Forget the Footnotes

Rights vs. appropriateness

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The reason why people in my department, and the LSE director himself, are upset by this blog is the same reason why some Muslims were upset by those Danish cartoons earlier in the year. They claim to be hurt and offended and feel slandered and abused. ‘Free speech,’ they argue, ‘does not give you the right to say these kinds of things.’

The intellectual error in both cases is an inability to distinguish between matters of rights and matters of appropriateness. Questions of appropriateness concern the limits that we impose on ourselves as members of a certain group. After all, we all have to find a way of getting along. Social interaction becomes so much easier if we listen to each other, talk politely to each other, say nothing inflamatory.

When the Danish cartoon controversy broke, I didn’t reprint the pictures here. After all, I live in a largely Muslim area of North London and when Eid comes around my childrens’ school virtually shuts down. Why should I antagonise these friendly people? They are my neighbours!

However, everything changed the moment those irate fundamentalists outside of the Danish embassy started calling for blood. When death threats are issued against us our right to free speech is taken away. A society where people are afraid to speak their minds cannot be considered free. Suddenly we had an obligation to stand up for our rights and an obligation to publish the cartoons. How else but through a publication is it possible to distinguish those who are trying to be polite from those who merely are scared? Being polite is fine, being scared is not.

Compare those who want to take away my right to speak freely about the LSE. Of course I want to get along with them — they are my colleagues! — and during more than ten years in the School I have always tried to be polite and cooperative. But take away my right to free speech and everything changes. If you try to take away my rights, I will fight for my rights. Suddenly I have an obligation to say critical things. If I shut up, their threats and intimidations will have succeeded.

Dear Muslim neighbours, colleagues and LSE director, you may object to what I say on the grounds of appropriateness — sometimes I say stupid things. and when I do, please point it out! — but you cannot object to what I say on the grounds of rights. The right to free speech is protected both in Britain and at the LSE.

Ronard Dworking explains all this very nicely in ‘The Right to Ridicule,’ New York Review of Books, 2006.

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