Pop Culture
Oct 21, 2008, 07:09AM

The Dilemna of Free Speech

The 2004 brutal murder of Theo van Gogh, a respected (and controversial) filmmaker and great grandnephew of Vincent van Gogh, was the foundation for a long-term discussion over free speech, hate speech and when artistic expression blurs the two.

An old article, from 2006, that sums up the philosophical/ideological conundrum nicely:

Implicit in the criticism of both Rushdie and Van Gogh was that their artistic expression had caused harm, and as such they were partially or fully to blame for their predicament. Instead of victims, they became perpetrators, instigators of malicious psychic wounding. Consider the words of S. Nomanul Huq, a tutor at Harvard University, writing in the New York Times: Mr. Rushdie, you have cut them and they are bleeding: Do something quickly to heal the wound. He was not alone in expressing such sentiment; Rushdie’s detractors, in one form or another, all suggested that he should voluntarily pulp his book and apologize for causing offence, either because he had insulted the religious, or because he was putting the lives of others at risk, or because the whole thing was just too damn messy. Likewise with Van Gogh; he should not have released Submission in such a charged political climate, because surely he should have foreseen that the reaction would be heated.


To promote and defend does not mean that artists have to become free speech fundamentalists, or provocateurs, nor does it mean that sensitivity should be deliberately shunned. It would be foolish not to recognize that the artistic debate mirrors a similar cultural and political conflict, one that is easily inflamed. But we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that a strident defence of blasphemous art in general, and Van Gogh and Submission in particular, is a case of ‘Western’ cultural intransigence. The defence of artistic expression is cross-culturally applicable because the figure of the artist is universal. It is not that we have to deify the artist or exaggerate the importance of art, or manufacture countless demands on the behalf of the artist. One will suffice, neatly encapsulated by article 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. If we, as a community of performers, are to extricate some general principle from the Van Gogh affair, then we would do well to heed the words of Geoffrey Robertson: ‘Freedom of expression, a principle of greater importance than the examples by which it must be defended’.


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