Be reasonable: free speech, and what multiculturalism is not

Posted: January 8, 2015 in politics and ideas
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The immediate aftermath of a tragedy is rarely characterised by nuanced, thoughtful discussion. Of course not; people feel angry, hurt, confused and disgusted, and those emotions are difficult to cut through. And so, naturally, the chilling Charlie Hebdo massacre has prompted a number of decent, horrified commentators to write from the heart about the political-cultural context of the murders.

I want to disentangle some of the assumptions that have informed much of the public discussion so far. The horror of the killings is so overwhelming that some important distinctions are in danger of being neglected. In what follows I will try to make some sense of the complex interplay of multiculturalism, liberalism, and the public and private spheres in debates about contemporary Islam.

Britain and France; or what multiculturalism is not

Britain is not France. France is a secular republic, and since 1905 (in the aftermath of the Dreyfuss Affair) there has been a strict separation of faith and the state. This is why you see stories in the news from time to time about children being forced to remove Christian crosses at school, or girls being required to remove the niqab. In the domain of the French state there is no place for faith. You leave your faith at the door and act within the public sphere as a citizen, shorn of your religious constitutive attachments.

This has the benefit, regularly asserted, of ensuring that all French citizens, regardless of their cultural inheritance, have the same opportunity to participate in French public life. The downside is that some people really believe in their religion, and feel a sense of loss (or worse) when they are forbidden from observing particular elements of their faith.

By contrast, Britain has generally managed cultural pluralism by means of Race Relations legislation. The British approach has, on the whole, been pragmatic, and based on minimising the potential for religious difference to prove a social flashpoint. As such, religious adherents are pretty much permitted to wear what they want in terms of their faith traditions, while provision is made to enable observance of prayers and so on.

Neither Britain nor France is a multicultural country. This sentence may well surprise you, but in technical terms it is true. The word ‘multiculturalism’ is used wrongly all the time. This is perhaps academic hair-splitting, and maybe academics should stop using the word in its technical sense if no one else recognises it, but I’ll unpick the terminology anyway.

When people talk about multiculturalism, they mean cultural pluralism or diversity: the co-existence of different cultural groups within a single political territory. More specifically, I think they mean the American melting pot idea of diverse cultural groups living together and intermixing. The logic of this social policy is that cultures are fluid – or, in other words, that it is okay for someone to mix with people, ideas, cuisine and attire that are different from their own background culture.

Multiculturalism, properly defined, is pretty much the opposite of this. Multiculturalism treats culture very seriously indeed, and sees a culture as something firmly delineated from other cultures. The assumption is that people will live most authentically within their own cultural context, so measures should be put in place to enable a culture to manage itself. I spent some time this autumn in Brooklyn, New York, and stayed in a hotel in a Hasidic Jewish area. This section of the city was settled solely by Hasidic Jews. The local community had its own separate fire, ambulance and police service. I won’t speculate on the power of the Synagogue, but suffice to say you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of its senior officers. Moreover, as a result of its monopoly on economic rights, the entire area went into shutdown for the Shabbat, That’s multiculturalism.

In practice, most societies manage diversity on a pragmatic basis, somewhere between the melting pot and strict multiculturalism. The British race relations policy has permitted certain concessions to cultural groups, which is a slightly multicultural position – faith schools are the most obvious example, but remember also more trivial things like excusing Sikhs from the legal requirement to wear a helmet when riding a motorbike. At the same time, the British state does not actively seek to create a melting pot, but rather passes legislation against incitement to religious or racial hatred in order to defend the ability of people from minority groups to participate in the public sphere. In other words, the British approach has been to ensure people aren’t actively discriminated against (however imperfectly this has been realised), while granting educational rights to cultural groups to enable their culture to reproduce itself.

By contrast, France is something else again: a strictly liberal-secular country. Cultural groups are not permitted under any circumstances to bring their cultural attachments with them into the public sphere. As such, it is certainly not a multicultural society: it is a monocultural society in social policy terms (the sole culture is the culture of liberal secularism in public life). But by requiring people to efface their cultural attachments when they act in public, the French state does not promote a melting pot either.

To draw this together, you have multiculturalism as extreme separateness at one end of the spectrum, and the melting pot at the other. Multiculturalism assumes culture is destiny, while the melting pot assumes you can slip in and out of cultures – that cultures are basically lifestyles. In between, France imposes liberal secularism on every citizen as the condition and assurance of equality, while Britain adopts a pragmatic approach to preventing diversity becoming an issue.

The reason I’ve gone into detail about this stuff is because much of the discussion of the Charlie Hebdo massacre is premised on Britain being more like France than it actually is. In Britain we don’t require people to leave their culture at the door, and in fact our state goes substantially further than the French state in supporting members of cultural groups to experience their culture as an authentic part of their lives. (Or supporting the ability of the elders of cultural groups to maintain their grip on the young, if you prefer). As such, the position of liberal secularism is necessarily different in British society as contrasted with France, which has implications for free speech.

Taking liberties

You won’t meet too many people who self-identify as opponents of free speech, but in reality almost no one would advocate it as an absolute right. If we think of words as speech acts, we recognise that words have consequences just like physical actions and must be governed accordingly.

The classic example of this is the prohibition on shouting ‘FIRE’ in a packed theatre, because it will cause a panicked crush. In Britain we have legislation against incitement to religious and racial hatred, because we recognise that such speech acts damage people. This is perfectly coherent with liberal theory; think for example of JS Mill’s ‘harm principle’ by which people are free to do anything as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. If you racially abuse someone you are harming them, so you are not free to speak in such a way. Or so the argument goes.

It might be argued, however, that this goes against the spirit if not the letter of liberal theory in other ways. Mill himself argued for free speech on the basis that bad ideas will eventually be defeated by good ones. This is the argument for giving UKIP a platform – the exposure of their policies in debate will lead to the party being discredited.

This is to conceptualise ideas and values as participants in a meritocratic marketplace.

More subtly, John Rawls updated liberal theory in the 20th century with his idea of ‘conceptions of the good’. This is his phrase for people’s background cultural contexts – or people’s worldviews as shaped by their deepest cultural attachments.

One person might be a communist, another a Christian, another an atheist, or a Muslim, or a liberal – or a combination of things. Crucially, Rawls argues that there has to be something in the middle of the Venn diagram between all of the competing conceptions of the good that enables different people to interact in the public sphere.

To explain, if you got the Christian, the Muslim, the liberal, the athiest and the communist together in a room, how could they find common ground? For Rawls, this is about public reasonableness and pragmatic toleration. I recognise that my conception of the good (or deepest cultural attachments) will be respected as long as I respect other people’s. By contrast, if I assert the sole truth of my worldview, other people will do the same and we’ll all lose.

To put this into practice, we are required to adopt certain behaviours in the public sphere, in order that all conceptions of the good can be respected. These are procedural values, and essentially come down to not demanding that everyone else accepts your every demand on the basis that it’s your faith or worldview – because you recognise that everyone else has firmly held views too.

The only trouble with this model is that it requires you to respect other worldviews even if it is your firmly-held view that everyone else is going to hell. To put this another way, if you really, really believe in the truth of your worldview, how are you supposed to then be sanguine when other people – wrong people – assert their own worldview? A worldview which is blasphemous to you?

And underlying this dilemma is a key point that is being lost in the current public discussion.

We don’t notice that we too have a conception of the good, not just the crazy people we disagree with. We forget that our liberalism is a cultural position. We assume that the public sphere is indeed a marketplace for ideas, or a domain for different conceptions of the good to find what’s common to them. That’s because that what liberals think – that is our worldview, our conception of the good. The very idea that people with different conceptions of the good can negotiate reflects a vision of the world that is not natural, but rather a construction of liberal society. So we’re expecting non-liberal people to accept the rules of a game set by liberals.

To put this bluntly, the prevailing liberal view holds that an image of the Prophet is the same as an image of, say, Ed Miliband struggling to eat a sandwich. But, if you accept the truth of the Koran, it’s not. It might be to a liberal, but it’s not to a Muslim.

I would encourage the reader to put the Charlie Hebdo massacre out of her mind for the purposes of this discussion. No good can come from thinking about it; it’s too awful. Let’s think instead about the other 99.999% of Muslims who don’t go on murderous rampages.

If your conception of the good, your worldview, your deepest and most taken for granted cultural assumptions, are such that it is blasphemous to depict the Prophet in an image – then what are you to make of someone who goes ahead and depicts the Prophet in an image?

I don’t think liberals (and I obviously include myself in this) can possibly understand what that must be like. Because the very structures of liberal thought convince us that everything is up for discussion, whereas other worldviews are not founded on such equivalence.

Public reasonableness

Which brings us back to people drawing cartoons of the Prophet. There was an intriguing passage on Channel 4 News last night that illustrated much of what is at stake here. In Alex Thomson’s context and analysis piece on the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it was noted that the Channel 4 News editorial line is not to broadcast cartoons that depict the Prophet. Shortly afterwards, Douglas Murray of the Spectator rehearsed (while not quite advocating) the idea that news organisations were cowardly and lacking in solidarity if they did not share the notorious Danish cartoons back in 2005.

Meanwhile, Alex Massie mused similarly on the question of media being scared in his (in many ways excellent) Spectator blog yesterday. Nick Cohen then put the case for publishing blasphemous cartoons much more strongly today in, again, the Spectator, while condemning a Financial Times editorial that hinted at the position I’m unfolding here.

Let’s think about this in terms of the multiculturalism-melting pot spectrum. The logical position in a multicultural society would be to give cultural groups the right to ban behaviours they find offensive. By contrast, the melting pot idea is that people’s cultural attachments are held lightly, so no one should really get offended about anything. Let them publish what they like, it’s not that big a deal.

The French secular public sphere is premised on everyone leaving their culture at home, so it’s probably consistent with the deep French self-understanding to permit any speech (or drawings) about religion and protect the right of people to say those words (or draw those pictures) in the public sphere. In France, no one was being attacked in print on a basis that was meaningful in terms of their citizenship, because religious views are irrelevant to citizenship in France.

But in Britain? Our long-standing pragmatic approach is surely expressed by the Channel 4 News position, rather than the views of the Spectator writers. In Britain we give cultural groups a degree of protection, through anti-discrimination and anti-hate speech legislation, and some positive resources to enable their culture to flourish, such as faith schools. People’s cultures are recognised as important to them, while social order is prioritised over upholding abstract goods such as public secularism. In other words. the prevailing mood is that one should not go out of one’s way to insult people, purely to prove a point about free speech.

But where does this leave free speech? Well, I don’t agree that British media outlets have been cowardly by refusing to publish blasphemous cartoons. They have adopted a position based on public reasonableness. Surely you can decide something is unworthy of being said, without being accused of self-censorship.

Again, let me stress that I make these points in relation to the 99.999% of Muslims who are not murderers. The Charlie Hebdo massacre is utterly unconscionable; utterly. I just worry that well-meaning people are showing their disgust at this terrible crime by advocating behaviours that will offend ordinary Muslims.

The horror of the crime in Paris yesterday still doesn’t make it reasonable to publish cartoons that deliberately insult the deepest-held principles of Islam. In a liberal society it is not cowardly to choose not to insult people. It is an expression of maturity and shared humanity. By opting not to depict the Prophet, we express our respect for something that we ourselves cannot understand. To me that is an act of imaginative, humble kindness towards Muslims, not an act borne out of fear. Here in Britain, we need more of this sort of kindness, not less.

Terrorism aims at eradicating nuance and enforcing extreme positions. Don’t let these murderers push you into justifying any and all speech acts, because speech acts can hurt people too.

  1. Hi ian man – thinking there is some interesting and relevant stuff around the notion of intercommunalism (See chapter 5 in this –

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In light of this atrocity, there is a wider and possibly more problematic context we have to struggle within in relation to culture, faith, multiculturalism and national agendas. The national context of the UK or France provides a (theoretically) open environment for people of any background. These two countries are finding such small eruptions of terror to be, of course, horrendous and heinous crimes. In the last 20 years the wars and occupations, torture scandals and killings of Western wars have manifested themselves on a gargantuan scale. It is no surprise that free speech is of no consequence to some radicalised individuals. As a societal norm, free speech barely merits a second glance for those people turned to extremism by ideological wars of choice. And Ian, you are quite right to highlight that there is no guarantee of shared values within the precincts of a republic.

    The problem with murderers is not their religious denomination; it’s the fact that they want to kill people. I argue, as you do Ian, that you would find it very difficult to persuade a devout person to translate their rage into murderous intent – unless, I say, they were already psychopathic. A tiny minority of people in any society can take their anger or alienation and transform it into the desire to kill. Soldiers must be persuaded of the moral superiority of their crusade in order to make them kill; most will not become a killing machine just by virtue of being the custodian of a gun. In Northern Ireland, some of the people who combined ideology, history and political rage to form a justification for killing innocents were simply killers seeking a cause to excuse behaviours they wanted to enact anyway.

    As for concealing offensive opinions or expressions, I would say that if an ideology or belief system cannot accommodate open debate then it is inherently weak. Nothing wrong with that of course; but very few people will then take offence to the nth degree and want to take up arms. I would be surprised if Buddhists reached for weapons just because someone called Buddha “small, fat and bald”. There is a political, economic, psychological and cultural milieu to this atrocity which defies the media angle of “Islamic militant rampage” or “assault on free speech”.

    This crime had to have a political context imposed on it, otherwise it would simply have seemed to be nothing more than psychopathic. It may have caused even greater anguish and grief if a nursery school had been targeted. That would only have provided a reason to dismiss the murderers as insane, aberrant butchers. By targeting individuals who have moral agency, creative expressiveness, political value and a symbolic relationship to the protected freedoms of a Western state, the murderers have elevated themselves beyond barbarism. They may be psychopathic, but they are not stupid.

    Few people are concerned now only with the awful, tragic deaths of 13 people; most are focused on a constructed cultural clash which seemingly erodes the very foundations of our society. Free speech will not suffer because of this, it will grow stronger. I hope people will use common sense to scrutinise what free speech really means. I don’t consider I have the right to say whatever I want, regardless of the offence it causes; I don’t want to offend ordinary people even if I disagree with them. But when it comes to the powerful – religions, entitled individuals, politicians – I say criticise powerful institutions and force them to account for their actions, utterances and beliefs, with extreme prejudice. Mock them, even, but choose intelligently how to make your point. Expressing any possible viewpoint simply because you have the right to do so is not an intelligent course of action.

    Synecdoche is a problem here, and faulty generalisation. All Muslims are not represented by the concept of “Islam” and yet a small number will take violent offence at criticism of, or attacks upon, Islamic targets. Similarly, the idea of “an attack on one is an attack on all” leads Westerners to express “Je suis Charlie”, when we really are not, no matter how sympathetic we may feel. Very few of us ever knowingly took the risk of using journalistic freedom to bait people who made formal death threats.

    In response, our right-wing politicians will indulge in faulty generalisations to attribute blame on all peaceful Muslims simply by dint of their religious belief – Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen have already done so. It can’t be denied that a few loose cannons will engender terror in our societies by committing these acts. Am I worried they’ll kill me? No. I am worried, though, by UKIP, Front National, Pegida. They can easily kill my society, slowly, from within.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Clicky Steve says:

    Very interesting, again. I’m glad you spoke about this angle as it’s something few people are. The cartoons sought to be offensive, and wouldn’t normally have been shared by many people. Though I guess that’s the point; this isn’t the normative scenario – it’s almost the definition of the exception. People are doing what they wouldn’t normally in order to make a particular point. (Not all obviously, but for these purposes).

    The newspapers are different of course. One of the things I took from the cowardice discussions was not just that they didn’t want to publish the cartoons today, but failed to stand up to pressure in the past as well – legitimising the approach of violence as a threat to silence.

    For me, on one hand I want to publish the pictures myself to make a specific point, but on the other hand I’m not sure if doing it just for the sake of it achieves much after the fact. The power of it then isn’t about the satire or what it represents, it becomes about a mass blunt instrument that risks alienating the wider Muslim community because of the actions of the few. Maybe they don’t ‘win’ by forcing us to not re publish these materials, but by getting everybody to re publish materials considered offensive that they normally wouldn’t do out of respect for other people. I don’t know. What’s really awful is that these people died in such a terrible way for offending somebody else. It’s almost not even about freedom of speech at that point, but more about morality and a denunciation of violence.

    This ended up being way longer than I thought, and I’m on my phone. Forgive the typos. Interestingly enough, I am about as close as you can get to a freedom of speech absolutist… But that’s a discussion for another time.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Adam Collyer says:

    Love your sentence about UKIP. Imagine that allowing UKIP to speak would not discredit them. Would you then want them silenced? Or is there another reason for giving us “a platform” as you put it – namely that the right to free speech matters?

    I agree with you that the British press were right not to republish those cartoons. But I also firmly believe that Charlie Hebdo had the right to publish them. This is the difference between rights and duties. We have the right to free speech – but also a duty not to misuse that right. Those who misuse that right, those who do not follow their duty to use it responsibly, do not lose the right.

    The right to free speech is the same as the right to free thought. Without it, we lose freedom itself. Completely.

    You talk about people not having the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre. You are wrong. People do have such a right (morally). But they are failing in their duty if they misuse that right by shouting “fire”.

    What about multiculturalism then? You are right that it causes confusion – it has two commonly used meanings that are nearly the opposite of each other. For me, this all again comes back to freedom. People ought to have the right to pursue their own cultural identity – but we all have a duty to engage with other cultures, to find out more about them, to interact with people among us who have other cultures, other ideas and other religions. When we do so, we find ourselves absorbing those other people’s ideas, and our cultures end up merging together – in other words, we find that the melting pot arises. That enriches all our lives, and makes our society itself much stronger.

    The confusion between rights and duties has characterised Left-wing thought for a very long time – and has been the cause of a great deal of suffering.


  5. Arthur Ransome says:

    Ian, have you seen this? I found it interesting and I think you might too –


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