What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence

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.

7 Responses to “What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence”

  1. Oliver Says:

    Do you really want human rights defended on grounds of utility?

  2. eulogist Says:

    If it works in an interview on Al Arabiya, where the principled approach achieves only the opposite? Yes. The essential, if you want to start a dialogue, is to find some common ground from which to start. Free speech as a value just is not one.

    Although I should add that I do not regard the publication of the Danish cartoons as a human rights issue. Free speech as in human rights free speech would be the freedom to criticise the government or those in power. The freedom to depict the face of a long dead prophet, like the freedom to deny the holocaust, does not belong in that fundamental category, so it would be less problematic if it was dealt with, for instance, as a public order issue rather than a human right.

  3. Oliver Says:

    Freedom of Speech is the freedom to speak about what is on your mind. There is no intrinsic relation with government or even the state as such. If you approach this from the utility standpoint, many will want a little less effective free speech in exchange for protection of the prophet.

    To have a meaningful dialogue you must tell the full truth about essential positions. This means that sometimes you will need to agree to disagree. You want dialogue, not compromise.

  4. beatroot Says:

    But Eulogist…if freedom of speech is not a right but a public order issue then every utterence would have to include a calculation on how much disturbance it would cause. If it could potentially cause ‘too much’ public disorder then it would be logical to ask for it to be banned.

    But the value of freedom of speech is not just an issue for the state -it’s about personal expression and vital for social progress. Copernicus sat on his heleocentric view of the universe for years and years because he thought that it would cause lots of trouble, not just for him but for society as a whole. Darwin had similar reservations about evolution. If both of these geniuses finally decided to chuck their work in the bin because they thought that it would cause too much public order problems then we would still be living in the dark ages.

    Freedom of speech and expression are essential if our societies are to move forward.

    But I do agree that these particular cartoons – being infantile as they are – have made no contribution to any debate about personal belief etc in themselves. I think it was a bad descision to publish them…but now they are published I have to support the right to publish them. Sometimes freedom of speech means having to defend positions that you yourself do not personally agree with (like Holocaust denial).

  5. Mark Giebels Says:

    The problem in Europe is that freedom of speech is limited by law, obviously in culturally defined and politically-correct ways. This fact creates room for debating further limitations, a space that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

    Therefore, the discussion about the cartoons issue is completely different in the US. There, the freedom of speech is considered a basic right by everybody, except by some religious lunatics. Therefore, the main discussion there is about self-censorship, and this is exactly what the debate should be about, in my humble opinion. The mass media have a responsibility to avoid unnecessary provocations. And if they cross a border they should be criticized for it by opinion leaders and interest groups. This could possibly include demonstrations and or starting petitions to boycot or end subscriptions. It should be the masses that decide about the consequences, not the state.

    To summarize, in Europe the Muslims unfortunately have a point when they are demanding from the governments to ban such, for them, insulting cartoons. After all, other insulting expressions are forbidden too. So, ironically, the law-embedded ‘protections’ against unnecessary insult has created a situation where some expressions that could also be interpreted as insulting by some are purposely expressed by others, with their own political agenda, under the false argument of ‘defending’ the freedom of speech. In reality, they are defending culturally defined limits of the freedom of speech. Folowing a reasoning like: The state defines the limits, so everything beyond that is not only allowed, but should actually be purposely expressed to protect this right… :-(

    So in my opinion, only after ending those limitations, we can effectively start talking about self-censorship.

  6. beatroot Says:

    Sorry to change the subject, but I really want Eulogist to see my latest post about Serbia…

  7. Reflections on European Democracy » Radio Netherlands grabbing chance Danes ignored? Says:

    […] Arab regimes that instigated the rows, could have foreseen that it would become such a big thing), I was rather critical at the time because Fogh Rasmussen did not take the opportunity to explain what free speech was really about: […]

Leave a Reply