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Monday 16 February 2015, Rob Lyons

After Copenhagen: why free speech matters more than ever

The real threat to free expression comes from the heart of Western society, not from gun-toting maniacs.

The murderous assault on a public debate in Copenhagen, and a subsequent assault on the city’s main synagogue, are a chilling echo of the attacks in Paris in January, based on a desire to prevent free expression of ideas in general and the religious freedom of Jews in particular. There should be no room for half measures in response: we need to promote and defend an absolute right to freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. To do anything less - to pussyfoot around suggesting that there is some balance to be struck between freedom and the responsibility not to offend, as so many commentators are doing - is a betrayal of the Enlightenment ideas on which democracy has been built.

It is also worth reiterating the points that the Institute and others made after the attack on Charlie Hebdo in January. While the gunning down of cartoonists and Jewish people is brutal and shocking, the biggest threat to free speech is not from gun-toting extremists but comes from the heart of Western societies today. The right to speak our minds, even if it is to express views that might offend others, is in serious question. This is not purely about the speaker, either; it is about the listening audience, too. The ability to tolerate views that may seem offensive requires a view of our fellow citizens as robust and active agents in the world, and an ability to look beyond immediate hurt to see the importance to wider society of the freedom to challenge ideas.

Instead, we are offered a view of a society made up of vulnerable souls with fixed identities who must be protected from dangerous ideas lest their very being be assaulted. This is made crystal clear in the results of spiked‘s Free Speech University Rankings, published earlier this month. Even in our universities, which should be at the forefront of intellectual debate, some kinds of discussion, and even pop songs and newspapers, are verboten. Another illustration of this offence-seeking culture came last weekend when, after co-signing a fairly mild-mannered open letter against ‘no platforming’ of feminists, the classicist Mary Beard was the subject of a Twitterstorm by trans activists.

As David Bowden pointed out in our first Podcast of Ideas, recorded after the Paris attacks last month, ‘there is an assumption that speech is actually harmful to you, not that it just offends your sensibilities, but that it causes real trauma’. This is a recipe for reaction because we can hardly change the world if individuals are unwilling or unable to change their views about it. It is also a green light to anyone who believes that their feelings must be defended at all costs, even with lethal force.

If we want to prevent more attacks like those in Paris and Copenhagen, it is crucial that we lead an all-out assault on the notion that ‘you can’t say that’ - something that was subject of a Battle of Ideas satellite at London’s Free Word Centre last year. You can listen to that debate here.

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