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Home > definition and current debates > FREE SPEECH, CULTURE AND IDENTITY


Tuesday 18 September 2018, by siawi3



by Kenan Malik


This is a translation of part of an interview I gave to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung on questions of free speech, multiculturalism and identity. The full interview is here.

What restrictions should there be on freedom of expression? Should everyone always be allowed to say everything?

It’s widely accepted today that in a plural society freedom of expression needs to be curtailed in the name of tolerance or respect. Otherwise minorities could suffer. I disagree. It’s precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the greatest possible freedom of expression. It is inevitable and necessary for people give offence in a plural society. Inevitable because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And they are better openly resolved than suppressed in the name of ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’. And important because any social progress or change happens by attacking attitudes that are important to the individual or a particular group.

There are certain things you should not be able to say.

The phrase ‘You can not say that’ is far too often the answer of those who have the power when that power is being challenged. To accept that one cannot say certain things means to accept that certain forms of power can not be challenged.

But can there be a fair competition of ideas under the current conditions? Minorities suffer from structural disadvantages. They do not have the same power, the same resources as the majority, are discriminated against. There is no equality of arms.

Historically, there has never been a level playing field. But there is no more important weapon for minorities fighting for justice than freedom of expression. Ask yourself: who benefits most from censorship? It’s those who have both the power to censor and the need to do so. And who benefits the most from freedom of expression? Those whose ideas must be heard, who must convince others.

Again, is not there a point to say ‘Enough. That’s no longer an opinion, that’s hate?’

Those who stand for freedom of expression must confront bigotry at every point it reveals itself. But if you forbid odious ideas, they won’t go away. They will continue to spread beyond public view. It is better if these ideas are in the open, so you are able to tackle them. What censorship does is actually to absolve us of our responsibility to oppose hatred.

The AfD in Germany has grown politically by pushing the boundaries of what can be said.

Germany and France have some of the strongest restrictions on freedom of expression in Europe. That has not stopped the extreme right from growing in either country. One reason organizations such as the AfD gain support is that mainstream politicians often appropriate their arguments about immigration or Islam. That helps give legitimacy to those ideas and groups. That’s what needs to change.

Some on the right feel strongly that diversity is becoming destructive, that it is harming Germany.

Fear about the consequences of diversity can take two forms. There is the nativist fear that immigration is undermining the national fabric, eroding our sense of Germanness or Britishness or Frenchness. And then there is the multicultural argument that diversity is good, but cultural boundaries have to be policed to minimise the clashes and conflicts and frictions that diversity brings in its wake.

Are cultural conflicts are good? Do they not fragment society?

The world is a messy, place, full of clashes and conflicts. But the messiness is good for such clashes and conflicts are the stuff of political and cultural engagement. Diversity is not good for its own sake, but because it allows us to broaden our horizons. We can compare different views, values, beliefs, lifestyles, evaluate them and then decide what is better, what is worse. This is how political dialogue develops. This can help to find a universal language of citizenship.

But why does it feel that society today is particularly fragmented?

There are many reasons. In part it’s because economic policies and the extension of the market into all aspects of life has created more atomised societies. In part it is also the narrowing of the political sphere. The distinction between left and right has characterized politics in the past. That distinction has eroded and this has changed the meaning of solidarity.

What do you mean?

Politically, the sense of belonging to a group or collective has historically been expressed in two broad forms: through the politics of identity and through the politics of solidarity. Identity politics stresses attachment to common identities based on categories such as race or nation or culture. The policy of solidarity draws people into a collective not because of a given identity but to further a political or social goal.

Where is the problem?

The politics of identity divides where the politics of solidarity finds collective purpose across the fissures of race or gender, sexuality or religion, culture or nation. But it is the politics of solidarity that has crumbled over the past two decades as radical movements have declined. For many today, the only form of collective politics that seem possible is that rooted in identity. People think of solidarity less as a political process – as a collective effort to implement certain political ideals – more in terms of ethnicity or cultural.

But why is that bad? People fight together for more justice. Most in many different fields.

The question people ask themselves is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’. The two questions are, of course, intimately related. But the answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions people want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that they imagine they are. The frameworks through which we now make sense of the world are often defined less as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’ than as ‘Muslim’ or ‘white’ or ‘German’ or ‘European’. That’s a big change. The rise of identity politics plays a big role in how we see the world today.

Identity and politics are opposites?

The relationship between identity and politics is complex. Politics is a means, or should be a means, of taking us beyond the narrow sense of identity given to each of us by the specific circumstances of our lives and the particularities of personal experiences.

The singer Morrissey, said: ‘I want Germany to be German. I want France to be French. If you try to make everything multicultural, you will not have any culture in the end. ‘

What is German culture? The culture that exists today? Or what which existed 50 years ago? Or 100 years ago? Or 1000 years ago? Similarly, what is French culture? And what is Muslim culture?

It makes no sense to talk about German culture as if it were something fixed. Cultures exist in the actual activities of actual people. German culture is defined as what those who see themselves as Germans do at a certain point in time.

So you cannot protect cultures?

Cultures are constantly changing. Those who argue that cultures are fixed and defined in a particular way are trying to make themselves the gatekeepers of those cultures. They give themselves the authority to say what it means to be German or Muslim or Jewish or British. It’s the gatekeepers whom we need to reject.