Saying what’s on your mind
The simple, but consistent idea behind this blog (and all my work) is that everyone has the same right to say what they think, feel, believe. That right enables a democratic society to function. The struggle to make it a reality – to ensure that every member of a society actually can speak for themselves – is difficult because the powerful rarely cede their power willingly. The extension of the democratic franchise in Europe has been a long, slow and painful battle. Women won the right to vote in France only in 1945; they had to wait until 1971 in Switzerland. That’s worth remembering when we congratulate ourselves on our democratic traditions.
But the right to vote, important as it is, symbolises a more fundamental right to say what is on your mind, as and when you like. The citizens of democracies exercise that right in their everyday choices, from big things like their religious and political belonging to smaller ones such as how they dress. Art is one of the great river systems that nourish and support that freedom of expression. What artists create – stories, images, experiences – always expresses what is on someone’s mind, whether they know it or not, whether they are professionals or not. And when we listen to music, read a book, go to the cinema, look at a picture, we are listening to that, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not, sometimes just exposing ourselves to a different way of seeing the world.
Why speak now?
For this reason, among others, this week’s events in France have dominated my thoughts. In the world’s daily toll of suffering and horror, the number of deaths is not very high. As the media’s eyes were on Paris, Boko Haram massacred 2,000 people in Baga, Nigeria. It’s less than a month since armed men killed 132 children in a Peshawar school. Behind these deaths lie the uncounted bodies of those killed in sectarian warfare, wayward drone strikes, and through mere indifference. There is much to say and do about all these but, for better or worse, my concern here is with art and its place in our lives. And while the lives of the artists and writers producing a small satirical magazine weigh exactly as much as those of Pakistani schoolchildren, their deaths have prompted a great outpouring of opinion on all sides and may have far-reaching and frightening consequences. So, because everyone should be able to say what they think, feel, believe, I’m doing that here, as usual, thinking in public.
Guns and pens
Cartoonists across the world have responded to the murder of their colleagues in their own medium and there has been an online flood of drawings. Many of them have opposed guns and pens, evoking the old saw about the pen being mightier than the sword. At the same time, it has been inconsistently argued that drawings are innocent when compared to guns because they don’t kill. But art can be extremely powerful. It changes minds, lives and the course of history. That’s why we do it and why some people try so hard to control it. Anyone who wields a pen or a paintbrush – or, nowadays, a computer – had better understand that they hold a powerful, albeit complex, weapon.
Guns shoot in straight lines: the consequences of pulling a trigger can be precisely calculated. The tools artists use have unforeseeable results. Who knows why Mark Chapman took a copy of The Catcher in the Rye with him when he set out to shoot John Lennon? Probably not Chapman himself, and certainly not J. D. Salinger. The shooter is absolutely responsible for the shot.
The artist, like any speaker, can only be responsible for what they create in the narrowest and most specific ways. Free speech does not permit us, as first year philosophy students know, falsely to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre. For the same reason, democratic societies place limits on speech that sets out to promote hatred and incite others to act on that feeling. It doesn’t matter how artistically that hatred might be expressed. But there should be a high burden of proof before someone’s freedom of expression is curtailed for promoting hatred.
Truth to power
The assault on Charlie Hebdo has been seen, correctly, as an assault on freedom of expression. Many have since evoked the ancient tradition of satire to argue that mockery is an essential freedom, indeed that it is one of the very few ways that the weak have of protecting themselves against the strong. We undermine the power of our oppressors by laughing at them, or at least we comfort ourselves with laughter.
I believe that. The sardonic, bitter humour people shared under communist rule in Eastern Europe is one example. The satire of Private Eye and Spitting Image has frightened some monstrous egos and exposed wrongs that more powerful publishers ignored. And the people involved have often been brave in speaking truth to power. Many of them have paid dearly in court and elsewhere for their courage.
But artworks, unlike bullets, do not take straight lines. They change with every reading. Their meaning is different in different situations. Making a satirical image of the pope or king would once have cost an artist dearly. No longer, though it might reduce their chances of getting an OBE. Speaking your mind in Saudi Arabia can bring brutal retribution, as Raif Badawi knew. It is one thing to say ‘Je Suis Charlie’. It is another to say ‘Je Suis Raif’, especially in Jeddah. Solidarity too has its costs, if it means something,
To mock the religious beliefs of a theocratic regime from within can be an extraordinarily brave act. To mock the religious beliefs of a minority group that is economically and socially marginalised within a democratic society is very different. It is not laughing at the powerful; it may be no more than bullying the weak.
Absolutism and relativism
Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights. Nazi Germany began its road to genocide by excluding Jewish Germans from participating in cultural, educational and public life, preventing its victims from countering the state’s vile representation of them. A minority that cannot represent itself is vulnerable, even lost. That is why it is important to protect the freedom of expression of minorities with particular care. A democratic society worth the name should be able to tolerate uncomfortable voices from its margins and its weakest members. Pluralism is the essence of democracy.
And that is also why freedom of expression has its limits. It must not be misused by the strong as a weapon against the weak, their oppressive intent masked by an appeal to principle, or any difference between the democrat and the fundamentalist vanishes. Each holds their own belief as absolute and claims in consequence the right to impose it on others.
Doubt is a great vaccine against the disease of absolutism. I believe in doubt.
At least, I think I do.