Free Speech

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on February 23, 2022

I am in London at the moment and I was recently a witness to a good deal of controversy caused by a comedian called Jimmy Carr.

A joke he made on Netflix about the Holocaust and the Nazis’ treatment of the Roma sparked off the old debate about censorship and the freedom to offend. I do not intend to repeat the joke, not because it is offensive, but because it is pointlessly offensive. Worst of all, the joke is not remotely funny. I have written a lengthy essay about why I am offended by jokes which depict Irish people as stupid. My disapproval of such jokes is somewhat diluted if they make me laugh. I have not argued that people should be punished for telling these jokes. I recognise that I do not have the right to be protected from offensiveness.

My first foray into social media was with Open Salon (OS). As this was an American enterprise, there was a lot of talk about the First Amendment. I noticed that many Americans would bring up the topic of censorship at the drop of a cliché. One had only to mildly disagree with these right wing snowflakes and they would cry: “you will not silence me!” To object to Carr’s joke is not to try to silence him. My essay about Irish jokes was triggered by a bizarre post on OS in which the writer “humorously” suggested that the solution to the “Irish problem” was to send all the Irish to Holland where they would be incompetent and drunk enough to flood the place and subsequently perish by drowning. Imagine someone writing a humorous post entitled “Solution to the Jewish Problem” or “Solution to the African-American Problem” in which the solution consisted of extermination of a race by drowning. Hitler had a “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”.

The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, the Auschwitz Memorial and the anti-racism group Hope Not Hate were among those who condemned the joke.  World heavyweight champion boxer Tyson Fury, who is from an Irish Traveller family (and 6’ 9” tall), said he would chin the comedian because of his joke about gypsies dying in the holocaust.

Strictly Come Dancing judge Robert Rinder MBE (some of whose family were slaughtered by the Nazis) said the audience who “clapped, whooped and cheered” at the joke were “complete incorrigible turds”. Think about those people. Carr might find ways of rationalizing his behaviour but how can they justify theirs? Last year, Netflix faced walk-outs from staff members over a Dave Chappelle comedy special, in which the comic was accused of targeting transgender people. At the time, Netflix’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos claimed: “We have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” I will come back to that idea of real-world harm.


I did have a look at the performance in question so that you don’t have to. The joke itself was not as shocking in the context of a 55 minute show as it was as a brief and brutal soundbite. Warnings were given. Carr says: “Tonight’s show contains jokes about terrible things. Terrible things that may have affected you and the people that you love. But these are just jokes. They are not the terrible things.” I personally do not buy Carr’s arguments in favour of the joke. I do not see anything positive, apart from publicity for Carr, to compensate for the sheer nastiness.

People who know Carr have claimed that he is a kind man in private. What is the point of Carr having a private inner core of kindness while going out into the world and encouraging large groups of people to mock the vulnerability and stigma associated with a victimised minority? One does not have to be a proponent of cancel culture to suggest that at a time of social tensions it is not a good thing to release such toxic energy into the world. Words have consequences.

Speech that causes “offence” can be more dangerous than just hurting the feelings of some snowflake bleeding heart liberal. Sticks and stones might break bones but so can words break bones in the real world. In the House of Commons recently, the prime minister deliberately uttered words that he knew to be false and the result was that a few days later the leader of the opposition was attacked by a violent mob repeating the prime ministers words. The words of white supremacists can be rebutted with more words but it is unlikely that their behaviour will be altered by rational argument. Very often words can leave a person from an ethnic minority bleeding or dead.

Freedom to Lie

Philosopher Nigel Warburton describes John Stuart Mill’s “model of the arena in which discussions take place”. This is “something like an idealized academic seminar with opinions calmly delivered on each side and truth emerging victorious and invigorated from its collision with error.” A legislative chamber should be such a venue. There are occasions when the Sri Lankan parliament does not provide the opportunity to consider calmly delivered opinions. The House of Commons exists, with codes of conduct developed over centuries, to enable truth to emerge from debate. However, the reality is that the current (as I write) prime minister comes to the dispatch box every week and repeats the same lies, even when his untruths have been definitively exposed. Labour’s Dawn Butler was expelled from the house for refusing to retract her statement that the prime minister was lying.

Ian Blackford of the Scottish Nationalist Party was sternly reprimanded by the Speaker for asking the question: “prime minister, are you a liar?” Blackford was ejected from the chamber for refusing to retract his assertion that the prime minister had “misled the house.” The prime minister exerts the freedom to lie. Butler and Blackford are censured for expressing the truth.

Free speech helps a polity to run more effectively. A principle of free speech protects a wide range of expression, wider than any reasonable person could or would want to endorse. We have to protect free speech even for those whose views we find deeply offensive. Free speech is for bigots too.

The Heckler’s Veto

Cancel culture employs ‘the heckler’s veto’. This is the notion that if someone in your potential audience is likely to be offended by what you say you should not be permitted to speak, or at the very least you should have the decency to restrain yourself.

Trans activists exercise the right to call gender critical commentators “bigots” or “transphobes”. Critics of trans activists have their freedom of speech curtailed, endure bullying and threats, sometimes lose their jobs, sometimes suffer violence.

Can’t Silence the Internet

There are arguments in favour of anonymity but it provides opportunities for scurrilous behaviour. The Internet has allowed those willing to use unscrupulous methods freedom to communicate globally with a low risk of being traced. Freedom without accountability. Colombo Telegraph provides a good example. Most of those making comments do not use their real names and cannot be traced. This might seem like openness but it is an effective way of shutting down rational debate by bullying.

Some of the issues thrown up by the free speech question might seem trivial. I have been following a thread on Facebook about an article concerning Holocaust Memorial Day by a blogger who calls himself Old Holborn. One of the Facebook commenters summarised the issue: “the true lesson we should learn from Holocaust Memorial Day is that we should be allowed to be rude to people on Twitter.” People died on the Normandy beaches so that Old Holborn could enjoy freedom to insult. Another commenter said: “to equate infringement of his right to being an arse on the Internet to being a victim of the holocaust is fatuous in the extreme.”

People shout loudly “You will not silence me!” Fat chance. Some states are working very hard to control their citizens’ access to information from the Internet, using every technical device at their disposal but it is difficult to silence so many voices. Such attempts should be resisted because even minor restrictions of liberty help the process of erosion. While being mindful of the dangers of hate speech we should be vigilant against acts of censorship which make further curtailments of liberty easier to achieve. Josie Appleton, a free-speech campaigner, argues that: “Hate speech regulation curtails the moment of ideological conflict, when no crime has been committed. In this the state appears to be defending the victim. But it is actually defending itself, as the mediator and moderator of public debate, and the judge of what is and is not acceptable.”

Wisdom entails openness. To be a serious thinker one has to acknowledge one’s own fallibility. Progress is possible when our ideas have been subjected to criticism and all objections considered. There are many things we cannot know for certain because they are outside our lived experience. Timothy Garton Ash writes: “How can I know what it is like to be a Muslim, a Roma, a Kurd, a lesbian or a conservative Catholic, if we have not been able to explain it to each other?”

Freedom and Slavery

There is a fine balance here. Freedom for some might infringe the liberty of others. Jeremy Waldron, who is professor of social and political theory at Oxford University, argues the need for a public climate of mutual respect and tolerance. Waldron believes that it is sometimes necessary to use the law to curtail freedom of speech if speech infringes on the freedom of another.

Freed slave Frederick Douglass declared: “Slavery cannot tolerate free speech,” and he noted that there exists not just a right to speak but a right to hear. “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” Free speech applies to us all, and that right is rooted in our humanity, the inherent dignity of man.

I will conclude with another quotation from Timothy Garton Ash: “Now we are experiencing what I hope is a temporary diversion to something which most kindly might be called illiberal democracy, but perhaps more accurately, in the language of political science, electoral authoritarianism, and from an open society to a more closed society. Therefore the defense of free speech for the defense of an open society is more important than ever.”