by Stephen Tall on December 21, 2014
Conservative secretary of state for culture
Reason: for his unapologetic defence of freedom of expression
Freedom of expression is a pretty fundamental tenet of liberalism, one which has been under attack throughout 2014 — from the brutal censorship and propaganda of repressive regimes like Russia and North Korea, to the unpleasant baying of the permanently outraged Twitter-mob at the latest cause célèbre du jour to have triggered their ire.
JS Mill pointed out why freedom of expression — and in particular those expressions with which we fundamentally disagree — need to be protected for all our sakes. To censor is to shut down open discussion. It is an assumption of the utmost arrogance, founded in the belief of our own infallibility, preventing ourselves and others from hearing dissenting views:
If a forbidden opinion is true, we lose the opportunity to learn of its truth. If a forbidden opinion is false, we lose the opportunity to remind ourselves why it is false. (Brendan Larvor, On Liberty of Thought and Discussion)
An open, democratic society should tolerate all kinds of views, even and especially those we ourselves find objectionable. But the tendency — true both of malign governments and benign activists — is to want to bear down on those they disagree with. Always for the greater good, of course, but always at the expense of someone else’s freedom of expression.
So it was refreshing this week to hear a cabinet minister put forward a passionate case for freedom of expression, without caveat or cavil. One day, I hope I’ll hear such a speech from a Lib Dem minister. But in the meantime, it’s right to acknowledge Conservative culture secretary Sajid Javid’s trenchant defence in his address to the Union of Jewish Students’ Annual Conference — here’s an excerpt:
We are British, but we express that Britishness in many different ways. And the diversity of our daily life is reflected in the diversity of our art. That’s what art is for, after all. It tells us who we are. Shows us our strengths and weaknesses. Celebrates our better natures and shines a light on the darker corners of our lives. Ultimately it’s about understanding and expressing what it means to be human. But that cannot happen if art is censored. …
Sadly, not everyone agrees. This summer, for the first time in the near 70-year history of the Edinburgh Festival, a performance was cancelled because of political pressure and threats of violence. Dozens of protesters picketed the venue where a play called The City was being staged. Witnesses spoke of demonstrators screaming abuse at children of 12 and 14. The police said they could not guarantee the safety of the performers or of the audience. The play didn’t contain offensive material. It wasn’t inciting hatred, or pushing a political agenda. It was simply an innovative musical telling an old-fashioned detective story. The protesters were demanding that it be censored for one reason and one reason only. The theatre company behind The City had received some funding from the Israeli government.
A month later the Tricycle Theatre, just a few miles from here, announced that the internationally respected UK Jewish Film Festival was no longer welcome. Why? Because the organisers had accepted a small grant – less than £1,500 – from the Israeli embassy. Neither grant came with political conditions attached. Just as when the Arts Council awards funding to UK artists, there were no attempts to dictate content or censor views. Yet the connection to Israel was enough. The protesters came out and the shutters came down.
The moment I heard about the Tricycle ban I knew I couldn’t just let it go. It’s completely unacceptable for a theatre to act in this way, and I didn’t shy away from telling its directors that. And I’m pleased to say that, after lengthy discussions, the Tricycle and the UK Jewish Film Festival have resolved their differences. This story, at least, has a happy ending.
But the problem continues elsewhere. As I’m sure you’re all aware, there’s an increasingly vocal campaign for a full-scale cultural boycott of Israel. It’s a campaign I have no time for, and there’s a very simple reason why. Last month I spoke at a conference for newspaper editors. I was talking about the various attacks on media freedom that we’ve seen recently. The so-called right to be forgotten, for example. And the use of anti-terror legislation against journalists. And I told them that I believe the free press is an absolute concept. Something you support 100 per cent or not at all. That you just can’t say “I believe in media freedom, but…”
The same is true of art and culture. It simply doesn’t make sense to say “I believe in freedom of artistic expression, but…” Yet that’s exactly what we’re hearing, including from some voices at the National Union of Students.
“I believe in artistic freedom, but only for people whose politics I agree with.”
“I believe in artistic freedom, but only if it’s not backed by Israel.”
“I believe in artistic freedom, but not for Jews.”
Let me be very clear – I don’t believe in artistic and cultural boycotts. Nor, I’m proud to say, does my party. As we have said many times, a cultural boycott would achieve nothing. It would be needlessly divisive, and would run counter to the long history of cultural freedom that this country holds dear.
Britain is currently leading the way in imposing economic sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. But that’s not a reason to stop the British Museum loaning part of the Parthenon Sculptures to a museum in St Petersburg. Because culture is bigger than politics. It should rise above what divides us, not be used to create that division. It should be used to build understanding, not incite hatred.
We don’t have to like an artist. We don’t have to support them. We even have every right to peacefully protest against them if we want to. But silencing artists, denying their freedom of expression? That is simply wrong.
It was wrong when Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti came under siege from members of the Sikh community. It was wrong when Christian groups tried to drive Jerry Springer The Musical off the stage. And it’s wrong when Jewish artists are targeted simply because of their connection to Israel. A century ago William Howard Taft called anti-Semitism a “Noxious weed”. A century later, I don’t want to see that weed taking root in any aspect of British life. …
.. by all means disagree about art and culture. I want you to debate it, discuss it, defend it and decry it. But whatever you think of an artist’s work, you must never allow them to be silenced by the politics of prejudice.
You can read his speech in full here. I think JS Mill would’ve liked it.
* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.