Free speech or “loose canon”?

It seems that recently the www is alive with a string of incidents relating to the increasing ease with which each one of us can produce and distribute content worldwide. This effect is widely cross-medium, however, the issues it raises are obviously of great importance to the literary community. While previous generations fought and won ‘free speech’ for various causes, we have entered a time when the very nature of the term has begun to be contested.

A pertinent example of this growing ability to broadcast ourselves comes in the form of self-publishing. Without again recapping the recent racism row I spoke of in an earlier article, it is safe to say that many would rather that there were more checks in place for self-publishing authors. On the other hand, part of the very nature of self-publishing is that you are paying, in part, to circumvent the rigorous screening process that many big publishers have in place, so erecting similar barriers would only be detrimental to profit for the growing number vanity presses. While some can hope for more rigorous testing – it is simply unreasonable to expect that it will happen.


In addition, mainstream publishing houses certainly will not prevent from being published items that anybody finds offensive – only those that the market majority would. They are, of course, primarily businesses and as the recent ’50 shades’ boom has shown us, if something will sell, they will publish it. It is no secret that E.L. James’ erotic novels have divided opinion but you may also have heard that a women’s group in the UK attempted to organize a book burning in protest of the abusive relationship 50 Shades exhibited. Of course, this was met with objections from many quarters and in particular a few reminders as to the frequent link between the practice of burning books and totalitarian regimes. In particular, the issue of freedom of expression was brought to the fore on the side of James and, aside from those that pointed out, somewhat flippantly, that burning the books could actually increase 50’s sales, very few supported the proposed literary bonfire.


Wearside Women in Need (the attempted book burners) were protesting in particular because they did not want young women reading the book, they wanted to constrain and if possible, halt all sales of the ‘vile’ and ‘dangerous’ work. It is interesting that they did not perform a similar protest over the wildly popular Twilight series of which 50 shades was originally a fanfiction spinoff – particularly considering that Stephanie Meyer’s books are marketed predominantly to a far younger audience. However what is really at issue is whether the Wearside Women were right to attempt to stop people from reading the book. One of the group’s goals was to have 50 Shades removed from the local library – does this constitute a more stringent application of the age-ratings system employed to prevent impressionable children from watching a film that might be damaging to them? WW believed that the message in the book was damaging to readers of all ages and, considering how insidious they perceived the book to be, some could argue that these attempted actions are similar to governments’ continued efforts to curtail the distribution of non-prescription drugs. Are the protests to the WW’s actions because they are trying to infringe upon free speech or because we don’t believe that the books pose as much of a threat as they say?


Far more political is the news of Sam Bacile’s film ‘Innocence of the Muslims’ – which not only depicted the prophet Muhammad (pboh) but consisted of insulting him and the Islamic religion in the form of a list of what Bacile referred to as ‘revelations’. As is often the case with offensive material – Bacile’s small production was slingshot to the top of internet view lists and quickly raced around the world. Unfortunately, in this instance, the film’s infamy resulted in a fatal attack on the US embassy in Libya; however this only occurred when someone found the video and dubbed it into Egyptian Arabic.

While freedom of speech seems paramount, Bacile is now the indirect cause of a death half a world away from where he made his small yet passionate reel. Who is more to blame? The man who made the offensive film or the person who translated it so that those who could be offended would understand?


An obvious response to these situations is to say that people should simply exercise more judgment when publishing their ideas, an old piece of advice that is perhaps unrealistic in application. Further is the issue of whether we would place the onus on Bacile and the translator as much if there was not large amounts of evidence of bloodshed resulting from a religious group being insulted. Perhaps we might be more in favour of censoring EL James’ erotic read if there was a group that were liable to kill someone in reaction to its contents.


Overall, I cannot condone this attitude. Encouraging everyone to attribute a special level of importance to issues that groups are willing to kill over would only increase aggressive outbursts and penalize non-violent protests. While it seems that Bacile’s production lacked foresight and a proper respect for other’s closely-held beliefs, it was his right to speak freely. A right that he retained regardless of the fact that he aimed to curtail or disparage other’s free speech. For there is the rub – to a certain extent, free speech is lawless: to be truly free, someone must be capable of trying to interfere with others. Words have great potency, even aside from the possibility of causing attacks and riots in other time zones. This is something that strong objectors to Foyt’s allegedly racist novel have come up against now that they are being contacted by anti-bullying groups. This is something that is highlighted beautifully in a recent article speaking out against twitter-bullying. This is something that anyone who has read this far down has been aware of long before I came along. With increasing ease we find we can publish our thoughts worldwide and as a lover of literature and ideas I think this is a good thing – we can never tap out the pool of ideas covering the globe. However, as my poorly-punned title suggests, there is danger associated with that. People should not be confined in what they say or write but not because of some sanctified and inviolable “right to free speech”. Rather, because there should be no question that each of us is responsible for what we produce and put out into the world. The moment we suggest that someone else should be censoring us, some of that responsibility is subtly shifted. For the sake of all that we might miss we must keep the “loose canon” but for the sake of all that we might lose we must each aim our own, and aim wisely.

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