Speech by FELIX M. LARKIN at the
Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin
on the motion
“This House believes Everything is Fair Game for Comedy”
Can I begin by affirming my detestation of any restrictions on freedom of expression? I reject utterly the proposition that anyone has the right to tell me what I may, or may not, laugh at. And my academic interest in the history of the press, and specifically cartoons, has served to reinforce my horror of censorship. I wrote the entry for the Dictionary of Irish Biography on Patrick Hooper, the last editor of the Freeman’s Journal newspaper, and I quoted him as saying in 1927 that ‘restrictions on publication have the habit of growing, and they should not be imposed except where absolutely necessary’. Apt words for a newspaperman, as valid today as 88 years ago.
And Hooper had earned the right to say them. He had been imprisoned in December 1920 for publishing in the Freeman a story of army brutality which broke the censorship regulations then in force. Later, after the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, the Freeman’s printing plant was smashed up by a party of anti-Treatyite IRA because they objected to an article about a convention of their military council. The Freeman, however, would not be silenced. A much reduced version of the newspaper was produced on Gestetner machines every day until it could resume normal publication.
The reaction of Charlie Hebdo to the massacre of so many of its staff was a similarly spirited response to terrorism. The ‘survival issue’, with its controversial cover, was appropriately defiant – and, as such, greatly to be praised. I believe that it had a duty to offend – in order to assert unambiguously that it would not be silenced. I regret that so few of the world’s media saw fit to reproduce the cover – despite much admirable rhetoric about the ‘freedom to offend’. Their failure had the effect of ceding ground to those who would silence us all.
Of course, I acknowledge the censure – and worse – that can follow from the exercise of one’s ‘freedom to offend’, but we negate that freedom if we exercise it only when it is safe or ‘politically correct’ to do so – or only when the target is something not sacred in our own culture. We must not be hypocritically one-sided in our defence of freedom of expression. The gold standard on this is to be found in the words of Justice William Brennan, of the US Supreme Court: ‘... we must be willing to abide someone else's unfamiliar or even repellent practice because the same tolerant impulse protects our own idiosyncrasies’.
So, are there no limits to freedom of expression? My heart tells me ‘none’ – but I have a few qualifications. I could not defend a person knowlingly speaking an untruth or shouting personal abuse. Nor would I attempt to argue that we have a right to articulate naked prejudice, to present material or images that are irredeemably racist or xenophobic, anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic, sexist or homophobic. I object to targeting individuals for what they are, as distinct from what they do. There is a world of difference between these two categories. Both may give offence – that is of the essence of cartoons, and of comedy generally – but, whereas the first category is gratuitously offensive and hateful, the second is aimed at making people think and question their values and received orthodoxies with a view to correcting folly, pomposity and injustice. That is fair game.
And we should not overestimate the impact of the offence that is allegedly suffered by the victims of cartoons and other forms of comedy – or be too sympathetic to the supposedly afflicted victims. There are some people who make it their business to take offence at the slightest thing – professional offendees. We should take no account of them. As regards the very few who may be genuinely offended – who cannot bring themselves to entertain ideas that are foreign to their way of thinking – it is open to them simply to disregard the offending item. Nobody is forcing them to look at it, or to read it. Offence is very easily avoided.
But I believe much of the so-called ‘offence’ is contrived – and the call for censorship is often not about avoiding offence, but about control. Those who exercise control over others – political, religious, economic or otherwise – wish (understandably) to retain it and expand it, and will try to exclude anything that might undermine their authority and the value system upon which that authority rests. Protestations of offence are thus just a cover for denying those they subjugate the intellectual means to challenge them. It is an insidious manifestation of tyranny. That was what motivated those who ordered the Charlie Hebdo massacre. We must not assist them – or appease them – by imposing, or tolerating, restrictions on free speech. Je suis Charlie!
OTHER GUEST SPEAKERS: Dr Laurent Muzellec (UCD), Professor Roy Greenslade & Professor Farrel Corcoran.