Rowan Atkinson on Free Speech: “Feel Free to Insult Me!”
In a noteworthy address (video linked below), Rowan Atkinson, aka Mr. Bean, shares his imminent thoughts on the value and importance of free speech. This speech, although it was given several years ago, is today as important as ever. It should be heard by every politician, journalist and campaigner before they start calling for laws to silence those they regard as “extremists”.
Rowan Atkinson, the British comedian best known for his internationally acclaimed role as Mr. Bean, defends free speech in all its forms, including, and especially, those that are INSULTING.
“We need to build our immunity to taking offense”, he argues, an idea that is being fiercely attacked today by those who try to equate words with violence and to replace open dialogue and free debate with “safe spaces” and ever-narrowing windows of “acceptable speech”.
Under the banner of political correctness, large portions of the media, and their new “comrades” - the high-tech echo chambers of Google, Facebook and Twitter - are manufacturing consent and shaping the beliefs of a growing portion of the public. And, just like frogs in boiling water, most don’t even realize what is happening to them.
As the forerunner of the Defend Free Speech Campaign in Britain, Atkinson hits the nail on the head in his speech when he says the following:
“We do not think that language or behavior that is merely insulting should ever be criminalized in this way. The clear problem with the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism is easily construed as insult by certain parties. Ridicule easily construed as insult. Sarcasm, unfavorable comparison, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy can be interpreted as insult. And because so many things can be interpreted as insult, it is hardly surprising that so many things have been...”
Mr. Atkinson also lists several real-life examples which should make alarm bells go off. Well-intentioned policies, meant to protect our fundamental rights, have gone too far and as is frequently the case, undermine and cannibalize the very rights they proclaim to defend.
“A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage . . . Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elite, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society.” ~ Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
“With the reasonable and well-intentioned ambition to contain obnoxious elements of society, has created a society of an extraordinarily authoritarian and controlling nature. It is what you might call the new intolerance: a new but intense desire to gag uncomfortable voices of dissent. ‘I am not intolerant’, say many people, say many softly-spoken, highly-educated liberal-minded people. ‘I am only intolerant of intolerance’. And people tend to nod sagely and say: ‘Oh yes, wise words, wise words...’, and yet if you think about this supposedly inarguable statement for longer than five seconds, you realize that all it is advocating is the replacement of one kind of intolerance with another. Which to me doesn’t represent any kind of progress at all.”
Extremism, as we well know from history, flourishes and thrives in the dark, in a climate of suppression, censorship and forced conformism. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”, as the saying goes, and the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech. The best and most sustainable solutions to these complex problems lie in open and free debate, in the time-tested path of free-market competition, trial and error, and the natural process of good arguments outcompeting those that do not work. The moment we accept the views of a few elite experts and opinion makers as gospel, we mark the end of true freedom and real progress.
It is up to those still interested in free speech and true democracy, i.e. the rule of informed and mature citizens, to stand up and speak up courageously. It is up to us all to defend our fundamental right to debate, to question and to argue, and to openly invite others to do the same, without fear of censorship or retribution, even - or perhaps, especially - when they choose to challenge our own positions.