November 6, 2006

Freedom of Expression or Freedom to Offend?

A couple of stories from the theaters of arts and science exemplify the difficulty in sorting between the two. The Stage, an online magazine for the entertainment industry, is co-sponsoring with Equity, a one-day conference on what it perceives to be a growing threat to freedom of expression in theatrical productions in the U.K. and elsewhere. Lisa Appignanesi, an outspoken campaigner for freedom of expression, and a panelist in the proposed conference commented,
“Offence is an easy emotion. Religious offence of the kind expressed by the Sikhs protesting against Behzti or the small Brick Lane group against the film of Monica Ali’s book or the evangelicals against Jerry Springer - the Opera, has as much to do with power politics as it does with faith. It is important once more that we stand up for artistic freedom. In societies where artistic freedom goes, most of the others follow after.”

In a different context, the London School of Economics and Political Science has defended the right to publish controversial research as essential to academic freedom. One of its lecturers, Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist, has been accused of eugenics and racist stereotyping, after he published a paper that finds "low IQ levels, rather than poverty and disease, are the reason why life expectancy is low and infant mortality high" in several African countries.

When does freedom of expression become freedom to offend? Is verbal violence as much of a transgression of individual rights as physical violence? Does one have a right to sensibility? If I opened the front page of Google News, and a top story headline screams that the rational fool is a f&#*ing idiot, are my rights violated in any way? Can Google indemnify itself with a warning similar to the one that is displayed at the top of the right sidebar in this page, even if it did not have to?

The power of words to hurt is unquestionable, but censorship of ideas is a cure that's worse than the illness, alleged or real.

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