A Humanist contribution to a Celebration of the Declaration of Human Rights at University Campus Suffolk, Ipswich, 11th December 2012, organised by the local UN Association.
Suffolk Humanists & Secularists hosted the event and chose Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Perhaps the most well known quote about free speech is “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, which has been attributed to Voltaire but was actually written by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, paraphrasing him. It neatly summarises the idea that freedom of speech is worthy of vigorous defence, even when you hate what’s being said.
I was keen to celebrate Article 19 as I value free expression very highly, as do most humanists and secularists. Those who know me won’t be surprised to hear that I frequently disagree with people. I’ve always done it. My school reports made reference to it. It’s never seemed to me that there was anything wrong with disagreement; quite the contrary. It’s how you learn, how you challenge your own and other people’s ideas, how you develop them. My exasperated mother once threatened to burn my books because they provided fuel for my arguments. If she’d carried out her threat, she’d have been following a centuries-old tradition of book-burning in reaction to dissent by religious and political authorities. It still happens today. One of the most recent examples is the public destruction of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses by Bradford Muslims in January 1989. Ironically, the Bradford Muslims didn’t seem to have bothered reading Rushdie’s book before setting fire to it. They were told that it was blasphemous, and that was enough. What was worse was that Rushdie had to go into hiding because the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a death fatwa against him.