Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Free Speech and Bigotry

I am largely in sympathy with Ronald Dworkin’s views on free speech, bigotry and democracy (Guardian 14/02/06, p.32). The headline summary seems misleading though – free speech does have limits, e.g. libel or not shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre being prominent examples, but Dworkin’s point was that accommodation of different cultures is not one of them.

In a society where people wish to be free to express their own opinions, they must tolerate a like liberty for others. A diversity of viewpoints almost necessitates that some people will be offended by the alleged truths and values others express, but this is a result of ineliminable cultural pluralism.

Dworkin is right, there is no ‘right not to be insulted or offended’, for people can seemingly be offended by anything. Indeed, in the present society Muslims are likely to be offended by anyone who suggests the Koran is not the word of the one true god, while followers of other religions are equally as likely to be offended by the suggestion that it is. If we were never to risk offending anyone, then we wouldn’t be able to say anything.

A tolerant society must accept expression of opinions it finds offensive – even for example racist ones. Once it does so, they can be exposed and defeated in reasonable public discourse. If those holding such views do not feel that their opinions have been heard, then they are all the more likely to resort to extremism and violence.


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