And still the debate over Pope Benedict’s comments continues! Isn’t it straightforward? Don’t we believe in free speech?

William Rees-Mogg wrote in The Times last Monday:

Journalists should not criticise Pope Benedict XVI for his lecture at Regensburg. He has done only what every sub-editor on the Daily Mail does every day. Confronted with a long and closely written text, he inserted a lively quote to draw attention to the argument. We all do it. Sometimes the quote causes trouble, but more often it opens up an argument that is needed…

Spiked was pretty pointed:

We do not care too much what the Pope says about anything. However, the globalised agonising over the Pope’s words does reflect a broader problem of our time…

This bizarre ruckus over the words of a medieval monarch has turned into a revealing picture of the modern world. A world in which nobody, not even the leader of a major faith, is allowed to express a strong opinion without risking condemnation and demands for an apology. A world dominated by a victim mentality, in which groups with hyper-sensitive ‘outrage antennae’ are always on the lookout for the chance to claim that they have been offended, insulted or oppressed by the words of others. And a world where striking moral poses takes precedence over serious debate…

The Blair government in its decadence is not a pretty sight. But you’ve got to give marks to John Reid, the Home Secretary, for the way he responded on Wednesday when he came face to face with the intolerance of militant Islam. During a speech in east London he was confronted by Abu Izzadeen, a well-known fundamentalist who praised the “martyrdom” of suicide bombers after the July 7 attacks in London last year.

Reid’s response? “We must never allow ourselves to be intimidated or shouted down. There will always be people who are not prepared to take part in a dialogue… They are not confined to the Muslim community.”

Indeed. More and more of our number seem to be joining their ranks. And Ross Fitzgerald does them beautifully in The Australian today:

Rather than demanding migrants speak the Queen’s English, John Howard would be much better off mandating the old playground mantra, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” as an integral part of being an Australian. This is because even though free speech is the linchpin of democracy, these days in particular, few people in our country, or the West in general, actually believe in freedom of speech.

They tend to believe in free speech for themselves but not for other people who might offend their deeply held beliefs, values and prejudices, be they religious or secular. Why else is it that virtually all the law reformers squealing about the loss of free speech under Philip Ruddock’s anti-terror and anti-hate laws did not speak up for free speech a decade or two ago when governments really started to muzzle people for reasons of political correctness?

Fitzgerald uses the particularly prickly point of porn to make his case. That’s awkward for many, but as he says, the debate comes down to one simple fact: “The protection of freedom of expression and of openness is crucial to any fully functioning, multi-layered democracy.”

Self censorship is still censorship. And censorship risks damaging our freedom.

Peter Fray

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