No Laughing Allowed
March 15, 2007
David at MediaWatchWatch has steered my attention to this little nugget. It's a 20-minute video of Christopher Hitchens at the University of Toronto discussing censorship, Islam and notions of “hate speech.” It's stirring stuff and can be downloaded in various audio and video formats. Here's a money quote, one of many:
“I have to notice that the sort of people who ring me up and say that they know where my children go to school... and what they’re going to do to them, and to my wife, and to me, and who I have to take seriously because they have done it to people I know, are just the people who are going to seek the protection of the hate speech law if I say what I think about their religion. Which I am now going to do…”
During his speech, Hitchens makes reference to Holocaust denial, John Stuart Mill and the need to test our own assumptions - three topics I touched on in a piece written for 3:AM and later expanded for the CSER Review. I think it's worth posting an extract from that article, as it seems particularly relevant:
Some argue that there must be limits on what can be said – as if the solution to stupidity is to inhibit public discourse. “What about Holocaust deniers”, I was once asked, indignantly. “Would you let them say the Holocaust didn’t happen?” But proscribing idiocy of this kind achieves very little and betrays a lack of confidence. If a person insists that Jews, gypsies and homosexuals were not systematically exterminated on an industrial scale, one can always produce the documents, the testimony, the photographs and the films and demonstrate that it did happen. And demonstrating what did happen – and can happen – allows us to revisit our own ideas about the world.
A free society is defined by contrasting opinions and the testing of ideas. This is how we learn. Being pious (or pretending to be pious) doesn't exonerate one from this. If a person is so aggrieved by contrary voices, one has to question what it is that is posing such an existential threat. As John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty: “We are fallible; to deny any opinion is to assume that we are not… Even if an opinion is wrong, it may contain some element of the truth. It is only through the collision of adverse opinions that the truth has any hope of being brought to light.” The contrasting views aired in the media and other public spaces are indeed an expression of our fallibility. They are also our greatest hope of addressing that fallibility.
I’m reminded of Ayatollah Khomeini’s famously stupid comment: “There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humour in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious.” As bizarre as it may sound, Khomeini’s statement is very much at the heart of recent events. Without the freedom to laugh at oneself and one’s own ideas, and without the freedom to accept criticism with a self-deprecating smile, what's the alternative? Indignation? Rage? An urgent desire to silence any criticism? And isn’t that just egotism and arrogant posturing? Perhaps the endless uptight puritans that bark at any whiff of “offence” should show a little humility and get over themselves.
By all means, fund my laughter.