Keeping a civil tongue

The absence of good people to be offended', declared Scotland's former Justice Minister, Kenny MacAskill, 'doesn't render something inoffensive if it patently is offensive.' This is weird. If Mr MacAskill slips in the privacy of his bathroom and swears horribly (as any of us might) is this 'offensive', even if there is nobody within hearing range? Again, what about 'bad people' who might be offended if they were there to be offended? Do they have no rights?

Timothy Garton Ash, author of Free Speech.
Timothy Garton Ash, author of Free Speech.

I put these questions not to mock Mr MacAskill (well, not only to mock him), but because the whole question of free speech, our right to exercise it and the concomitant right to be offended by it, is extremely complicated.

Timothy Garton Ash, veteran journalist, historian and public intellectual, has devoted a huge and detailed book to an examination of the matter.

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Like most of us he is in favour of free speech, an essential feature of democratic politics and also, arguably, a human right. Indeed our right to free speech is guaranteed by the UN and by the European Convention on Human Rights; in the USA by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Yet this entitlement is limited not only by laws, but also by social small-c convention. The first imposes legal restrictions, the second is a matter of good manners. We guard our tongues when it might be rude or unkind to speak our thoughts. What is called “political correctness” is often criticised, and may indeed sometimes seem absurd, but it is essentially, or at least in origin, a question of civility, a word on which Garton Ash lays stress.

The bounds of speech have been hugely extended by the internet. What we might say in the comparative privacy of the pub or café may now be posted on sites like Facebook and Twitter and go worldwide. In one sense the internet has extended the scope for free speech; it offers well nigh unprecedented opportunities for citizens to speak out, especially those who live under authoritarian regimes. Yet the anonymity behind which people may shelter is an invitation to vile and abusive speech. People write on the internet as they wouldn’t speak in company. Hence we have the extension of what is now designated as “hate crime”.

The creators of the internet and its early enthusiasts were libertarians. Cyberspace offered new freedoms, even, it seemed, unlimited licence. The ordinary citizen was provided with a voice. All this was true. Yet the internet has also resulted in invasions of privacy, even a loss of privacy. It lets governments and corporations know more about us, and keep track of what we say and do. The widening of the public sphere has resulted in the contraction of the private one. You may post anonymously, but you are subject to a level of surveillance in democratic countries comparable to that which was formerly common only in those that we styled dictatorships.

In which areas should free speech properly be restricted? Garton Ash devotes a chapter to religion. HL Mencken, the great American journalist, said we should respect the other fellow’s religion just as we should respect his opinion that his wife was beautiful. This again is a question of good manners. But it’s also inescapably a political one. The fact is that in most of Europe and the English-speaking world you can with impunity be rude about the Pope, but heaven help you if you insult the Prophet Mohammed (though many in cyberspace do so). Does religion deserve to be treated with respect, even in states which have abolished laws against blasphemy? Garton Ash’s answer is a qualified yes, because for many religion is an essential part of their identity. He is probably right. Yet some might say that membership of a political party or support for a football team is equally part of theirs.

As a guide to behaviour Garton Ash quotes a Sixties protest song, with the couplet “I wish you could know / What it means to be me”. He approves this call for empathy and consideration in speech.

Fair enough; yet, in the context of appropriate speech, the essential surely is that I should imagine what it feels to be you.