Thursday, August 20, 2015

Kenan Malik: Free Speech In An Age Of Identity Politics

   I say this is good.
   I'm not sure there's a lot that's new in it, but it states something like the traditional case clearly:
   Let me finish, then, by remaking the case for free speech as a universal good.At the heart of the argument for censorship as progressive, and of the giving of offence as a cultural and moral wrong, is, as I have suggested, the belief that a plural society places particular demands on speech, and that speech must necessarily be less free in such a society. For diverse societies to function and to be fair, so the argument runs, we need to show respect not just for individuals but also for the cultures and beliefs in which those individuals are embedded and which helps give them a sense of identity and being. This requires that we police pubic discourse about those cultures and beliefs both to minimise friction between antagonistic cultures and beliefs and to protect the dignity of those individuals embedded in them. As the British sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, that ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’
It’s an argument that seems to me fundamentally to misunderstand both the nature of diversity and the relationship between pluralism and free speech. When we say that we live in a diverse society, what we mean is that it is a messy world out there, full of clashes and conflict. And that is all for the good, for it is out of such clashes and conflicts that cultural and political engagement emerges. Or to put it another way, diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to break out of our culture-bound boxes, by engaging in dialogue and debate and by putting different values, beliefs and lifestyles to the test.
But the very thing that is valuable about diversity – the cultural and ideological clashes that it brings about – is precisely what so many people fear. Diversity may be a good, they argue, but it has to be policed to minimise the clashes and conflicts and frictions that it brings in its wake. The imposition of moral and legal restraints on being offensive is one form of such policing.
I take the opposite view. It is precisely because we do live in plural societies that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In plural societies, it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Almost by definition such clashes express what it is to live in a diverse society. And so they should be openly resolved than suppressed in the name of ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’.
One bit in there that I've argued for before is, I think, rather important: diversity is not good in itself. It is, rather, instrumentally good. For one thing, multiple perspectives help us avoid the siren song of the echo chamber. For another, awareness of different ways to live our lives makes more different options real for us. Of course these are actual goods only within the constraints of universalism. Another bit, though, that I've never thought of before is this: "...the very thing that is valuable about diversity – the cultural and ideological clashes that it brings about – is precisely what so many people fear." That is: political correctness elevates "diversity" to a good in itself, and it simultaneously attempts to squelch all disagreement. However diversity is not an end in itself, and it is instrumentally good only if disagreement flourishes and is valued and is used as a stepping-stone to improvement.
   Anyway. Worth a read, I say.

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