free speech in a plural society
eurozine conference of european cultural magazines
london, 27 october 2006
What should be the limits of free speech in a plural society? It is a question that has been
asked with increasing urgency over the past few years. Ten years ago, when I last
addressed a Eurozine conference, the question had a certain academic quality to it, the
The Satanic Verses
notwithstanding. The events of the past decade -
from 9/11 to the riots in France, from the London and Madrid bombings to the fury over
the publication of the Muhammed cartoons in Jyllands-Posten - have transformed the
debate about multiculturalism and made it all too murderously real.
They have also transformed liberal opinion. Twenty years ago most liberals defended
Salman Rushdie's right to publish
The Satanic Verses
despite the offence it caused many
Muslims. Today, many liberals argue that whatever may appear to be right in principle, in
practice one must appease religious and cultural sensibilities because such sensibilities
are so deeply felt. As Ian Jack, editor of
magazine has said of the pictorial
depiction of Muhammed, one must weigh 'the individual's right to exhibit or publish one'
with 'the immeasurable insult.
.. that the exercise of such a right would cause'. And for
liberals such as Jack, the avoidance of cultural pain is, in a multicultural society, more
important than what they consider to be the abstract right to freedom of expression.
Part of the problem with this whole debate is that both sides conflate two distinct notions
of multiculturalism - multiculturalism as lived experience and multiculturalism as a
political process. When most people say that multiculturalism is a good thing what they
mean is the experience of living in a society that is less insular, less homogenous, more
vibrant and cosmopolitan than before. In other words it's a case for cultural diversity,
mass immigration, open borders and open minds.
Those who advocate multiculturalism as a political process are, however, talking about
something different. Multiculturalism, they argue, requires the public recognition and
affirmation of cultural differences. We live in a world, so the argument runs, in which
there are deep-seated conflicts between cultures embodying different values, many of
which are incommensurate but all of which are valid in their own context. Social justice
requires not just that individuals are treated as political equals, but also that their cultural
beliefs are treated as equally valid, and indeed are institutionalised in the public sphere.
As the American scholar Iris Young puts it 'groups cannot be socially equal unless their
specific experience, culture and social contributions are publicly affirmed and
This conflation of lived experience and political process has proved highly invidious. On