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The Ethics of Offence

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Fraser and Marshall Palmer

There are an untold number of quotes citable when advocating freedom of speech. Voltaire instructs us that even if we disagree with what you say, we should defend to the death your right to say it; J.S. Mill tells us that we can cause offence so long as we refrain from causing harm; and George Washington warns that should our freedom of speech be taken away then we will be led dumb and silent like lambs to the slaughter. We are concerned that for all the lip service people love to pay to the supreme importance of free speech, when our liberty to express our ideas and criticise others is threatened, too few people are willing to stand up to the censors.

In recent weeks controversy has arisen at the London School of Economics (LSE) surrounding the LSE Student Union’s (SU) Atheist Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) Society, which has faced accusations of racism and Islamophobia, and as a result has been forced to remove the LSE SU prefix from its Facebook group. The reason for the furore was a cartoon from a cult web series called Jesus and Mo (endorsed by Rushdie and Dawkins themselves) depicting the eponymous characters sharing a beer and engaging in pub banter. In case you hadn’t clocked, ‘Mo’ is the Prophet Mohammed, and he made his first university appearance on an advert for a pub-crawl organised by the UCL Atheist Society. Unsurprisingly, the cartoon caused outrage, and after receiving complaints the UCLU requested the society remove the image. This request was refused and the society launched an e-petition asking the UCLU to withdraw their request. The LSE SU ASH reposted the image on their Facebook group in solidarity and that, it seemed, was the end of the matter.

Apparently not. Unbeknownst to LSESU ASH, a number of students complained to the LSE SU about the cartoons on the grounds that they were offensive. The first the Society heard about this was when officers of the LSESU mentioned ‘an incident of Islamophobia’ at a Union General Meeting (UGM). After some protest, this allegation was retracted, but the LSE SU has disassociated itself with the Society’s Facebook page because of LSE SU ASH’s refusal to take down the ‘offending’ images.

So far so bad, but then came another blow to freedom of speech. A motion was proposed titled ‘No to Islamophobia’ and while on the surface this seems like just the kind of rally against religious hatred that we should fully endorse, the text of the motion was highly problematic. Islamophobia was in part defined as ‘a form of racism expressed through the hatred or fear of Islam… (and) attacking the Qur’an as a manual of hatred.’ The rest of the motion was sound in its efforts to protect Muslims from harassment and demonisation, but these specific lines amount to introducing blasphemy laws on campus, and restricting what one can say about the ideas of Islam. Two members of LSE SU ASH (including Marshall, one of the authors) offered a spirited and eloquent defence of our freedom of expression, and freedom to criticise ideas, but the motion passed.

The scale of this incident, and the row over offense and freedom of expression interested us greatly. We feel two questions are raised, which we will try to address here: (1) Should speech and expression ever be limited? (2) If it cannot, is the LSESU ASH society justified in publishing an image that will knowingly offend a community?
To the first question we answer that there is never a legitimate reason to forcibly preclude the expression of free speech, particularly in relation to ideas. In extreme cases, say when one denies the Holocaust, it is still necessary to protect freedom of expression. Dissenting opinions, no matter how seemingly unjustified, always have the effect of sparking thought and debate, which are unfailingly necessary prerequisites to discovering the truth. Who says the Holocaust happened? Where is the proof for it? The effect of honestly answering such questions will, each time, bring about another enlightened soul. After all, the lies of David Irving regarding Hitler’s role in the Holocaust sparked an opening of new, legitimate, historical research into the Holocaust and the role Hitler played in it. Second, the exposure of fabricated and extremists views, take David Irving’s, to criticism does far more to eliminate extremism, as it publicly disproves it, rather than merely censoring it, where it can remain to be disseminated and unchallenged. Even if it was concluded that it is necessary to limit freedom of speech, to whom would the responsibility of censorship lay? Can you, dear reader, think of anybody you would feel comfortable with telling you what you can and cannot say? Who is an appropriate arbiter, a better judge than you, of your own thought and expression? Who should limit what you, as a thinking individual, are exposed to?

Returning to the cartoon controversy, we can find no appropriate reason for banning the expression of the LSE SU ASHS. This brings us to our second point. Even if LSE SU ASH has a right to publish an image of Mohammed, should it do so, and should it rely on continued LSE SU affiliation? Immediately the accusations against the ASH Society of hate speech must be dismissed. The cartoon in question (which may be seen on their facebook page), does not call for the incitement of violence against Muslims; it does not make any claim about the moral status of a Muslim and it does not attempt to act as a legitimate interpretation of the Islam. It is a humorous depiction of Jesus and Mohammed, key figures of different religions who supposedly lived centuries apart, sitting in a 21st century pub, sharing a pint. However, as the publisher(s) must have known, the cartoon would cause controversy and upset; the depiction of the prophet Mohammed is forbidden in Islam as is the consumption of alcohol. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that we do not hold a right to be free from offence, especially in relation to the ideas and beliefs we hold. A key criticism of the ‘No to Islamophobia’ motion, which relates also to the publication of the cartoon, was that while people are worthy of our protection, beliefs ought to be subject to scrutiny and scepticism. This applies to religious belief also. A line is crossed of course when one proceeds to incite violence against people because of their beliefs, but so long as we refrain from doing this, there are no grounds on which to curb how we chose to express our beliefs or ridicule others’.

We firmly believe that the LSESU has no right to ban freedom of expression and if anything is deserving of ridicule, satire, and contempt religion is a sure candidate. If we are to restrict our action by what might offend others a dangerous precedent would be set. To quote the late Christopher Hitchens’ response to the Danish Cartoon controversy: ‘we cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics, and it is degrading to make the attempt.’