Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Free Speech and freedom to abuse

Poor old Free Speech is on the ropes again, it would seem.

A couple of months ago Italian comedian Sabina Guzzanti made some hilarious quips about Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, his equal opportunities minister (and former topless model) Mara Carfagna, and finally the Pope. Despite getting away with mocking the two politicians – Carfagna threatened to sue, but didn’t dare carry out the threat – the Pope has proved a little more prickly.

Before a large rally in Rome, she joked that in twenty years time teachers in Italy would be selected by the Vatican, before saying “but then, within twenty years the Pope will be where he ought to be — in Hell, tormented by great big poofter devils, and very active ones, not passive ones.”

This month she was almost charged with ‘contempt of the Pope’. Prosecutors wanted to invoke a 79-year old law originally introduced through a treaty between the papacy and fascist dictator Mussolini.

Dismissing the validity of the charge, Guzzanti said, “I believe that in a democracy there is no right not to be offended. I think that anyone ought to be free to say whatever he or she likes at any moment.

“If someone says things that are offensive, gratuitous and stupid, one has to assume that there will be others to demonstrate that what you said was offensive, gratuitous and stupid.”

There are two points I think we can draw from this story. Firstly, the way that the Free-Speech-In-Europe debate is usually framed, as a conflict between European civilisational values and Muslims, is flawed and – dare I say it? – more than a little racist. This Italian example demonstrates that stifling debate and criticism is a trait of certain aspects of Christian culture as well.

It is also a feature of secular democracies. Berlusconi’s own historically inaccurate assertion that Western civilisation is “superior” to Islamic cultures by virtue of its tolerant and democratic ethos is pretty laughable considering that he basically controls the country’s television broadcasting and silences critics by trying to sue them.

Secondly, the preposterousness of the attempt to prosecute a comedian for ridiculing the Pope can unfortunately lead to a rather overzealous reassertion of the right to free speech. Even Guzzanti falls into the trap: when asked by a journalist whether there should be any limitations on free speech in the context of Holocaust denial or the infamous Danish cartoons, she simply falls back on the free speech mantra.

This can be dangerous because it obscures the difference between poking fun at authority – religious or otherwise – and poking fun at minority communities. In Britain, we have the right to mock the Prime Minister, the Queen, or the Archbishop of Canterbury. We also have the right to mock Muslims, black people, or children with disabilities. So why does former feel ok, whilst the latter feels somehow wrong?

To take part in satirising, criticising and ridiculing someone else, you have to acknowledge that it makes a difference who you are, who the subject of your criticism is, and your respective roles in society. Directing your scorn at a person who has intentionally placed him or herself in the public eye, or who is a figure of authority and should therefore be held accountable to the people, is fine. Directing it at a member of a minority group – such as Muslims in Denmark or Jews in Europe – is less acceptable because these subjects are often already marginalised or discriminated against in some way by the state.

Guzzanti assumes that in a democracy, stupid and offensive comments are permissable because there will always be others there to counter them. This gives society a little too much credit in my opinion. When a well-known British author like Martin Amis makes racist remarks about British Muslims, there are plenty who will stand up and decry his comments. However, they may be less prominent voices, and are easily drowned out by stronger and louder popular discourses reinforcing the flawed association between violence, intolerance and Islam. These spokespeople present themselves as responding to a threat – but in reality they are little more than bullies.

In theory, there should be no limits on Free Speech. In practice, however, the way we use it reveals a great deal about our own positions in society, and how we relate to those we subject to ridicule.

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