live in much more open societies has led many to be optimistic and dismissive of the threat that speech restrictions can pose to us. The very success of historical struggles can obscure the lessons of those struggles.

Historically, the demand for freedom of expression was at the heart of the struggle for social justice. From the challenge posed by freethinkers in tenth-century Islam to the abolitionist struggle in nineteenth-century America, from the suffragette movement to campaigns for liberation from colonial rule, it has long been recognized that democracy, social justice and freedom of expression go hand in hand and that censorship was a weapon wielded by the powerful to thwart social change.

Today, however, the issues seem more confusing. Much censorship, especially in liberal democracies, is imposed in the name of protecting not the powerful but the weak or vulnerable: hate speech laws, for example, or restricting the scope of racists or fanatics. And where once the left was clearly opposed to censorship, many now support restrictions in the name of progressive good. While the left has left the field of freedom of expression, the right and the extreme right have camped there. This has further distorted the debate, with the cause of free speech now seen as the property of the right, making the idea even more wary on the left.

One of the ironies, however, is that many of the arguments used today to defend speech restrictions as protections for the powerless are often the same ones once used by the powerful to protect their interests from challenge. When American abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy was murdered in 1837 by a pro-slavery mob in Illinois, a southern newspaper blamed him for his own death, as he had “utterly ignored the feelings of a large majority of the inhabitants of this place”. . A century and a half later, we heard the same arguments in the calls for a ban on satanic verses or in the allegations that the Charlie Hebdo the cartoonists were responsible for their own deaths, as they too had “ignored the feelings” of many Muslims.

Or take hate speech. In the 1950s, there was great debate over the wording of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, one of the founding documents of human rights, adopted by the UN in 1966. The draft proposal aimed to prohibit “any defense of national interests, racial or religious hostility which constitutes incitement to violence”. The Soviet Union wanted to remove the reference to violence and make any form of hatred illegal. , president of the editorial board, “would be extremely dangerous” because “any criticism of public or religious authorities could too easily be characterized as incitement to hatred and therefore prohibited”.Half a century later, Roosevelt’s warning seems highly prescient.

Examples in which the expansion of discourse facilitated the spread of odious or dangerous ideas are well documented: from the newly invented printing press that fueled witch hunts in modern Europe; to newspapers playing a major role in stoking the racist frenzy that led to lynchings in 19th century America; the role of the media in the 20th century in inciting hatred against Jews in Germany and Tutsis in Rwanda.

Yet we can also see from the historical record that while it is necessary to legally restrict incitement to violence, trying to combat hatred more broadly through censorship can be both ineffective and dangerous. One of the most deeply held beliefs about the dangers of free speech is the Weimar myth: the belief that unrestricted free speech allowed the Nazis to spread their poisonous ideas in 1920s Germany and that restrictions on free speech and suppression of anti-Semitic propaganda would have stalled Hitler’s rise. In fact, the Weimar Republic, while constitutionally supportive of free speech, had what we would today call hate speech laws and the power to shut down newspapers. Hundreds of Nazis were prosecuted under these laws. Between 1923 and 1933, the viciously anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer was confiscated or tried 36 times and its editor, Julius Streicher, imprisoned twice.

Many scholars argue that despite these laws, the courts of Weimar were unduly lenient towards the hatemongers and that the judges sympathized with Nazi aims. Other studies suggest that such indulgence was the exception, not the rule. Whatever the truth in this debate, the main failure in preventing the rise of Nazism was not legal but political. And that is true of hate and bigotry today.

We often forget, too, that the victims of censorship are most often minorities and those who fight for social change. From Indian climate change activists accused of ‘promoting enmity between communities’ to British police accusing feminists of ‘hate crimes’, censorship in the name of ‘hate prevention’ is widely used to target activists social.

We are the heirs of centuries of struggle against restrictions on what we can say. If we forget the lessons of these struggles, we also risk slipping away the gains of these struggles.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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