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The fight for freedom of speech

first_imgShall we protect our freedom of speech so far as to destroy it? Or shall we destroy our freedom of speech in order to protect it? it is your choice. and it is my choice. and yes, it really is that simple. Last week a fourteen year old boy came under fire for a poem he wrote through the eyes of hitler about the massacre of the Jews. presumably the class was to write a poem from someone else’s perspective. they have learnt that the best poems are those that spark a reaction. and so this boy creates a spark, or at least not so much a spark as a gargantuan bonfire. the story makes the nationals and it makes the broad sheet editorials. should it be published? should he be punished? But this story is an example, it is not the incident. Whether or not the boy agreed with what he was writing is not controversial: he made it perfectly clear in all his statements that he did not. what provoked controversy was that he had thought it permissible to write it in the first place. in fact, forget permissible – what is controversial is that he thought it clever to write it in the first place. reading the poem made people at least shiver if not feel distinct repulsion. this is a healthy attitude. there are dark overtones to it and reading it makes the world suddenly feel sunless. it is impossible to read lines such as “Make them make many paces for being one of the worst races, on their way to a gas chamber, where they will sleep in their manger” without a sense of isolation and fear resting on you. this too is a healthy reaction. No one agrees with what is said: least of all the actual author. But does that mean that it is unhealthy that it is written in the first place? It would be a tough call to find someone who did not believe we should practice religion freely, regardless of history. No one should have to see the tragedies and horrors of their religion’s past replayed and seemingly exalted through literature designed merely to provoke a reaction. the past is the past, let us learn from the lessons of the past and move on. and yet, at the same time, it would be a tough call to find someone who thought that those lessons can be learnt without them being taught. we should take courage from this boy knowing that he was sparking controversy when he wrote his poem. As a nation we believe in freedom of speech: that is one reason we are such a welcome choice to those desperate for political security. we stand for freedom. russian writers fled to Britain to publish writings that were illegal in their home country, both the Marxists under the reign of the tsar and the capitalists under stalin. to millions of people, both in the uK and out of it, we stand for political, religious and mental freedom. But these freedoms are separate from each other and they can, and do, clash. at what point does one become more important than another? Surely to discuss “freedom of religion” or “freedom of belief ” or “freedom from harm” is merely to assert one underlying freedom: that is to say, freedom of expression. i can practice my religion undercover but by demanding “freedom of religion” and in doing so i am demanding that i may make my religion open and not receive abuse for it. it requires compromise on both sides. it is through compromise that society succeeds. writers must be prepared not to write things merely to attack another social or religious group. this is something to which most people concur. however a less unanimously shared view is that those religious and social groups should not seek insults where insults were not intended. Just as we each have an obligation not to negatively impede on someone else’s life without due cause, so too does that someone else have that same obligation. if something is not intended to cause harm, then by creating unnecessary chaos over it is just as damaging to the original author. there are lines to draw and until they are drawn we must tread carefully. the chances are they may never be drawn. But it must be made clear that the only way to ensure that lessons are learnt from history is to ensure that those lessons continue to be taught. By provoking disgust and a sense of moral revulsion such as that which has been sparked by this poem, a whole generation is learning where the moral boundaries are. it is through speech, sometimes controversial, that lessons are passed on, and it is through those lessons that speech will be protected from controversy. it is through freedom of speech that freedom of speech is protected: that is the end we must seek. Sophie Moate is Junior Officer of OUCAARCHIVE: 6th week MT 2005last_img read more

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