Freedom Of Speech, Freedom To Offend & Pluralism

Does freedom of speech mean one is free to offend at any cost? Below is a challenging and thought provoking article by Kenan Malik, a London based writer, lecturer and a broadcaster on BBC radio. His article “Pleasures Of pluralism-Pain of Offence” is worth reading. I think one is free to express his /her opinion even if it offends some individuals or community. But the writer should at least try to express the opinion in least offensive way possible. If the writer deliberately uses the most offensive way, then the motive becomes mainly to offend and less to express the opinion. Mr. Kenan thinks otherwise. There is a question of role of publications’ freedom to edit and reject the articles. I am posting some excerpts from the Article and my back and forth conversation/comments on the above topic with Mr. Kenan. ( F. Sheikh) 

“At the heart of the argument for restrictions on offensive speech is the belief that while free speech may be a good, it must necessarily be less free in a plural 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 public discourse about those cultures and beliefs, both to minimise friction between antagonistic groups and to protect the dignity of those individuals embedded in them. As the 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.’ One of the ironies of living in a plural society, it seems, is that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.

It is an argument that seems to me fundamentally to misunderstand the nature both of diversity and of 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. Diversity is important because it allows us to break out of our culture-bound boxes, to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgements upon them, and decide which may be better and which may be worse. It is important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can held create a more universal language of citizenship.

Of course, most critics who argue for restraint on the matter of offensiveness would have no problem with political or social or cultural criticism. What is unacceptable, they would argue, is when such criticism crosses the line and becomes abuse or obscenity.  There is all the difference, as the philosopher Shabir Akhtar put it at the height of the controversy over The Satanic Verses, between ‘sound historical criticism’ and ‘scurrilously imaginative writing’. Akhtar, who became a spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques in the wake of the infamous book-burning demonstration in January 1989, suggested that he real debate was not about ‘freedom of speech versus censorship’ but about ‘legitimate criticism versus obscenity and slander’.

Exactly the same point has been made by every opponent of offensive talk.  By the Sikh protestors, for instance, who in 2004 shut down Behzti, a play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, which the Birmingham Rep pulled after demonstrations by Sikh activists. Or by the Christian protestors who would have liked to have prevented the broadcasting of Jerry Springer: The Opera.

To defend the right to give offence, in other words, is not merely to defend free speech. It is also to defend diversity in its true sense. If we want the pleasures of pluralism, we have to accept the pain of being offended.


By Fayyaz

By your standard of freedom of speech, I guess then Mr. Khomenei has every right to issue fatwa against Salman Rushdie-after all it is his opinion and it is just a speech even if it incites violence ? What if I write a full paragraph of pornographic insults against this article in this space ? will it be ok? Who is to judge this freedom of speech?
Every publication has the right set its policies, the writer can write whatever he/she wishes, but publication has the freedom to edit it or deny publication.

What you are talking about is abuse of freedom of speech to shock and get the attestation and not responsible discussion of difference of opinions. Offending just for the sake of offending does not advance the cause of freedom of speech, it just gives cover to bigots and racists like Cartoonist you mentioned.


Reply by Kenan Malik

June 20, 2013 at 08:09

No, by my standards, the line between the legal and illegal should be the incitement to violence. There is, however, a big difference between the giving of offence and the inciting of violence, a difference you seem to gloss over. Of course, every publication has ‘the right set its policies’; I have never suggested otherwise. That does not mean that I cannot criticize a publication (or a museum or a theatre or a broadcaster) for the decision it takes, for what it deems to be acceptable or unacceptable, or to insist that the refusal to offend is an undermining of free speech.

You ask ‘Who is to judge freedom of speech?’. That was precisely the question I asked. Who decides what is ‘abuse of freedom of speech to shock’ and what is ‘responsible discussion of difference of opinions’? The Dutch politician Geert Wilders wants to ban the Qur’an on the grounds that it promotes hatred. By your standard of freedom of speech, I assume that you think he is right to do so? If you think otherwise, why should we rely on your judgment as to what is acceptable and unacceptable, rather than Wilders’? Shabir Akhtar insisted that The Satanic Verses was ‘hate speech’? Do you agree with him? If not, why not?

As for free speech providing ‘cover’ for racists and bigots, I wrote in my comment to AT above, that I think it ‘morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to stand up to bigotry’ and that ‘to argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge obnoxious, odious and hateful views seems to me immoral’. Don’t confuse what should be allowed with what is morally right.


  • AT ( comments by an other participant)

June 20, 2013 at 12:52

What is your definition of “incitement to violence”, Kenan?

It seems to be a key line in the sand, so I think if I understood how it would be enforced in a non-discriminatory manner, I would be much more comfortable with your overall argument. ( AT)

June 21, 2013 at 08:04

AT, my definition is what it says on the tin – the direct incitement to commit an act of violence. There has to be both a direct link between speech and action and intent on the part of the speaker that that particular act of violence be carried out. In ordinary criminal cases, incitement is, rightly, very difficult legally to prove. The burden of proof should not be loosened just because hate speech may be involved.

  • Comments by Fayyaz

June 21, 2013 at 02:33

I think Salman Rushdie is a great intellectual. He has the ability and intellectual capacity to write an intellectually challenging critical analysis of Islam, but instead he chose a crude and vulgar method to offend Muslims and wrote Satanic Verses. His objective was to offend Muslims-and he chose intellectually lazy and easy way out by writing Satanic Verses.

I do not know whether Satanic verses was a hate speech, but it was to offend Muslims just for the sake of offending and get cheap publicity- under the cover of freedom of speech. In my judgment such abuse of freedom of speech is also immoral.


June 21, 2013 at 07:47

Fayyaz, your view provides a very good reason as to why perceptions of offence should not be the basis for censorship.

Comments By Fayyaz;

  • Your these comments.

“Fayyaz, your view provides a very good reason as to why perceptions of offence should not be the basis for censorship.”

I am not in favor of censorship either. I think If someone has to make a point or express an opinion , one should do so even if it is offensive to others. But I think one has the responsibility to express oneself in the least offensive way possible. If one deliberately chooses the most offensive way possible, then motive is to offend and not express an opinion. I think the writer/ speaker has the personal responsibility, not outside body, to make a judgement. Similarly the publication has to make a judgment whether the material is to express an opinion or mainly to offend others.


Reply by Kenan Malik

June 22, 2013 at 08:38

Sure, there is a distinction between the right to free speech and the wisdom of exercising such a right in a particular fashion, a point The I have made many times. Take, for instance, The Innocence of Muslims, the visibly crude and bigoted anti-Muslim video that provoked so much controversy and violence last year. I would defend the right of such a film to be made, but I would also question the wisdom of making it, and would strongly challenge the sentiments expressed in it. It makes little sense, however, to view the distinction between the right to speech and the wisdom of exercising such a right in a particular fashion in terms of ‘expressing oneself in the least offensive way possible’. It is, as I have suggested, often important that people offend others. To say that something is offensive is often another way of saying that certain ideas, beliefs and forms of power that people do not wish to be challenged are being challenged. To demand that one should always minimize the giving of offence is to demand that one should always minimize the challenge to such ideas, beliefs and forms of power. In the case of, say, The Satanic Verses, the problem lay not in Salman Rushdie causing offence but in people taking offence. That is true in most such cases.

  • Comments by Fayyaz

June 26, 2013 at 19:12

Your comment ” The Satanic Verses, the problem lay not in Salman Rushdie causing offence but in people taking offence.”

I think you are laying lot of omen and gag order on the victim of offence and giving a free ride to the writer. The victim of an offence, actual or perceived, has the right to protest, it is not a ” problem””but right.
No one has the right to resort to violence,but everyone has the right to protest against offence.

Words has power, influence and consequences-both positive and negative-otherwise why write?They can cut like a knife and sooth like a balm. Freedom of speech comes with responsibility.Most of distinctions you mentioned are to some extent arbitrary used by some writers to escape responsibility. See following comments by Zoe Heller on Salman Rushdie:

“More troubling, however, than his exaggerated claim to naiveté is the case that Rushdie seems to be making for fiction’s immunity from political or religious anger. In a departure from the standard, liberal notion that literature must be free to offend, he proposes that literature, properly understood, cannot offend. Muslims who were insulted by The Satanic Verses were guilty of a category error: just like Anis Rushdie, in his “unsophisticated” reading of Midnight’s Children, they had confused fiction with other sorts of speech:

In his famous essay “Outside the Whale,” written five years before the fatwa, Rushdie attacked various books and films for propagating imperialist myths about the nature of Indo-British relations during the Raj. (He argued, for example, that the rape plot at the center of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet endorsed a racist fantasy about the sexual threat posed to white colonial women by “lust-crazed wogs.”) Novels, he claimed, could not be excused from criticism of this sort on grounds that they were “just” fiction: all art, in as much as it ventured to assert “what is the case, what is truth and what untruth,” was inescapably political, and part of “the unceasing storm, the continual quarrel, the dialectic of history.”


June 27, 2013 at 00:44

1. Sure, people can people can feel offended about what they will. And they have the right to protest, even in the most offensive terms if they so wish. What they don’t have is the right not to be offended.

2. It is true that words are important and have power, but they do not ‘cut like a knife’ except in a metaphorical sense. Part of the problem in this whole debate is the confusion of the metaphorical and the real.

3. There are many responsibilities we may wish to place upon writers – the responsibility, for instance, to speak the truth, to fight injustice, to challenged conventional views, etc. But the last thing we should do is place responsibility upon writers not to give offence. In fact were writers to take that as their starting point, it would be an abrogation of their responsibilities as writers. It is also a notion of ‘responsibility’ with which most authoritaran regimes would every happy; indeed it is a notion of responsibility that many continually use to shut down debate.

4. You are right that when it comes to free speech, literature does not, and should not, occupy a privileged place. You are right, too, that fiction, like any piece of writing, cannot in any way be protected from criticism. But to criticize a piece of writing, whether The Satanic Verses or the Raj Quartets, is not the same as saying that it should not have been written, or that the author must take responsibility for people being offended by it.

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(Posted By F. Sheikh)