Today I take issue with my old friend William Crawley, who uses the opportunity of the Oxford Union free speech debate to raise another issue of free speech:

“Into the mix of questions about what limits we should place on public speech, let’s add this: ‘Hang chi chi gal wid a long piece of rope’. That’s part of a lyric from the song ‘Hang ‘em High’ by the Jamaican Reggae artist Beenie Man, which was until recently available in many highstreet music shops. Roughly translated, this reads: ‘Hang lesbians with a long piece of rope.'”

“Amnesty International reports that gay men and women in Jamaica have been ‘beaten, cut, burned, raped and shot on account of their sexuality’, so this debate is not merely about lyricism. Until [a] degree of self-censorship is universal, we are entitled to ask why songs celebrating the murder of lesbians or gay men should even be available [in] shops.”

If William is asking why the owners of the record store are selling that kind of music, that’s a legitimate question (though it’s worthwhile pointing out that all kinds of music exist with all kinds of sentiments, any of which are offensive to somebody). If he’s asking why ‘society’ permits it, then it’s a matter of freedom, and Will is right to say that it goes to the heart of the issue of public speech, an issue on which I sense we disagree. In response to his question of what limits we should place on public speech, I say there is no justifiable limit to free speech.

Homophobic is a cretinous, pathetic and occasionally aggressive and dangerous position. Still, while we may not like everything that everybody has to say, the idea that ‘we’ can shut people up for saying things we don’t like means that there’s a ‘we’ in the equation to begin with; a collective will, based on a universal morality of some derivation that can, through majority rule, silence minority voices which dissent.

There will always be unpalatable voices in society, but to silence them by force is a breach of the very principle which permits progress on these issues in the first place: the ability to speak freely. As Charles Bradlaugh said, “Without free speech no search for truth is possible … no discovery of truth is useful … Better a thousandfold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial slays the life of the people, and entombs the hope of the race.”

Rights don’t exist at the collective level; they exist at the individual level or not at all. And, by the way, these rights are taken into government by individuals; they’re not what government gives individuals to take out. They’re what the founders of the United States called “inalienable”, which means the matter under discussion should not be about whether or not to allow the sale of anti-gay material but instead about how to protect the rights of gays to be gay and equally the rights of homophobes to be homophobic. There are people who don’t like one or the other, or both. But that’s irrelevant to any discussion about policy: policy exists to protect both free speech and free sexuality.

And of course an endorsement of the right to be homophobic is no endorsement of homophobia: as Hubert Horatio Humphrey once said, “The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously.” We must get past this idea that permitting something in law is the same thing as approving of the thing being permitted. Both conservatives and liberals are guilty of this in some measure. We must defend the rights of homophobes to utter reprehensible statements against gay people, not because we approve of them or their statements, but because those rights are theirs, inalienably, whether we like what they use them for or not.

How does this look in practice? Well it means that we must allow people to sing about their hatred for others, allow them to record and sell it, and allow others to buy and listen to it. On the other hand it means that we must allow gay people to be gay, in public, without censorship and with equal rights. As an aside, I’m surprised that anyone thinks homophobia would be prevented by silencing homophobic lyrics. Clearly the homophobia existed already, and both anti-gay lyrics and physical attacks are its manifestation. How we have so quickly concluded that one derives from the other I’m not quite sure. Quite frankly, this strikes me as being the perfect means by which those who are truly responsible for physical attacks against gay people can be let off the hook: blame the music they heard rather than themselves. Of course freedom from physical force is a right too. Once a homophobe attacks a gay person physically, they should be prosecuted severely and without apology. This includes the mere threat of physical force, or intimidation.

But ironically, it is precisely the threat of physical force that government itself uses to ensure its laws are followed; laws like the one that would prevent anti-gay music being sold in record stores (per the implication of William’s parting thought). If it is wrong to coerce a gay person physically for being gay, then it is also wrong to coerce a homophobe physically for speaking his mind about homosexuality. This fundamental rule applies to government/society/the collective equally as it does the individual. All rights must be protected universally.

It is a disaster if we don’t uphold free speech of even the most abhorrent variety. Noam Chomsky was right: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”


UPDATE: 12/13/2007

After chatting with Will about this, it appears he would agree with much of what I say above. Where he wishes to draw the line (and where I think I’d agree) is at direct incitement to violence. I’ve argued that I don’t believe Beenie Man lyrics constitute incitement, and Will thinks there’s a chance a court of law may have the opportunity to rule on such a question in the near future.