Okay, let’s see if I can get this straight. A right-wing Danish newspaper publishes viciously racist anti-Muslim cartoons, hoping thereby to stir up trouble. (I say “racist,” because the cartoons involved stereotypical “ethnic” images that were clearly directed against Arabs, not just against Muslim believers of no matter what race or ethnicity). The newspaper succeeds in its provocation, as violent protests spring up across the Arab and Muslim world. (The protests are often cynically fomented by dictatorial governments, and they focus exclusively on the insult to the Muslim religion, not mentioning at all the element of racism involved). Throughout Europe and North America, there is a great outcry supporting free speech; the cartoons are republished widely, as a statement of support for free speech and of solidarity with the Danish newspaper against the would-be censors of the Arab and Muslim world, who are said not to share, or even understand, the Western values of freedom and tolerance.
Meanwhile, the historian David Irving is sentenced to 3 years of jail in Austria for denying the Holocaust. Irving is a vicious ultra-right-wing provocateur, and basically an apologist for Hitler and the Nazi regime. (I do not know the extent to which Irving has made specifically anti-Jewish statements; but I would argue that his very denial of the factuality of the Holocaust is itself already anti-Semitic). But all the people who denounced various Arab and Muslim governments and peoples for their protests against the Danish cartoons are strangely silent about this quite similar case. I do not see newspapers all over the West reprinting Irving’s speeches and articles in solidarity with his free speech rights. I do not see anyone saying that this conviction indicates that Europeans and Christians are incapable of sharing, or understanding, the values of freedom and tolerance.
I do believe in free speech as a universal value. I do believe that we need to support the right of free speech even for racists, and even for people who make provocative statements with the deliberate intent of stirring up violence and trouble. (Speech is itself an action, of course, and it will always be necessary to draw a line somewhere; but I am in favor of extending things as far as possible in the direction of regulating and limiting speech-acts as little as possible). What I don’t like is the double standard according to which some hateful speech (like that of the Danish cartoons) is more worthy than other hateful speech (like Irving’s). Anybody who says that “however much I am in favor of the right to freely express one’s opinion, one cannot allow the denial of the Holocaust to hide behind overly generous freedom of expression” ought to take a similarly stringent line with the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. And anybody who defends (as I do) that newspaper’s right to publish its scurrilous trash ought similarly to defend David Irving’s right to publish his scurrilous trash. As Warren Ellis put it the other day, “The test of free speech always lays in that which is hardest to defend. It really would be nice if maggots like these didnâ€™t make the rest of us work so hard.”