Monday, October 27, 2008

free speech

In preparation for next week's Book Club conversation about the controversial The Jewel of Medina, I'm wondering--what is your response to this quotation?

"I may not agree with what you say, but I would defend to the death your right to say it."
--[falsely attributed to Voltaire]

A difficult quandary for me personally. You know I'm a big proponent of responsible media; but you also know I'm a proponent of free speech. On one hand, I was furious that the publication of The Jewel of Medina was stymied for the reasons it was; at the same time, I hate books that, for example, glorify cat-fighting back-stabbing mean girlism, and speak out against them and their authors. Am I a hypocrite?

Is there a line between right and wrong? Is it safer--or righter--to put the responsibility on the reader to choose what to believe or take from what they've read, or to not allow them the choice of being exposed to questionable material by not giving them the chance to be exposed it it?

What's YOUR idea of censorship?


ORION said...

It's all up to the reader...
For me?
I do self- censure by not buying what I personally think is offensive.
I hate the idea that a book would be not published because of content. I know there are limits to this but I don't want someone else to decide what I can or cannot buy.
I defend free speech.

Briane P said...

I'm for free speech, and free speech works best when all ideas are allowed to compete for minds, and works best when the power of the idea, not the volume or number of repetitions, wins people over.

The real trouble with free speech is that too often, it is the volume with which someone speaks or the power and money they have behind them or against them: a voice facing a powerful protest will be drowned out; and hateful speech with a platform behind it will be heard.

The answer, though, is not to limit or silence even the speech we hate; it's to counter it with speech we like. Let people talk -- or write -- and encourage people to talk -- and write-- against them.

Ultimately, it's should be the power of ideas that sways people -- either for or against; but too often, its the volume or repetition that does it. That's why it is important to try to keep things on an even footing, so that sheer mass or numbers cannot convince people something is right.

The real solution is, then, not to limit speech that you don't like, but to promote speech that you do like; for every book or magazine or movie or commercial that is produced which you or someone finds repellent, don't try to subdue that voice, but instead try to promote another voice to counter it.

More speech equals more ideas equals more freedom.

Anonymous said...

Jewel of Medina is "cat-fighting back-stabbing mean girlism?"

Or are you just looking for excuses because deep inside you really lack the conviction to fight for free speech?

Ah, liberalism.

Conduit said...

All rights come with an attendant responsibility. Here's something I believe very firmly, however: no one has an inalienable right to go through life without ever being offended.

Conduit said...

To anonymous above: I think you've misread Moonrat's post. I don't believe that's what she was saying at all.

moonrat said...

Anon: oops, I didn't meant that description to apply to JEWEL. I meant that I have previously on this blog spoke out against fiction that I thought perpetuated ideas that were bad for society.

I would like to think, though, that the onus is on the writer not to produce things that hurt people.

Do you see where the line is sticky? I get torn.

Random Hiccups said...

I am a huge supporter of free speech. I do completely agree with the quote you posted. That being said, I do also support a responsible media. Especially in regards to journalism and television. I support this because of the 7 year old and 9 year living in my house. I do not ever want to explain things like pornography to them because it is on TV at 8pm.

The major problem with free speech and the idea that the reader can decide what is acceptable (in the form of self-censorship) is that even idiots read. People who believe anything and everything are exposed to the same things that thinkers are. The larger frustration is that these non-thinkers also vote and they hold the majority. This is the major problem with unrestrained free speech.

The best way to counteract this is, as braine p wrote, not by prohibiting certain material or topics or subject matter but promote the power of the idea of thinking versus accepting.

If only this would work in South Africa... :)

Precie said...

I too waver. I'm a proponent of free speech. As a rational human being, I can read things I don't agree with and still accept that they are in the public sphere.

But having a child has made a difference...there are things I know my child isn't ready to be exposed to and things that I know, as a parent, I want to be able to expose child to under parental guidance. So, for instance, I'm all for parental and library controls of Internet access for minors. Yet I think banning books from schools and libraries is wrong and offensive.

revalkorn said...

I'm quite interested in a responsible media. I hope someone will let me know if it ever happens.

I'm in a somewhat interesting position as a Lutheran pastor. As a pastor it's my responsibility to lead my congregation toward things that are good and fruitful. Nevertheless, I do not tell them not to read what some Christians say should be censored. I do not believe in censorship, even when what is being written is evil beyond imagining. I can only hope that, should they read evil things, they trust me enough to come and speak to me about them.

As a parent and the father of a homeschooled child, my wife and I try to be responsible in the choices we make in terms of literature and learning materials. However, our daughter has a mind of her own, and she's more than capable of using it.

I could only wish the ACLU was as responsible.

Ulysses said...

I'm a huge proponent of free speech. You have a right to say anything to an audience that is willing to hear your words.

Of course, it's when you get into that second sentence that things get more complex.

First complexity: children are and exception. As a parent, I reserve the right to censor what they see and hear, limiting their exposure (when I can) only to things I feel are appropriate. That's my right, and it comes with the responsibility to eventually allow them to explore the material I've kept from them. When they're ready to make an informed decision about the material, I must step out of the way and allow them to make that decision. Of course, I don't have to approve. That's my other right as a parent.

Second complexity: an audience has to be willing to hear/see/read the material. I should not be able to force Lady Chatterley's Lover into the curriculum of the local seminary. That's not free speech. I have the right to say what I want, and the audience has the right to choose not to listen. They shouldn't be forced or coerced or shamed into not hearing my words, as protesters against the Jewel of Medina might attempt. The audience should be informed about what the speech/movie/book contains and given an opportunity to make an informed decision for themselves. Once that information is available, the audience can't say, "I didn't know it was going to offend me."

Third complexity: as an artist, you have to accept the consequences of presenting your work. Make sure the audience knows, or can at least find out what your work is like. After that, like the audience, you can't duck behind the "If I had known I'd get this response, I'd never have..." excuse. The work is out there. The audience has reacted. Live with it.

To paraphrase Terry Pratchett: there is always the freedom to take the consequences.

Kerry said...

we can be idealistic about free speech as much as we want, but practically speaking, speech is never *entirely* free. after all, your job as an editor infringes, in a way, on free speech; things only get published if you (and all the people at acquisitions meetings, of course) think they should. idealistically, shouldn't *all* books be published? everyone's voice deserves to be heard, right? this is practically ridiculous, obviously.

writtenwyrdd said...

Complicated issue. Freedom means responsibility. I'd like to think we apply our freedom to speak with wisdom and common sense...but common sense is not the same to all people.

I wish some modicum of what would pass for common sense in most people's minds would apply to what is placed out there by writers, speakers, whatevers. "If I Did It" springs to mind here.

Mary said...

I think it's up to both the reader and the writer: for the reader to be educated enough (by society, family, self) to come to the page with some degree of discrimination. And to the writer (or newscaster or publisher or person on the street) to speak the truth in a way that is authentic. There's a wonderful author, Michael Meade, who talks about how if each person could be true to who they are and why they're here--no more, no less--the world would change drastically for the better. (He also has fascinating thoughts on the importance of Story in today's world.)

Speaking of Jewel: I'm reading it and it is a great story and very well-written but is it YA? I keep feeling like I'm being talked down to. It has the feel of something I might have read when I was 12 or 13. I don't mean that as a criticism of the work at all, but it does detract from my enjoyment. I have to admit I'm not sure I want to spend the time finishing it (I'm about 1/3 way through)

H. L. Dyer said...

Censorship is essentially taking the choice away from the reader. That doesn't mean, though, that you can't lament the choice they make. ;)

I think it is up to the reader to choose not to read what demeans us, and up to the authors to create entertaining stories without perpetuating stereotypes.

I can totally see where you get torn. ;)

AC said...

I work for a newspaper, so I'm a big proponent of free speech. There's a quote by Thomas Jefferson, I think, saying if he had to choose, he'd choose a free press over a free government. Though I don't think you could have a not-free government if you had a free press.

I believe the press has the responsibility to report on anything and everything that is true and factual. As for opinion (including things that are hurtful), if you can get it published, go for it. People can choose whether to read/listen/argue with you. Though I don't have a problem with limiting access to it through certain channels (i.e., it's ok to ban porn from an elementary school library).

As for whether you'd die for the right; I would for the right to be able to speak/worship/read how I want. Unfortunately that also happens to include Ann Coulter's right to publish. Darn it. No way around that one.

Charles Gramlich said...

People have the right to say what they think or feel within the bounds of decency for the group they are in. For example, if someone stands up in church and starts spouting obscenities then the church goers have the right to throw them out of the church. But that same person could write obscenities in a book and that's ok because they are not forcing someone to hear them if they don't want to. I always try to remember that free speech comes with responsibilities.

Christy Raedeke said...

It’s almost a recursive issue – it is the right to free speech that allows you to work in publishing and (rightly) bemoan the YA bitchlit phenomenon. You’re not saying they should be banned, you’re just saying they suck – and for bigger, more sociological reasons that just bad writing. Thoughtful criticism uses free speech to its fullest; censorship aborts it.

Crimogenic said...

I'm for free speech. In books, it's very easy to say, not interesting in hearing this point of view or I would love to hear this point of view. Though free speech can be offensive to others, especially when race and religion is involved. That's when it gets sticky.

I wonder if the media will ever make responsible decisions in what they say because controversy breeds ratings.

beth said...

I believe absolutely in the quote--it is one that I personally live by (and I had not known about the correct attribution; thanks for clarifying it!).

JES said...

...the onus is on the writer not to produce things that hurt people.

I dunno, that one's a little hard for me to swallow. There are so many people of so many different personalities, backgrounds, etc., that it's almost impossible NOT to hurt SOMEONE, at least potentially.

By this measure, the writer's only "responsibility" is not to hurt people by intention.

(Even so, though, the line is gray when it comes to non-fiction like memoir and (auto)biography. Even if the people discussed are no longer alive, their families and friends may still be... It's a hall of mirrors.)

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to find how to include you in my "RSS Feeds" folder on Outlook. Any help?

moonrat said...

hi Anon--no idea, sorry. Does anyone else reading this know? I do all my blog subscriptions via google reader, alas.

Justus said...

Not a problem. I'll try to figure it out.

Until then, I'll check your blog the old-fashioned way. What better what to say, "I care"? ;)

moonrat said...


Anonymous said...

I'm with Charles Gramlich on this issue. Well put, Charles.


Mim said...

I am a big proponent of free speech. Censorship really bothers me. I used to teach English, and it drove me nuts when people without kids at the school would try to ban books. Believe me it happened.

That said, there are books that I'm not comfortable reading so I don't. And books that I'd rather my kids didn't read until they are of a certain age--depends on the book. And then I want to read with them so we can discuss what bothers me about the book, and bounce the ideas off of each other.

But I don't think anyone should tell you what you can or can't read.

Anonymous said...

Every time I hear that quote (or these days, see it, since mostly it comes up in online discussions) I have to wonder: would you really? Would you really defend TO THE DEATH someone else's right to free speech... especially if what they were saying went against your own beliefs?

Personally, I wouldn't. I would not actually die so that some icky little skinhead could spout off in public. But maybe that's just me.

Joseph Lewis said...

Once upon a time, we didn't need much censorship because crazy, violent, and sexy people had the good sense to be ashamed of themselves and keep it in the closet.

The problem today is that not only does everyone think they have something worth saying, but they also think it's worth making you listen to it!

Justus said...

No, I wouldn't sacrifice myself so someone could swear at me in public without facing the consequences.

That's my stance on the issue.


Moonrat, I'm now subscribed to you. :)

Cat said...

People use books and speech to fulfill a variety of functions: education, information, expression, entertainment, persuasion. As long as we have a range of people from devil to saint, we will have a range of books and speech aimed at filling agendas from evil to inspired. It’s not only just the way it is, it’s what makes this world truly spectacular. Whether you call it divine creation or the random acts of nature, there will always be something written, spoken, created, or done that revolts, shocks, convinces, cons, awes, amazes, moves, uplifts, or transforms us.

Where I believe we fail our children, our citizenry, and ourselves is in not teaching people to think critically, to analyze sources, to seek and judge for ourselves all the material and information we are bombarded with daily. Unfortunately, there are a myriad of people who know this and take advantage of this: salesmen, politicians, religious leaders, crooks.

Do I believe in freedom of speech? You betcha. But I also believe ‘caveat emptor.’

Julie Weathers said...

I do support free speech, but there are things I don't want to see or hear on public television or in my library.

Porn readily accessible for instance. Instructions on how to torture people or animals.

Everyone races to say it's their right to say anything they want any time they want any where they want and frankly, I disagree. I don't want to walk into a store and listen to some lovely rap about gonna to kill that mf cop, gonna blow his brains out.

The sentiment that free speech comes with responsibility is very noble, but the truth is most who are most adamant about their free speech take no responsibility. The only thing they are interested in is THEIR rights, not other people's.

Since people can't exercise common sense and courtesy, then guidelines seem to be needed.

Tasnim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tasnim said...

Censorship is fundamentally stupid, first because silencing something is the best way to get people to want to hear it, and second because it works on the assumption that all readers believe everything they read. As Gillian Beer says, reading is essentially a question raising procedure.

But I don't believe in free speech. That is, I don't believe it exists in the "complete unbridled freedom to talk about anything you want to talk about" sense. I think it has limits. Not limits I or any other easily offended raghead would like to see imposed on it, but limits that are already there. Red lines people just don't cross.

I also believe there are people who make use of the selling potential of controversy by drawing the red lines for themselves, in a sort of "watch me write about this incredibly sensitive, very taboo subject which has been written about for the last 300 years" way.

My problem with the Jewel isn't that Jones ignores Aisha's biography, injects a series of invented events, and turns a religious figure into a near-adulteress in a neo-orientalist pulp romance... it's that we're supposed to believe the motivation behind this controversy-inspiring strategy was to "empower women, especially Muslim women."

I find that just a little ironic.