When It Comes to Freedom of Speech We Are Prepared to Defend Only Those Threatened Ideas That We Agree With
Thomas, Mark, New Statesman (1996)
A few years ago I received a campaign e-mail from some students which, without any evident sense of irony, was entitled F**K CENSORSHIP. I replied under the new title FUCK C*NS**SH*P, only to be informed that while the sentiments were appreciated, the organisers didn't want to upset anyone and were sticking to F**K. My further response, which elicited no reply, was entitled YOU SILLY C**TS.
Freedom of expression is a right we all assume we have but generally do little to protect, probably because when it comes to freedom of speech we are prepared to defend only those threatened ideas that we agree with. Defending someone's right to talk complete bollocks seems to be at the end of the liberal to-do list.
David Irving, the Nazi apologist and revisionist historian jailed and awaiting trial in Austria, is a case in point: a man arrested basically for talking shite. It is absurd to lock up a man for what he thinks. The absurdity is equal only to that of a fascist embracing the concept of freedom of speech. But, as a supporter of the raised-right-arm tendency, Irving ought to approve of the Austrian state's robust denial of his liberty.
And so it is that most debates on freedom of speech centre on the issue: what can we say and what can't we say? The more interesting question, however, is to be asked from the other end of the problem: what has been censored, and why?
Consider the Turks. The renowned author Orhan Pamuk was scheduled to go on trial in Istanbul on 16 December over some comments he had made. "What unspeakable thing did he utter?" you may ask. Well, on the charge sheet he is said to have told a Swiss journalist, in February: "Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and almost nobody but me dares to talk about it." Yep, that is it. For speaking those words he stands accused under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code of insulting the Turkish national identity. He faces jail not for genocide denial but for suggesting that it happened.
Pamuk avoids using the word "genocide", though there are few other words to describe the killing of more than a million Armenians. Yet it has been the subject of a national denial in Turkey. Even Adolf Hitler was aware of the lack of concern over it: once, speaking of the Final Solution, he reportedly remarked, "Who remembers the Armenians?"
Pamuk's is a noble and just cause that has significant international support. The trial is being closely scrutinised by the European Parliament as a test of Turkey's attempts at political reform, a condition for entry into the EU.
Among those taking a special interest in the case is the Labour MP Denis MacShane, who is in Istanbul to observe the trial. …