It is true that Wittgenstein’s proposition (see title) means something else altogether, but taken very literally one can still read it as a lesson politicians and commentators should take at heart more often – be it in words or even in actions.
Take the ‘freedom of speech’ row, which was started by Jyllands-Posten, allegedly, in order to defend free speech (and the potential illustrators of a children’s book on Muhammad) against attacks by fanatic muslims. Did Jyllands-Posten achieve what it wanted? I think not. Be it in the eyes of fanatic or of moderate muslims, if the publication and what followed has set a lasting example this is not as convincing proof of the benefits of free speech, but of its drawbacks.
The problem with free speech is that its most vocal friends are its worst enemies. But even its more moderate friends do more harm than good when they do not know what to say. I found the transcript of an interview with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Al Arabyia on 1 February 2006. He seems to be doing all the right things, being polite, respectful, understanding, yet firm on the principle that it is not up to him to take legal action against the newspaper. But it was a missed opportunity – and badly missed at that, given the audience – because his whole defence of free speech amounted to saying it was an important part of western culture. Many viewers must have thought: Well, you’ve got free speech, we’ve got religion, so why not make a trade-off then.
What Fogh should have done instead of saying that free speech is important, was explain why it is important. Instead of appearing as a weak leader not worthy of much respect, by saying that as a Danish PM he is used to being criticised and that he accepts that, he would have come across as a good leader by explaining that the constant criticism actually helps him to do a better job. He could have said that because people in Denmark have been allowed to say what they think about their leaders for a long time, and can even get rid of them if the leaders don’t listen, Denmark is such a wealthy country with so little inequality and suffering. The hint would not have been missed on a region still predominantly ruled by dictators. And it would have been a clear yet diplomatic answer to the interviewer’s attempt to make him criticise the region’s leaders (“An additional question: Your personal attitude and your government’s view of what really happened?”).
But even if free speech means people can insult their leaders, the interviewer might have asked, why should it also mean that people can insult the prophet? Well, perhaps, perhaps not. You see, in order for the criticism to work for a better government and society, you have to be very careful with what you prohibit a priori from being said. Because what may seem only shameless, harsh, even blasphemous at first, may turn out to contain either a grain of truth or at least be an indicator of something else that is useful knowing (for instance on the moral state of society). It is difficult to draw the line by law because those in power, who make the law, obviously have an interest in preventing criticism of themselves from being published. So it is better to remain on the safe side. This is not to say that it may not be wrong to publish something. But the law is not an appropriate means to regulate this, except in rare cases that may lead to violence to individuals or groups. As the issue is one of morality, not of the law, the main responsibility for whether or not something to publish something lies with the person who publishes it. He or she must weigh the interest of breaking a moral code against the interest of society learning something about itself. And it is up to others to make clear, in a non-violent way, what they think about it.
Explaining free speech in this way could – at least for the duration of the interview – have turned around the debate, and the attention, from Danes defending why they allowed insults of the prophet Muhammad, to Arab leaders defending why they do not allow criticism of themselves. Jyllands-Posten, Fogh and most other defenders of free speech failed to do so because they have never really thought about free speech and the underlying values of modernity, and don’t know how to talk about it. If they want to promote free speech, they’d better keep shut.