Silence not an option in war for free speech

In any assessment of the health of free speech, a despairing reference to US president, Donald Trump, is unavoidable.

He and his unsettling Praetorians trumpet contempt for anything that celebrates the Enlightenment principle of freedom of expression and do so in a way that encourages despots, tinpot or otherwise, to silence and undermine individuals, movements, and ideas that challenge their worldview.

This big-brother gagging often comes from sources that should know better and which should have the institutional confidence to tolerate dissent, so it might be, with logic, challenged and possibly refuted.

Trump’s destructive accusations of “fake news” may seem like a vaudeville compared to, say, the crackdown of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on the women brave enough to protest against a law that makes wearing the hijab compulsory. Islamic authorities, in a display of chilling and absolute autocracy, accuse the women of being “deceived” by foreign influences in their pursuit of freedom of expression.

In another current example — there are far, far too many — of how religious belief and freedom of expression are so often at loggerheads, transgender people are fleeing the sharia-ruled Indonesian province of Aceh to escape murderous homophobia. This exodus comes in the week their national parliament proposed criminalising gay sex and all extramarital sex. Freedom of expression, indeed.

Islam is not the only religion to try to avert challenge by silencing dissent. The Vatican has blackballed former president Mary McAleese, excluding her from an International Women’s Day — March 8 — conference planned for the Holy See.

The inclusion of Mrs McAleese, and two other speakers, in the ‘Why Women Matter’ event, was opposed by Cardinal Kevin Farrell, a Dubliner who spent most of his working life in America and who is the senior Irishman at the Vatican. The conference will be moved beyond the Vatican’s frontiers and Mrs McAleese will be the keynote speaker, rather than a panellist, as was planned. A veto becomes a valediction.

Yesterday afternoon, the odious Nigel Farage addressed Trinity College’s Historical Society, despite objections voiced by 23 members, including three former auditors. If the education now offered at Trinity — the university that so celebrates Edmund Burke — or at any other Irish university, is now so feeble, so very watery, that its students might be seduced by this nasty, small-minded blowhard, then we are in real trouble. Far better to let Farage howl at the moon, rather than make him a victim by silencing him.

Free speech — Je Suis Charlie — is challenged in many ways. Especially, if, like Israel, you twist words to serve your needs, rather than the truth. That country’s foolish dismissal of criticism of Zionist imperialism as anti-Semitism truly dishonours the real victims of anti-Semitism. How sad. But the necessity for free speech must be matched by a capacity to rebuff hate speech.

Those who cherish free speech have an obligation to inform themselves in a way that will allow them to refute Trump, Farage, the Revolutionary Guards, and any other dangerous autocrats. Silence, imposed or otherwise, is not an option

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