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Fighting Obscene Speech

October 10, 2012, 6:02 AM

He called her crusade an “obscenity”.

“She has become a symbol of Western culture,” he said. “She was openly propagating it.” So “obscene” is her crusade he reiterated that his group would try again to stamp her out, to silence her, to end her campaign forever.

“Let this be a lesson.” To her. To us. To the world. It’s not clear, but nonetheless, he finishes with those words.


Here, the Taliban spokesperson is describing the campaign of fourteen-year old Malala Yousafzai. The fourteen-year old Pakistan campaigner for girls’ education was shot in the head on Tuesday, by masked Taliban gunmen, for her “obscene” views.

There are few places in the world, outside of the Swat Valley, where it’s a crime, where it’s deeply offensive, to be not only a woman but a woman with an opinion that her life can be better than this; there are few places where nihilism and cynicism has woven its way into the torn veil of local militants’ morality, shadowed by their convictions that Allah is on their side. Many residents are supposed to cower, fear chaining them to subservience.

Yet, the Taliban attacking an innocent fourteen-year old conveys to the entire world where the cowardice truly lies.

Stifled because they’re “Western”, stamped out for being secular, and, perhaps worst of all, silenced because they come from a woman: ideas, in general, and ones concerning education, in particular, are not welcome by people more interested in maintaining power through fear, ignorance and propagated stupidity. Ironically, they recognise what many do not: the potency of ideas and reason and education to combat authority, especially one based entirely on God and guns. No: they’re “obscene”. No: “she’s a symbol of Western power”.

She must be silenced.

Thankfully, Malala is “out of the danger” and, like her voice, is being taken overseas, using “Western” medicine. It’s no coincidence that it will be “Western” ideas, in the form of science and medicine, that save her, just as it will be “Western” ideas that allow more people like Malala to oppose the thuggery, the stupidity, that occupies a scrambling for a long crippled throne in the Swat Valley. But these are not “Western” ideas: they’re human ones that arise from recognising freedom of thought, individual and equal freedom, are properties of existence every person has and is owed. Most of our conflicts arise from fighting those who would stamp these out in the name of “society”, in the name of “social cohesion”, in the name of some grand unifying community. For the Taliban, it’s something like the Muslim world, though I think most Muslims find their actions abhorrent. (As always its Muslims who suffer the worst from radical Islam.)

“Let this be a lesson,” the spokesperson said. It’s a shame then that it’s a lesson the Taliban will never learn. It’s a further shame that this logic - of defending social cohesion or society against “obscene” ideas – is something even the UK fails to get right.


April Jones came to the public eye for the wrong reasons: it was not even her kidnapping, or her subsequent murder. These are bad enough, but for a public numb to horrors of murdered girls, what stands out are a journalist’s response and an average Facebook user’s.

In the first, the numbness to horror became insensitivity as Kay Burley casually dropped the bomb to some volunteers searching for the missing girl, that the girl was probably dead and how does that make you feel and are you alright and would you like a moment and let us know when you’ve “collected” yourself. She’s been rightfully condemned for this.

The second response involves jokes. Or at least “tasteless” jokes, made by a drunken young man who had a Facebook profile. It’s long recognised that inebriation plus keyboard plus Internet connection creates a monster that will hunt you. It will find its way back to you and ask why, why, did you do it! Matthew Woods wears the shoes of Victor Frankenstein for his comments about April Jones.

By any measure, Woods’ comments – asking who would kidnap “a ginger” and making sexual remarks about Jones – were obscene and indecent; they were insensitive, just as Kay Burley’s conduct. But he should not be prosecuted for it. The UK has now a recent, troubling history of seeking legal action against offensive comments; comments that are now getting online airing, where before they would’ve died off during a dinner conversation, after a quick nap, or after a proper reprimand. The Internet, like a freezer, solidifies the words which would otherwise have evaporated.

“These [recent] cases,” says John Kampfner, “have included the 56-day jail sentence for the student who tweeted offensive and racist comments in response to the on-pitch collapse of the Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba. The latest example is the case of a young man who has been sentenced to a community order for posting the message ‘all soldiers should die and go to hell’ on Facebook after the death of six British soldiers in Afghanistan.”

The Twitter Joke Trial, when Paul Chambers “threatened” to blow up an airport, thankfully was won with a legal judgement that

“If the person or persons who receive or read [the offensive message], or may reasonably be expected to receive, or read it, would brush it aside as a silly joke, or a joke in bad taste, or empty bombastic or ridiculous banter, then it would be a contradiction in terms to describe it as a message of a menacing character.”

(And menacing is itself not even sufficient for legal action.)

But we’ve seen a reaction to “obscene” speech, “obscene” ideas, from the Taliban, too. Why, then, is the UK aping militant Islamists? What use is a non-religious basis for law when it aligns itself to the same bullying, the same thuggishness, that is being perpetrated in an area of the world that occasionally looks like something from the 6th century – or at least in the dreams of the Taliban.


Defending “social cohesion” is not an excuse to silence an offensive person. Social cohesion is a problem we’ve long faced and will face. What many now recognise is that we do not want to be united or aligned in our morals too much or too far: basics like not interfering with each other when our actions do not impact anyone else, not murdering or assaulting, are now so common we need not ground them solely in law. Indeed, if it’s only law that’s preventing you from murdering, you are not someone I want to be around. Furthermore, if we all agree on everything, we’ve become drones, not beings with critical faculties: how could we know we’re right unless we’ve faced opposition claiming we’re wrong?

What we need is the ability to speak our minds, to give broad framework to the spread of ideas. The Taliban recognise how powerful this is: Why doesn’t the UK?

It’s not the obscenity I’m defending: It’s the right to be obscene. Expressing socially-acceptable ideas doesn’t need protecting; asserting widely-accepted moral views doesn’t require legal protection. The ultimate test of our liberty is for our opponents, for the outliers, for the “obscene” ideas. They are precisely the ones that require those protections the most since they’re not popular, not accepted.

This matters because the world is not simple. It’s not static. Problems change and mutate and are varied. This requires various responses, many of which are offensive when introduced. Silence equals death for ideas, since ideas existing only in one’s head do nothing to help the world. We are fallible, not perfect, so cannot assert that we know for sure we have all the best ideas; we cannot be certain we are on the right side of morality in various cases. This blog is precisely based on the idea that many of our ideas regarding right and wrong are incorrect, despite being widely accepted.

Malala’s been shot in the head for proposing ideas so “obscene” the Taliban are willing to try again. Indeed, "let this be a lesson". Why is a fourteen-year old girl doing a better a job of defending the expression of ideas than the United Kingdom?

Image Credit: Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock


Fighting Obscene Speech

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