Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Freedom of Speech and Responsibility for Speech

Apropos of the death threats against Swedish artist Lars Vilks and his controversial Roundabout Dog, the debate on the Freedom of Speech is once more at the front and centre. As well it should be, I hasten to add. Clearly Freedom of Speech must be absolute in the sense that neither violence nor death can be seen as appropriate responses to any form of utterance, no matter if it is offensive to some parties. After all, there is no way to ever insure that nobody will ever take offence or feel violated by something.

However, all that having been said, I find the current debate troublesome and am reminded of a few years ago, when the Gothenburg Book Fair had Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Print as a general theme. I attended a few of the theme related panel debates and seminars that year and was quite appalled by the level of the discussion; simply because it lacked any kind of nuance. Moderators more or less consistently pushed the debate into a monochromatic perspective, a simple for or against. Some panel members (like religious scholar Mattias Gardell) admittedly tried (heroically) to bring some depth to the debate, but were metaphorically shot down quite swiftly by the moderators. For or against, in absolute terms, was all that was of interest.

Those debates made me wonder why debates were needed at all. After all, I dare say that nobody, and I do mean nobody (neither on the panels nor in the audience), thought that any kind of utterance (artistic or otherwise) warrants a death threat or any other form of violent response. Nor do I think there were any strong voices in favour of censorship present.

As a brief aside, I might add that I find censorship problematic at best, since it removes the option for people to respond to an actual utterance and leaves them condemning something in the second degree, based only on someone else's analysis and opinion.

However, the main problem with the black and white, absolute approach is that it denies the possibility of an ongoing debate on how we use the freedom of speech. As stated already, I do not favour censorship, but I also strongly oppose the notion that we must do something just because we have a right or freedom to do it. I find it strange that so many of the advocates of Freedom of Speech (and I would actually count myself as an advocate of it, in all honesty) seem unwilling to grant the same freedom and rights to their opponents. I find it weird because while violence is not an appropriate response, this by no means signals that any kind of critical verbal (or visual, musical, etc) response should be stricken down as if an act of violence, or even as if condoning such an act. The Freedom of Speech does not merely apply to being offensive (as it were), but also to verbally question and critique acts that are found offensive. In fact, I would argue that such an ongoing debate is both needed and healthy.

Furthermore, as civilisation has evolved, mankind has given itself various rights and freedoms. Most of these, however, do come with responsibility. This notion responsibility (legal, moral or otherwise) often seems to be forgotten or conveniently glossed over by the use of a black and white debate in absolute terms.

Nobel Prize Laureate Orhan Pamuk participated on one of the panel debates and voiced an opinion, which quite frankly scared me. Granted that Pamuk comes from a local history filled with oppression, power abuse and censorship, where the official "truth" often covers up actual truths (one needs only consider the genocide of the Armenians), but when asked whether authors should participate in the debate on what one should be allowable to say, he quickly said no and very naïvely added that the role of the Author is to find the Truth and say it.

Once more, I blame it on the Romantics (cf. a previous post of mine). Pamuk's view of the Author (with a capital A) corresponds well with the Romantics' view of the Author/Poet/Artist, from which we have admittedly not yet made ourselves free. This conception of the Author is ideological, to some degrees metaphysical and most certainly Romantic. By in some sense giving the Author reign over the dominion of Truth (also, notably, with capital letter), by privileging his/her point of view and voice over others, however, another problem is created.

Pamuk's view of the Author simply does not function pragmatically. And we know it. We are aware that there are several writers and authors out there who use their voices and their medium like good little demagogues, denying the Truth and inventing new ones as it suits their agenda. The simple capitalisation of the letter A (in turning author to Author) is not enough to avoid the issue. If anything, it problematises the issue further, because if there are authors and writers who act in opposition to the Pamuk's notion of the Author's quest, would it not be in the interest of the Author and that ideal to debate those very issues? If the Author's utterance does not, in and of itself, signify Truth, and if that is an ideal to which you yourself hold, would not the abuse of that ideal, the privileged position and the utterance itself, not to mention Truth, instil righteous fury in you? Would that not make you want to be a part of the debate?

At the end of the day, it is not about Freedom of Speech being absolute or not (it should be, in fact must be); it is not even about never offending anyone or violating someone's beliefs. At the end of the day, it is about responsibility. We need an ongoing debate which acknowledges that we are responsible for our utterances (legally, morally, etc) and that having the right to do something does not necessarily mean that doing it is right.

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