Monday, February 06, 2006

“Sticks and stones may break my bones” – but words can sometimes be a form of violence

Chances are that my thoughts here, inspired by the Danish cartoons controversy, aren’t particularly original. Freedom of speech is itself such a well-worn topic that any new accretion to its corpus arguably deserves an automatic litter fine (or the intellectual equivalent thereof), a la those people who put something into an already-full bin, with the new addition inevitably tumbling to the ground below. But anyway, here goes.

There are at least one hoary old, and widely accepted limit to freedom of speech: shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. This particular exception seems defensible mainly because of (i) the damage to human life and limb that could otherwise result, and (ii) the limited “value” of the speech that is being suppressed. But I would prefer to combine these two into a third reason for this example being an unproblematic type of non-free speech: that it cannot be effectively counter-acted by more-and-better speech (my assumption here is that the shout of "Fire!" sets into place an irreversible and immediate panic).

Hence, I am suggesting that the best test for the justified suppression of speech is the “*practical* counter-action (by more speech)?” one.

In light of the Danish cartoons, there does seem to be a case for their never having been published on this basis. The sort of damage caused is/was likely to be immediate, and irreversible by merely more speech, such as even a prompt denunciation. Likewise, although the “value” of the speech that is being suppressed (aka the genuine literary/artistic etc exception to racial/religious vilification) is undesirably subjective in many types of case, the Danish cartoons appear to be just as pointless and juvenile shit-stirring as is setting-off a false fire alarm.

Finally, on a side-note: damage to property (and no more) is never a form of violence. The media and the Right commentariat too often get away with this one, such as at a student demonstration at Monash, where a glass door being smashed (without injury, certainly to anyone other than the demonstrating students) was inaccurately, but widely, termed “violent”. Likewise is the contentious use of this term to describe the damage to cars – and no more – in the Sydney “revenge attacks” of 12 December 2005.

Damage to property is certainly criminal, and/but it may or may not be morally justified on socio-political grounds, IMO. Never, however, is it “violent” – that is, reparation and/or punishment *can* be practically made down the track (and so pre-emptive suppression is never justified). Strange as it may sound at first, words (including images, of course) *can* be categorically “violent” (unlike property damage), as the unfortunate fall-out from the Danish cartoons shows.

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