1. “You can’t shout fire in a crowded theatre.”
This hackneyed faux-truism is the Expecto Patronum of squishy liberal apologists. That is, when the going gets tough and they’re forced to do that difficult thing – defending free speech – they reach desperately for this magical formula, rather as Harry Potter does when faced with the Dementors. Once the phrase has been uttered, they seem to think, the argument has been made for them and the nasty, scary problem will go away – as no doubt the Lib Dems’ Vince Cable did when he used it in the most recent edition of BBC Question Time.
But the analogy just doesn’t work for at least three good reasons.
First, if the theatre wasn’t on fire, as seems to be implicit, why would anyone want to say it was? You just wouldn’t. Not unless you were mentally ill. So really, to observe that “you can’t shout fire in a crowded theatre” is a bit like saying “you can’t put your willy in a pit-bull’s mouth”. Trivially true. But so what?
Second, any legal restrictions there may be on shouting fire in crowded theatres which aren’t on fire have to do with protection of life and property rights. You might cause a stampede which could lead to fatalities; at best you would damage the theatre’s box office. These laws, therefore, are an expression of common consent. Not so the prescriptions on blasphemy which terrorists like the Charlie Hebdo murderers would like to impose on us. In order for them to become so, we would have all to agree that the precepts of Sharia law are something we should all obey, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Currently we don’t, though it seems to be the case that people who wheel out the “crowded theatre” aphorism think that we should.
I see that in a Daily Guardiangraph leader today the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are described as “offensive.” Was this adjective really necessary? It seems subtly to concede the case that the French cartoonists had it coming. But last time I checked “offensiveness” in the West was not a capital crime. Indeed, freedom to cause offense is surely one of the defining qualities of a mature, socially liberal culture. It’s how we explore the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable, by testing ideas – good and bad ones alike – in the crucible of debate. If people are wrong, we are free to tell them so – and explain why they are wrong. If we simply decide that some things cannot be said simply because they are “offensive” this enables aggrieved minorities to close down any argument they dislike without its ever being aired in public. This is not freedom of speech, but the opposite.
The first time I heard this justification was – bizarrely – from an old university friend of mine in the aftermath of the brutal 2004 murder of Theo Van Gogh. Sure it was jolly sad and upsetting, she argued, but frankly the guy was an outrageous provocateur who deliberately courted controversy so we should hardly be surprised that he came to a sticky end.
Wow! I never met Theo Van Gogh but I’m pretty sure that, had I asked him, he would have said that being shot in the street was not part of his life plan. Nor was it for the Charlie Hebdo team. They did what they did not, I suspect, because they wanted to but because they felt they had to. Why? Because of precisely the kind of cultural surrender they would have recognised in my university friend’s response to Theo Van Gogh’s death.
It’s a nonsense term, of course, because phobias are traditionally a fear of something irrational. But it’s also a classic example of something the progressives are forever enjoining us not to do: victim-blaming. Those millions who gathered in Paris and elsewhere yesterday at the Charlie Hebdo vigils: do we imagine that any one of them wants anything other than to live in peace and harmony with their Muslim neighbours? It’s really about time that lefty apologists like Owen Jones stopped responding to every new Islamist atrocity as if it were otherwise.
5. “Anders Breivik”
If Anders Breivik had never existed the left would have had to invent him. He is the (allegedly) right-wing bogeyman they can wheel out at every turn – as Vince Cable did on BBC Question Time – to ‘prove’ that modern terrorism is not an exclusively Islamic phenomenon. The correct response when they try to play this game is: “OK. Apart from Anders Breivik, name two more. Even one more….” (Note incidentally how Owen Jones goes for the double here: Islamophobia and Breivik)
6. “The spectre of the Far Right.”
Another favourite cliche of progressive apologists, as witness most BBC reports on the killings in Paris. Yes, all right, so it seems that most of the evidence – well, all the evidence, actually – points to the murders being the work of fanatical Islamist cells. But it never does any harm, if you’re a liberal, to spread the blame a bit by suggesting that Marine Le Pen and her resurgent Front National (aka “the spectre of the Far Right”) may have played their part in “stoking tensions…”
Oh and one more thing to be noted about “spectres”: being insubstantial, they lack the ability to kill people.
Actually, two more things: Owen Jones again. He’s gone for the treble! (“The favourite target of the Far Right in Europe is…Muslims”). Go on, my son! Back of the net!)
7. “Editorial foolishness”
This is quite similar to point 3, but let’s give a special paragraph of shame to the senior Financial Times editor Tony Barber for that disgraceful apologia for terrorist violence he published the day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims. If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo.
What Barber (and his craven ilk) don’t seem to realise is that are many, many of us out here who could produce any number of such niggling criticisms of Charlie Hebdo and who, too, secretly rather wish they’d never gone and published those bloody cartoons. But that’s really not the point. They did it to establish a principle. We may not agree with how they did it and few, if any, of us would have done it ourselves. But the principle for which they were fighting ought to be sacrosanct. Either you have free speech or you don’t. Any one trying to argue otherwise has no business being a journalist.