Sep 3rd, 2008 by ravi
Rights vs Right

A while I ago I linked to Stanley Fish’s excellent criticism (Our Faith In Letting It All Hang Out) of those propagating the Mohammed cartoons under free speech justifications. Julian Baggini visits the issue in The Guardian via the Christ penis sculpture:

Julian Baggini: Christ reveals limits of free speech |


Doughty defenders of free speech will have no truck with such quibbling. They insist on a right to offend, wheeling out John Stuart Mill’s venerable “harm principle” to clinch the case: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” And, no, “mere offence” does not constitute harm.

There are two problems with this simple view. Saying that we have a right to offend skips over the question of whether we are right to offend. I have a right to tell random strangers that I think they’re ugly, or that they have terrible taste in clothes, but it would be wrong of me to exercise that right, and not just because of the pots and kettles principle.

But isn’t mockery good, and any belief system incapable of putting up with it deficient in some way? That’s true, but you can’t just ignore the background against which lampooning takes place. Christians, for example, are not oppressed, despite what some wannabe martyrs would have us believe. British Muslims, in contrast, are a somewhat beleaguered minority. We should think twice before mocking them because, while comedy speaking truth to power is funny, the powerful laughing at the weak is not. The difference is only subtle to those too dunderheaded to spot the obvious. Witness Alan Partridge asking a Jewish comedian who uses Jewish humour to “tell us a joke about Jews”.

That does not mean that we should never do anything that causes Muslims offence, or that shows Islam in a bad light, of course; only that we should not do so lightly. The choice is not between an all-out offence offensive and craven silence.

The other reason absolutist claims for speech acts are misguided is that we don’t just utter words, we do things with them, as the Oxford philosopher JL Austin put it. When words belittle or mock, they can reinforce prejudice and hierarchies that have very real effects on people’s lives. Mockery of those already on the margins can shore up the very barriers that limit their life chances.

Free speech is indeed precious, but that doesn’t mean that we have to defend without qualification every moron who abuses it.


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2 Responses

  • Doyle Saylor says:

    Austin's comment reminds me of how some philosophers are able to address injustice.

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