Society after Manchester University’s Free Speech and Secular Society’s website was hacked recently, that “No one group or individual should be left to face the danger of defending free speech alone”. Lovely prose, but words are cheap. Again, someone has to actually implement them. I am proud, not ashamed, that the LSS has decided to implement these words. I hope other secularist groups will follow.
There are those who object to this event on the basis one of the co-organisers is the publication Vive Charlie, which occasionally publishes pieces by individuals some secularists may dislike, such as Robert Spencer. But again, exactly what are the rules here? Should the LSS refuse to speak at a Guardian event because the clown-like yet sinister figure Mo Ansar and other unpleasant individuals have written for it? Should the LSS refuse to address a Daily Mail event because of some of the crackpot writers it gives column inches to?
Vive Charlie is a perfectly suitable co-organiser. It was set up after the Charlie Hebdo attack; it was named after it; one of its founders is a talented cartoonist; and it features regular, powerful artwork on blasphemy themes. I’m struggling to think of a more appropriate organiser.
Objectivity and independence must be core principles for legal secularists. It’s important that we analyse this
Objectivity and independence must be core principles for legal secularists. It’s important that we analyse this issue calmly and intellectually. We mustn’t panic or be intimidated by what people might say, or what the approach of other secularists or the wider public might be. It is intellectually lazy to assume a person one does not like can only ever be motivated by bad intentions.
Wilders and Weston may well have views that some secularists disagree with. Does it then follow that Wilders and Weston can’t possibly be concerned about people being murdered for drawing cartoons? Some are saying this event seeks to “provoke” (that’s what people said about Charlie Hebdo). If suicide is Wilders’ and Weston’s intention then boy are they going about it elaborately. And while we’re on the subject: if your position is that line drawings of a bearded man will provoke mass Muslim savagery then you clearly have an ultra-low opinion of Muslims. Some might call that “Islamophobic”.
There are two very relevant, excellent pieces if you are interested in further reading: David Paxton’s “Je Suis Pamela?” and Douglas Murray’s “The Cartoon Wars”.
Paxton argues that supporting free speech must “cost” you something. Well if the “cost” to me and the LSS in this instance is being called names then so be it. I’m
sure the Charlie Hebdo journalists and Raif Badawi would gladly settle for being called names.
And Murray’s piece, as usual, is superb. I’ll leave you with his last five paragraphs. I hope he doesn’t mind.
“The organizers at the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, are not left-wing journalists but conservative activists; and because the Dutch politician Geert Wilders spoke at the opening of the exhibition, that added a layer of complexity for people who like labeling actions with political valences, rather than just seeing actions as apart from them. It seems clear, however, from the pattern of condemnations on one side and silence on the other, that a cartoonist may be worthy of defense if he is associated with a left-wing organization, but not if he is associated with a right-wing one.
Of course, this idea goes to one of the false presumptions of our time: that people on the political left are motivated by good intentions even when they do bad things, while people on the political right are motivated by bad intentions even when they do good things. So a cartoon promoted by Charlie Hebdo may be thought to be provocative in a constructive way, whereas one promoted by AFDI can only be thought of as being provocative
in an unconstructive way. Whether people are willing to admit it or not, this is one of the main problems that underlies the reaction to the Texas attack.
Such a distinction is, needless to say, a colossal mistake. When people prefer to focus on the motives of the victims rather than on the motives of the attackers, they will ignore the single most important matter: that an art exhibition, or free speech, has been targeted. The rest is narcissism and slow-learning.
It does not matter if you are right wing or left wing. It does not matter if you are American, Danish, Dutch, Belgian or French, or whether you are from Texas or Copenhagen. These particularities may matter greatly and be endlessly interesting to people in the countries in question. But they matter not a jot to ISIS or their fellow-travellers. What these people are trying to do is to enforce Islamic blasphemy laws across the entire world.
That is all that matters. If we forget this or lose sight of it, not only will we lose free speech, we will lose, period.”