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September 13th 2012 print

Philippa Martyr

Free speech saves lives

Use your words, parents tell tantrum-prone toddlers. The same advice applies to Muslim mobs whose readiness to take offence has so often erupted in violence and bloodshed


The appalling death of the American ambassador to Libya has prompted some thoughts about the pacifying effect of free speech. The problem is not the perhaps-mythical Sam Bacile‘s anti-Islamic film, which was used as an excuse for this vicious outpouring of hatred against the US.


The problem is this: When you show a film (which according to all accounts is wooden, badly made and unconvincing) in a prosperous country where free speech is valued, you show it to an almost empty cinema. No one really cares about your awful film, because it’s just not that interesting. There are better things to do, money to be made, a future to be carved out. And, anyway, you can say quite openly that you don’t like and won’t be going to see it.

But when you show even a bit of a film like this to people in a poor, miserable country with low literacy levels, no freedom of speech and no future (their economy being a non-starter because of generations of entrenched corruption, aided and abetted by a state religion that encourages fatalism to a high degree), all those bored and angry young men hanging round in the local square have nothing else to do. Growing up as they did in that particular country, they have never learned any constructive means of expressing disagreement. And with plenty of time on their hands, this means that the American ambassador gets killed and the embassy burnt to the ground. 

The problem is also not the West in general. Look at the images – if you can bear it – of those men dragging Ambassador Stevens to death. They’re all wearing Western clothes, and the man dragging him has his mobile phone clasped in his mouth. There may be Western clothes in Libya, but what there isn’t is a history of free speech.

Free speech is pacifying. Yes, it allows you to spread vileness – but it also allows vileness to be countered with argument, amendment, correction, and apology if necessary. It may whip up strong feelings, but it also disseminates them equally effectively.

A case in point: in the 1980s, the British National Party vote fell to an all-time low because Margaret Thatcher allowed and encouraged an open discussion about immigration to the UK. Her government listened to the electorate, took action and slowed down the immigration rate. However, once the Blair government increased immigration rates but clamped down on the immigration debate, up went the BNP vote.

We have suffered in a similar way in Australia, where a refusal to talk about immigration because such talk was deemed “racist” created One Nation, which was neither one nor national. Refusing to have this debate in an adult and intelligent way at a national level also helped fuel incidents like the Cronulla riots. (Note: “an adult and intelligent way” does not mean the ABC tells us what to think, and we obey without question.)

Lock down the debate on any red-button issue, and feelings and beliefs which would shrink to manageable proportions if given a good airing will instead make their way out in more destructive forms. If this means our politicians, rugby stars and top models have to grow a thicker skin, then that’s perhaps a good thing.

Philippa Martyr blogs at Transverse City