Teaching free speech

Dear Baruch: So Gillian Gibbons, the British teacher in Sudan convicted to 15 days in prison for allowing her students to name a teddy bear “Mohammed” after one of the students, has been pardoned by Great Leader El-Bashir himself and is now safely home in the UK, reports the BBC.

She makes all the right comments, bravo, very sporting of her: “I am very sorry to leave Sudan. I had a fabulous time. It is a beautiful place and I had a chance to see some of the countryside. The Sudanese people I found to be extremely kind and generous and until this happened I only had a good experience. I wouldn’t like to put anyone off going to Sudan.”

Some commentators still don’t get it. The idea that you can “accidentally insult” something is just a bizarre notion to me. How can there be insult without intent? I am also worried that now, back in the West, there is a sense that a line will be drawn beyond which civil society cannot tread for the sake of interfaith respect or somesuch — as now we know that if we name inanimate objects after Mohammed we insult Islam, and so we have been warned, and any repeat of this insult would no longer be accidental, but intentional.

In Sudan, of course, calling teddy Mohammed may well result in lashes if you are lucky enough to avoid a mob of ultimi barbari. I just want to go on the record stating my continued support for the right to call teddy Mohammed in the UK, regardless of whether this can be construed as an insult or not. Irreverence, mockery and irony must remain tools of the free speech trade, especially when used in the service of lampooning irrational beliefs such as those of religious people. In other words, a Muslim Life of Brian must remain a viable option, should anyone choose to make one.


3 thoughts on “Teaching free speech”

  1. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=486452&in_page_id=1770&ct=5

    “Stirring up hatred against homosexuals is to become a serious crime punishable with a seven-year jail sentence under a law announced last night.

    The legislation – similar to laws already in force outlawing persecution on religious or racial grounds – will make criminals of those who express their views in ways that could lead to the bullying or harassment of gays.

    The maximum sentence is longer than the average of around five years handed to rapists.”

    This from the U.K. Apparently “free speech” isn’t free in Western Democracies. Five years imprisonment?

    People in glass houses …

  2. There are illiberal barbarians everywhere. People — and by people I mean Brits and Swedes and the Dutch and the French and the Austrians — need to figure out the difference between hate speech and incitement to violence.

    Free speech is all about allowing speech you do not approve of — otherwise, why bother — but all too often the limits are encroached upon. One example — a lunatic preacher who preached damnation of gays was convicted in Sweden back in 2004 on the grounds of a new law that criminalizes the “violation” of homosexuals rights. This ruling was overturned on appeal in 2005 on the grounds that the EU Court of Justice would overrule it anyway.


    So let’s hope the Brits come to their senses on this as well.

    To be clear: Hate speech should be allowed, as it is in the US. Incitement to violence should not be. Where is the line? An example: A gay couple holding hands walking by a bunch of skinheads listening to a neonazi leader angrily denouncing homosexuality should fee afraid for their safety. The same couple accidentally walking int Åke Green’s church should not. Green’s speech should be protected, the neonazi’s should not be. In part, it has to do with context: Nazis have a history of putting homosexuals to death. Green’s brand of Christianity does not.

    Simple really. And don’t get me started on the criminalization of holocaust denial.

  3. Oh, and I love how the UK law is not intended to outlaw “polite discourse.” The Swedes had the same problem. Åke Green’s was unfailingly polite in his insistence that gays are going to hell in a handbasket. The idea that you can separate content from form when it comes to speech is very naive. This is not web development we’re doing here. Western discourse has a long tradition of the form being the content, ever since, er, the greeks invented irony. Banning irony (and its close cousins sarcasm and mockery) would truly be a most unfortunate occurrence in a land well known for its sense of irony. Isn’t it ironic?

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