Friday, May 1, 2009


By Nigel Warburton

Oxford University Press, $11.95, 144 pages, illus.

Reviewed by Jeremy Lott

In 1999, the Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibited a controversial painting by the Nigerian British artist Chris Ofili. Its title suggested an image of the Virgin Mary. Without that help, it would have been hard to tell. “The Holy Virgin Mary” is a cartoonish rendering of an African woman with a large nose; thick lips; empty-looking, almost stoned, eyes and an exposed right breast. If Mr. Ofili were not of Nigerian descent, some critics might - and I stress, might - have cried racism over his gross, ugly caricature.

The image was constructed from diverse materials, including paint; elephant dung and clippings of body parts, chiefly buttocks, from pornographic magazines. The naughty bits look like a cross between flower petals and butterflies. These make the painting more bizarre, not more palatable.

Aesthetic objections should carry at least as much force here as religious ones, although few art critics joined the protests. (When Mr. Ofili had won the Turner Prize, illustrator Ray Hutchins dumped a wheelbarrow full of cow manure on the steps of London’s Tate Gallery and planted a sign in the mound that read, “Modern art is a lot of [expletive].”)

The dung really hit the fan when then-New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani stepped in. He took the exhibition to be a deliberate provocation of the city’s Catholics and threatened to withhold $7 million in government subsidies from the museum.

Mr. Ofili’s defenders quickly cried censorship, even though Mr. Giuliani did not try to bar the painting from appearing in New York’s unsubsidized galleries and eventually coughed up all the money. They had a point that the government was actively trying to discourage the showing of a painting, but their thinking about why that would be a bad thing was muddled.

As Nigel Warburton writes in “Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction,” “Many in the art world were appalled by the attempt to censor art. Art should be immune from this sort of criticism, they claimed.” That claim would be unfounded unless broadened, for “[i]n a civilized society freedom to offend should be protected, but there are not good grounds for making art a special case and protecting it from censorship simply because it is art.”

Making the case for that broader “freedom to offend” is the point of Mr. Warburton’s short book. “Free Speech” is the 200th installment of Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series. It conforms to the basic format of the series but, unlike most of the other volumes, it comes out of the gates with an argument. Mr. Warburton, a philosophy lecturer at Open University, opens with that famous Voltaire quip, “I despise what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it,” explaining, “Freedom of speech is worth defending vigorously even when you hate what is being spoken.”

That has always been a controversial sentiment. People by and large want freedom of speech - for themselves. Having to listen to others is quite another thing, and with good reason: People are often annoying, stupid, repetitive, hateful, bigoted, vulgar, selfish and repetitive. In most mature democracies, after much struggle, we have just about built up the right mix of tolerance and legal safeguards that a citizen can speak his mind without great fear of government censure or mob violence.

But even in Mr. Warburton’s civilized societies, there are exceptions.

Issues of religion and race and sex can produce paroxysms of protest. Add in images or video, and the minimal democratic restraint often gives way. A photograph reproduced in “Free Speech” shows a protest outside the Danish Embassy in London in 2006. Someone holds out a sign over a man with a bullhorn. The sign reads, “Freedom of press go to hell!”

The freedom that British Muslims were protesting was the right of Denmark-based newspaper Jyllands-Posten to publish cartoons that mocked Muhammad. The publication of those cartoons, writes Mr. Warburton, led to “worldwide protests,” the torching of several Danish embassies and “a large number of deaths, perhaps as many as 100.” Why allow publication if it would lead to all that?

“Free Speech” leans heavily on the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s 1859 classic “On Liberty” to supply the justification for freedom of argumentation and expression. Mill’s arguments boil down to three propositions. First, truth matters. Second, the best way to get at truth is to allow a serious and open contest of ideas. Mill likened this to a marketplace, although it seems closer to a college seminar. Third, the government is only really justified in regulating us if do we violence to others - or intentionally stir others to violence.

Mill thought free speech precious because it would maximize the happiness of society. Many who came after Mill have pointed out that his utilitarian calculus doesn’t really add up. Freewheeling speech may lead people to the truth, or it may move them in the other direction. Ultimately, freedom of speech - with its implied and unpopular right to cause offense - matters because freedom matters.

Jeremy Lott is author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency” and editor of Labor Watch.

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