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Hitchens on freedom of speech

A propos of my recent flurry of posts on freedom of speech, here is Christopher Hitchens on the subject. Some lessons in there for Lord Deben and Bob Ward I would say.

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Reader Comments (36)

An excellent speech. There are many areas in today's world where the consensus cannot be challenged....
HIV as the cause of AIDS - denying the link is tabu
6 million Jews killed in the second world war - questioning the number is tabu
the list goes on and on. We live in an age of fear, driven by the dumb mob. Few people question anything in our society.

Jan 12, 2015 at 12:40 PM | Unregistered Commenterkevin king

Thanks for the link.
I miss Christopher Hitchens!
He was irreverent, annoying and egotistical, but boy could he get to the heart of an issue. He could separate out principle from hypocrisy and cant. When he shouted fire in a crowded theatre, it was because there was at least smoke, if not a raging inferno. He threw his verbal hand grenades with devastating effect.
He was at his best when arguing for free speech, skewering organized religion and lampooning political correctness. The events in Paris make his worldview extremely relevant. He would agree with Rupert Murdoch on the responsibility of all Muslims for the actions of the fanatical minority, just like all Catholics bear responsibility for the pederasty of a minority of clergy. This is well worth twenty minutes of your time:

Jan 12, 2015 at 12:49 PM | Unregistered Commenterbernie1815

Christopher Hitchens makes better viewing over any number of climate 'experts' that were offered up last week. A man who got to the nub of an issue with uncompromising accuracy, in the process often causing his protagonists great discomfort. A sure sign he was onto something. Men of his calibre are few and far between. Greatly missed.

Jan 12, 2015 at 12:53 PM | Unregistered Commentercheshirered

One of our greatest losses.

Jan 12, 2015 at 1:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

Christopher Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday yesterday here.

Jan 12, 2015 at 2:18 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

As American Universities (publicly funded even so-called private schools) continue their illiberal lemming march into overt suppression, and as publicly funded media worldwide continue to be echo chambers for whatever their funding masters happen to like at the time, it is good to hear from the late Hitchens on the topic of freedom of expression.
May God rest his atheist soul.

Jan 12, 2015 at 2:19 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

I'd bet that there are any number of warmists who would agree with every word he said but think sceptics were a special exception because climate change is so important. Equally I'd bet there were issues all of us would say 'woooaah, too far.' Letting PIE expound their theories about sex with children for example. If we allow them to openly discuss their perversions, what good does it do? It doesn’t make the majority of us think more deeply about the issue but it could tip someone over from thinker to doer. And if we allow people to discuss such things openly then where does it stop? Should adults be able to talk to kids about it? Or even just talk dirty? By that point most of us are sure that ‘free speech’ has limits.

Similarly, turning a blind eye to Muslim hate preachers because it’s their right to speak just lets them make new converts. Just by choosing to listen to extremism, people have already made up their mind and are just looking for justification. Bad thoughts/behaviour feeds on peer support.

Which is exactly what could be said of sceptics. Except AGW is not an issue that has a long history of debate. There’s been no opportunity for society to decide where the line of right and wrong should be drawn in the sand. A perfect example of how society hasn’t even scratched the surface is the current calls from Milliband and Osbourne demanding the oil companies pass the crude price falls on to the public. In a world that gives a flip about CO2, surely the price should stay the same and the taxes rise?

We can all fear that we could be unfairly silenced but free speech is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Jan 12, 2015 at 2:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Philip Bratby, You meant Peter HIggins, not Christopher. Are they related, by the way?


Jan 12, 2015 at 2:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Ratliffe

I disagree Tiny, I would rather orgs like PIE says what it says out loud instead of it going underground, to the seedy underground where it all happens anyway but there's nobody looking. Same thing applies to radicalism in religion. You're not stopping it by banning, just sending it somewhere less easy to see and challenge.

Also the idea that freedom of speech means freedom to expose everyone to your speech is a misdirection. The example of adults talking about sex to children is trivial - adults should be allowed to say what they want as long as it's in a venue where children are not permitted. That's not censoring the speaker, that's censoring the audience, and should be part of every parent's duty.

Once in adulthood, there should be nothing that anyone should be banned from hearing or saying.

Jan 12, 2015 at 2:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

Well, obviously, I'm somewhat upset by his comment about Yorkshire...

Jan 12, 2015 at 2:52 PM | Registered CommenterSimon Hopkinson

Peter and Christopher were brothers. Occasionally estranged, divided by politics.

And isn't it the alarmists who are precisely shouting fire in the proverbial theatre, based on a CO2 measurement and a model rather than a smell of smoke?

Jan 12, 2015 at 3:13 PM | Unregistered Commenterrhoda

Anthony Ratcliffe: My mistake, I meant Peter Hitchens. He is Christopher's younger brother.

Jan 12, 2015 at 3:15 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

Jan 12, 2015 at 2:27 PM | TinyCO2

You have successfully argued the falsity of your own point.

Jan 12, 2015 at 4:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve Jones

Moore (Man for all Seasons) was not arguing with his Prosecutor, he was discussing the law and the Devil with Richard Rich, who would later betray the great man's trust (...but for Wales, Richard, for Wales? [sigh]). Hitchens builds his arguments on these kinds of rhetorical flourishes - which in lesser men is called exaggeration - but overall provokes us to stretch the 'pre-frontal lobe' (you have to have watched the pitch).

He obviously keeps a very open mind, even finding something of merit in (historian) Irving's works, which says to me that even if a man is a pariah it does not mean that everything he says is wrong: it says, 'listen', you may just hear something that improves.

Jan 12, 2015 at 4:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Passfield

....and that's why I tend to read what Trolls have to say. Sometimes they say something that 'improves'.

Jan 12, 2015 at 4:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Passfield

Hitchens was brilliant. He was absolutely spot on.

Jan 12, 2015 at 5:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterJimmy Haigh

Everone should be allowed to say what they want? So warmists are within their right to call for our execution? Part of absolute free speech is to allow people to demand an end to free speech or even the life of another. It becomes a free for all.

It's true that our society has become a mass of contradictions and petty taboos but throwing out all the rules is not the answer.

Jan 12, 2015 at 5:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

TinyCO2: Ultimately, I guess, we are faced with the kind of contradictions or inconsistencies that you note. The question is who gets to say when enough is enough and can it be done in a way that does not pre-emptively curtail contrary or unconventional or distasteful opinions. There might be a simple rule such as speech calling for the "murder" of others cannot be free. Moreover speech that leads to injury may be subject to legal action on the part of those injured, e.g., libel and slander, and is not free. But even here I can imagine the pursuit of such legal actions being driven more by a desire to shut people up rather than to seek compensation for actual injury. The Mann lawsuit appears to be a good example.

Jan 12, 2015 at 6:31 PM | Unregistered Commenterbernie1815

Jimmy: Please know, I mean no discourtesy, but if Hitchens was 'spot on', as you say, can I take it you support what David Irving has to say on the Holocaust? I'm sure you don't - and thereby hangs the dilemma. Even pariahs (like Irving) have something to say, as Hitchens was arguing (although I could draw the line at Savile!) but we need to qualify our support I guess.

Jan 12, 2015 at 6:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Passfield

@Harry Passfield: Personally I support Irving's right to say and write what he likes on the holocaust, no matter how wrong-headed and offensive I may find him. Otherwise it is not free speech, is it? And if I acquiesce in silencing him, why should anyone support me if I give vent to a unfashionable opinion? Furthermore I note that Hitchens did not express any approval of Irving's views on the holocaust, he merely expressed approval of his edition of Goebbels's diaries. In that respect your question to Jimmy is specious.

As for qualifying the right to free speech - who is to decide what qualifies? You?

Jan 12, 2015 at 7:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterSebastian Weetabix

So hands up who gets their panties in a bunch when they're called a denier? The only reason to object to it is because you don't think it's right to deny the Holocaust. Many support those sites that ban the word and or other insults. Aren't they interfering with free speech? Who shouts 'DNFTT' loudest? Or calls for trolls to be booted out?

I think it's wrong to promote breaking the law. The more serious the law breaking you want to talk about should make it a more serious issue. The context, tone and frequency should be considered. Germany and Austria have made Holocaust denial an offence because they were aware that they had people who were at risk of slipping back into their old ways. It was also an apology for allowing it to happen in the first place. Sort of ‘sorry guys, the least we can do is stop people pretending it never happened’.

Jan 12, 2015 at 7:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Sebastian: You misunderstand me. I agree with your view that people can say what they like, but likewise, I do not have to agree with them - and I shouldn't have to suffer for being at odds with them.
Irving is - was - an accredited historian and I am sure he has work that fulfils that brief. Unfortunately his holocaust denial is well documented and quite vile (and again, that's not to say he shouldn't hold or publicise those views). I'd be interested to know what you feel about laws in Germany and Austria (among others) that outlaw holocaust denial....
What I was doing was not 'specious': I was merely critiquing a part of Hitchens's pitch and suggesting that we need to be more questioning about support for some of his arguments rather than be swept up in his rhetoric.

Jan 12, 2015 at 8:05 PM | Registered CommenterHarry Passfield

Freedom of speech is sensitive matter, one of democracy's highest values is also one of its biggest weaknesses. And recently I think we are starting to see some of effects.

Ideas are like microbes, you hold onto quite a few which are usually beneficial for you - often similar to your neibors' as well - but every once in a while you adopt a few new ones. Usually nothing happens, but sometimes it causes you to lose some of the old ones, make you sick, make you contagious, or even kill you. Pretty much all evolutionary rules that apply to microbes apply to ideas in human heads.

With this, requesting unlimited free speech is like claiming that all disease control can be done by vaccination. Or worse - claiming there are no diseases, just states of the body.

Jan 12, 2015 at 8:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterKasuha

Ultimately we are all free to speak as we wish, though we may pay a heavy price. In practice most of us are curtailed by fear of some kind or another. Of course it depends on where you say it and to whom. The problem arises when we thought we were speaking in private and find that our words have been recorded, as happens quite a bit today. Our freedom to speak is being curtailed more and more by law, but even so we are much freer here than in many other parts of the world. Personally I am quite indifferent to being called a climate denier. I think those who use this term are simply exposing their own prejudice and lack of a coherent argument.

Jan 12, 2015 at 8:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterDerek

@Harry - having lived there for some years, I find that the German-speaking world remains somewhat prone to excessive respect for authority and lacking in civic courage. I think jailing Irving for his expression of wrong-headed anti-semitic opinions is simply wrong; just as I view our so-called hate speech laws as an obnoxious (and successful) attempt by the left to dictate what we can discuss and what we can not. Our hate speech laws seem curiously one-sided; I have yet to see Islamists arrested for holding up banners calling for the beheading of their opponents. If that isn't incitement to murder, I don't know what is. On the other hand Christians seem to be banged up quite regularly for holding un-PC opinions.

Jan 12, 2015 at 8:54 PM | Unregistered CommenterSebastian Weetabix

Sebastian: We are as one with our views of hate speech laws. However, as I have mentioned on another thread, that law trickles right down to everyday interactions. Recently, I quite assertively told off (no threatening language or physical domination - <30 seconds of finger-wagging - cctv is your friend) a neighbour who had gratuitously insulted my wife. She (the woman I told off) was able to persuade the police that she 'apprehended she was at risk from me' (it comes under hate speech) and they charged me with common assault even though I never lifted a finger. Funny old world....My case is pending.
The upshot is, she (my neighbour) has the right to free speech (to say anything she likes about me) and I do not (to say that she should not say such things).

Jan 12, 2015 at 9:11 PM | Registered CommenterHarry Passfield

Is there an edit in the video at 4m58?

Jan 12, 2015 at 10:04 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

Sorry to hear of your troubles Harry. We can agree that part of our current problems are unfairly applied rules or rules that are themselves discriminatory. I don't think everyone should have a law against Holocaust denial but I can see why Germany and Austria might feel their countries need one.

Jan 12, 2015 at 10:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

For everyone fawning over Hitchens, do you remember that when he was asked about "global warming" he came down strongly on the idea that we should listen to all the scientists, I.e. he was very much an alarmist. In much the same vein as recent comments by Our beloved John Cook concerning people who publish things that they know are lies ( something he should be more concerned about), Hitchens actions did not always follow his words. As my parents taught me, talk is cheap but actions speak loudest and clearest.

Jan 13, 2015 at 12:58 AM | Unregistered CommenterBruce Cunningham


Everone should be allowed to say what they want? So warmists are within their right to call for our execution?

Absolutely. I would defend to my death their right to say it. Not to do it, but to say it.

Jan 13, 2015 at 8:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

@Bruce: Hitchens was wrong about many things (usually the fashionable left wing idiocies and not least his views on all organised religions, in my opinion) but he was very consistent in his support for free speech and did not seek to shut others up. Since he claimed no special expertise in physics/engineering he was apparently happy to subtract his thinking on our pet subject to "experts". Which is probably what most normal people do.

Jan 13, 2015 at 9:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterSebastian Weetabix

Jan 12, 2015 at 2:52 PM | Simon Hopkinson

I am in a dilemma over his speech. I agree with his comments about Yorkshiremen, but, on the other hand, I have been told that the only thing that unites a Yorkshireman and a Lancastrian is the threat from the south, and Hitchins was born in Portsmouth. Must pray for an answer.

PS. I have just learnt that not a single main character in Last of the Summer Wine was played by a Yorkshire actor, but many by Lancastrians, he-he.

Jan 13, 2015 at 10:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterAllan M

Hitchens is wrong. Hate does not spring forth from religion. It is an innate part of man's nature. Like so many others, he is trying to find a place "to put the blame," because the truth means he is at fault. As far as his take on the freedom of speech is concerned, I can accept it, If nothing else, the speech was colorful.

Jan 13, 2015 at 9:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterTom O

In keeping with the spirit of ‘freedom of speech’ here is a link to a piece on Mohammed’s image

I post this only for those who will not be offended and enjoy freedom, for all others look away now!

Jan 13, 2015 at 9:34 PM | Unregistered Commentertom0mason

Green Censorship is recapped well in a few blogs today, In Light of #JeSuisCharlie
When Greens decide you are #NotOneOfUs
CCnet Special 12/01/15 Charlie Hebdo, Climate Scepticism & Free Speech
.... And Judith Curry's Blog

Jan 14, 2015 at 10:22 AM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

He was my intellectual idol, Christopher Hitchens. It is so sad to not have him around anymore. As for Muhammad cartoons, come on people, when was the last time you refrained from eating beef in order to not offend Hindus?

Jan 15, 2015 at 6:05 AM | Unregistered CommentersHx

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