Freedom vs Rights

A contribution to a conference, called ‘A Mirror Up To Nature’, on censorship and freedom of speech organised by Equity 30th November 2006 at The National Theatre

I won’t speak for very long although I do notice that you have got these things that you always have at conferences, these feedback forms. I did do a conference recently and there was a pile of them as I left and I just thought, well I will have a look at what they have said about me. So I sneaked a peek and somebody had written next door to my contribution: ‘If I only had an hour left to live in my life I would want to spend it listening to a speech by Simon Fanshawe.’ There was an asterisk at the end and I turned to the continuation page and they had written “because it would seem like eternity”. So I won’t go on very long.

I want to make three sets of distinctions, which I hope will be helpful to you. One is to talk about the difference between freedoms and rights, one is talk about the difference in words and actions, and one is to talk about the difference between offence and harm. I think that part of the problem with censorship is that people read down the left hand side of that list. In other words they confuse freedoms with rights, they confuse actions with words and they confuse actual harm with offence. So that has always been my kind of matrix of trying to deal with this and I was going to talk about two things broadly. One is what I think is part of the genesis of this religious sensitivity, because that is where we are particularly focussing at the moment, but only at the moment because we have had a number of other sensitivities that we have developed over the last thirty or forty years particularly in relation to writing and entertaining and broadcasting, so I want to talk about that. And lastly I want to talk about selfishness and responsibility.

There was a time at which we decided that we had to think carefully about the kind of jokes in my particular trade you tell about particular kinds of people. So we made a list of people who we were not supposed to tell jokes about or if we were supposed to tell jokes about them at some stage you were supposed to think about the kind of jokes we might tell about them. It started with blacks, gays, women, disabled. Then the list actually got longer and longer. Simon Hoggart told me the other day about a great description of a group of people in society in America, it is the Fat Acceptance Community. These are fat people who apparently are happy about being fat. This list got longer and longer and longer and longer, and one of the problems was that people began to feel that you could not tell jokes about these people. It was not about what kind of joke you told, it was that they could not even be part of the subject of the joke. And then this absurd idea arose that it was only Jews who could tell Jewish jokes, only gay people who could tell gay jokes, only black people who could tell black jokes. It took out of the entire calculation the notion of quality, but in there lay something important. The sensitivity was about the lack of confidence that people felt within the broader community i.e. the nation or the county or the city or the town in which they live. Clearly what you see is a series of hypersensitivities. So people like myself in the eighties were going on about positive images of gay men. Well, there comes a while when after a bit you have been to enough gay bars to know that actually a lot of gay men are absolutely awful and you cannot stand them, and actually there is another group of gay men who are really quite nice and you do not mind kissing them. Like any other group in the world, they divide into people whose behaviour you approve of and people whose behaviour you do not approve of. We are properly diverse.

The sensitivities were far too broadly applied. What happens, particularly in the political discourse, is that if politicians do not give us what we want we move on and find another politician to give us what we want. So politicians are forced into responding as bluntly to the expression of offence as the people who are expressing their offence are responding. So you have got this notion of groups. You say Muslims are offended, gays are offended. It is almost racist, almost homophobic to lump people together in that kind of way and I will give you an example.

I have a little column in The Guardian. Recently I interviewed a really lovely woman who has fast become a friend of mine. She is twenty-two years old, is called Isra Jawad and she is one of three daughters in a Muslim family. They are Iraqi political refugees; their father was very prominent in the Iraqi resistance under Saddam Hussein. They went to the Emirates, then they came to London. Their home has been in London almost all her life; she came here when she was three years old. I interviewed her at a conference and I said if we were on the radio and I said to the listeners that you were wearing the hijab people would not see in their mind what I am seeing in front of me. The reason is that Isra was wearing a pink hijab, a white jacket, a matching pink skirt and a pair of red ruby slippers. She said: ‘Yes. Me and my mates call ourselves the Hijabi Barbies.’ I said to her: ‘That is the first Muslim joke I have ever heard. She said: ‘Yes I know, it has been a bit dull since the sixteenth century.’

Now this is a twenty two year old modern Muslim woman who said to me on the phone the other day… well I said to her: ‘Articulate for me why you wear the hijab,’ and also I tested a joke out which I just love, which is: What did the woman who was wearing the niqab say to the woman who was wearing hijab? You slut! Now, it is a terrific joke and the thing about it is that I tell it to you because somebody somewhere will write that down and somebody somewhere will say that I have told that joke and somebody somewhere will say I am being offensive to Muslims. So I said to Isra: Give me the narrative on those jokes. She said: The awful thing is it is not so much funny as true. There are women who think like that, she said. Now this is a woman who says she has got more hijabs than she has got knickers. The point about saying all this is that here is somebody in a community which apparently is being offended. Yet she feels ambivalent about that community. She is caught within a difficult contradiction and that is that she feels enormous loyalty to the notion of the Muslim faith in a context where it is being demonised and attacked by certain kinds of people, but as a result of behaviour of which she thoroughly disapproves.

She said to me the other day: I had never heard of a madrassa until two years ago. This is a woman who lives in a highly politicised Iraqi Muslim family, now British. So one thing I would say is that we do have to sophisticate this debate and when people say Muslims are offended, Sikhs are offended, actually what we have to look to is: one, what they are offended by, what is our personal judgement about that; and the second thing is who is saying they are offended. Because as we all know leaders of communities get a great deal of political support and power by saying that they are defending the truth.

So that is one thing. There is another thing – another little story. I met a man the other day who used to be part of an Egyptian extremist group when he was a teenager. His narrative was all about what made him part of this group was the notion of love and love of God. That completely occupied his life and all his actions. The thing that finally got him out of this when he was about twenty two was the realisation in his heart he had room for love of other things – his family, football, his uncle, all these other things. He ended the speech by saying never again for me ‘one truth or one love’. I think that will stick with me for a very very long time. So that is one bundle of things. There is the sensitivity of groups, the extent to which they do or do not feel part of the community and our responsibility in making judgements about what they say they are offended about and the quality of their actions in return.

The second point is this notion of selfishness. What we are doing is living in a place where the notion of self-realisation is becoming something that guides what people think. It is almost like their identity, their destiny – what I want. I left that relationship because it was not serving my needs. I left that job because it was not satisfying my needs. You go on television, you go and you tell whoever it is, Jerry Springer or Jeremy Thingy or whoever, what you feel about your world and that is apparently sufficient and enough. I think if you extend that all the way down, what you find is people start to say: Who is responsible for fulfilling my needs? If you go all the way down that line it ends up in this litigious contract with the rest of the world where you expect somebody somehow entirely to compensate you for the denial of your needs. That is one of the things that people do when they talk about being offended. They don’t think about the world, they think entirely about themselves. And so the notion of risk and the consequent notion of litigation that follows from that risk I think plays a bit part in this. People are using the notion of offence to build up this idea that they have a right not to be offended and that if somebody offends them they will therefore take action. Well it is exactly the same if you go on an adventure holiday and unfortunately somebody jumps off a cliff and unfortunately they die and what do you do, you sue the adventure holiday company. Well, what happened to personal responsibility?

So I suppose what I would say in the end is if you are going to live in a situation where free speech is free what you do not have a right to, you do not have a right to the uninterrupted expression of your own view. What you have is a freedom. So when we have been trying, for instance I have been helping Ministers try to frame the Anti Discrimination Lesbian and Gay Regulations so that you cannot be discriminated against in the context of public goods and services and there are a lot of religious objections. What you say to people is: Look, you have a freedom to be a Catholic. You have a freedom to express your Catholicism. You have a freedom to express your sexuality. But your underlying right is about not being denied a job consequent on that expression. And your freedoms merely have to clash. The world is not that tidy. When we talk about offence do not let’s confuse it with the notion of actual harm. And when we talk about jokes, yes jokes lead to bullying, bullying is what we are tackling. And if jokes are part of that, yes in a sense they are not jokes, but let’s talk about policing actions and let’s not talk about policing words.

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