Salman Rushdie argues against a proposal by Tony Blair’s government to introduce a ban on the “incitement to hatred on religious grounds”.
For a Singaporean used to living under a law like this, I find the issues that Britain has to grapple with now very interesting. But of course, we of the 147th place in press freedom will argue that we have special circumstances. And who can forget that old chestnut: "We last time got racial riots, ok? You never live through them, you don't know."
So where does one draw the line? Or is this a necessary compromise to achieve the other freedom, the freedom to not have my house burned down by racial riots?
The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. A fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each other’s positions. (But they don’t shoot.)
At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalise, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: people must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.