Say what you like, and don’t try to stop others doing the same
Published: September 14, 2012 at 12:16am
This is part of my column in The Malta Independent (Thursday).
There are libel laws to stop us lying about anyone, public or private, and to stop us invading the privacy of those who are not public figures.
There are hate speech laws to stop us inciting violence on groups of people for reasons which are not their choices, like the colour of their skin, their sexual inclinations, or their religion, which is never really a choice, is it.
But beyond that, European democracy is built on the fundamental concept of free speech, open debate and not silencing others just because we don’t like what they say.
I find hordes of barely educated people shouting ‘bott l*ba’ at me to be highly objectionable, crude and vulgar, and I would much prefer it if they were capable of entering into a proper debate.
But I would never demand that they be silenced by the or by the threat of violence. Though technically speaking it is against to law to use that kind of language to insult others in public, I have serious reservations about using the law to go after them.
I am more comfortable allowing them to swear their way to kingdom come, and back again. That they do not share this opinion is deeply ironic.
While they call for me to be silenced by legal (there are none) or illegal means (there are plenty), I defend their right to call for me to be silenced, even while writing about the fact that it is a sorry reflection on Malta in the 21st century that so many people still exist and that worse, they have bred a whole new generation who are essentially non-European and who do not understand the thinking that much of Europe has taken for granted for decades and even centuries.
Francois-Marie d’Arouet, more commonly known by his literary name Voltaire, is often quoted in this regard as the standard to which we should adhere: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That is all well and good, except that Voltaire never said it.
The quotation comes from a book, called The Friends of Voltaire, written a little over a century after his death by one Evelyn Beatrice Hall under the name of Stephen G. Tallentyre (because women had to pretend to be men to be taken seriously) and published in 1906.
The relevant passage reads:
..The men who had hated [the book], and had not particularly loved Helvétius, flocked round him now. Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional. ‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ was his attitude now.
Hall explained herself back then by saying that she had paraphrased her subject’s essential argument in his Essay on Tolerance, which is summed up in the line, “Think for yourselves and allow others to enjoy the privilege of doing the same” – or words to that effect, given that the original was written in French.