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The Left’s love/hate relationship with Christopher Hitchens (and Christopher Hitchens’ love/hate relationship with the Left) lives on in me. I must say, however, that I not only love his words, but how fiercely dedicated he is to fundamental ideas like free speech. I agree—censorship is bad news, just about any way you slice it.

The following videos are footage taken from a speech that Hitchens gave at Hart House, University of Toronto. The debate, which included members from Canada’s government, was a bill, then in discussions, regarding the decriminalization of hatespeech, insofar as it is protected speech irrespective of its reprehensibility.

I think this is important, because the European Union seems to be considering legislation that would criminalize a variety of forms of speech—anything from Holocaust denial to criticism of religion—and I think this would represent a net loss for the EU. Watch the videos: they’re great.

§1736 · February 16, 2007 · Tags: , , , , , , ·

23 Comments to “Christopher Hitchens on free speech”

  1. rob says:

    god i love him

    his alcoholism
    his usually insane views
    his smug owning of stupid people


  2. S4R says:

    I’ll be passing these videos along, brilliant.

  3. Dr Brian Robinson says:

    Great stuff! Vintage full-flow Hitchens. I didn’t agree with him on the war but on this (and Kissenger, M. Theresa, Clinton &c &c) he’s bang to rights. It was actually very inspiring and quite awesome to see him talking about Islam as he did. it would be nice if some of our current satirists left off the easy targets (like Christianity, Blair, Bush and so on) and took on what really matters today. What’s the point of just repeating safely what Swift said better long ago anyway? Good ole Hitch.

  4. Thank you Mr. Hitchens for thinking this and having the guts to say so. It is incumbent on all of us not to let our freedom go.

  5. Shez says:

    As an “ignorant” Christian, I agree with everything Hitch says about free speech. He is, in fact wrong, when he says that Christianity teaches hate, when it actually teaches just the opposite. The fact that some people have taken verses from the Bible & used them as an excuse to hate doesn’t change the fact. Nevertheless, I defend his right to believe as he does and to express his views, and even hatred toward me because of my belief.
    With what is going on today in our US media this is more important than ever. There is a movement afoot today to censor anyone who calls anyone an “illegal alien”. Never mind whether it is true or not, some are saying they believe it is “racist” to use the term. Where will it end????

  6. Ben says:

    Shez, what religion does or doesn’t do isn’t necessarily at issue. You and I could go in circles w.r.t. the intended and actual effects of religious doctrine, but the fact remains that its lofty position generates a number of problems for any society which purports to be “free.”

  7. paul says:

    Firstly Hitchin was quite wrong when he said that those who held up placards in London calling for beheadings where not arrested. They have in fact been arrested, tried and indeed convicted. Get your facts right Hitchens.

    Also if he is defending free speech why then was he not defending the right of the placard holders? The reason is that he is as one sided as those he denounces. Happy to defend Irving for expressing his view but not condemning the prosecution of the placard holders..

    Blaming organised monotheist religion for all the words wrongs is just juvenile liberalism which people should be able to grow out of. Was the Vietnam War a result religion? Hitchens might claim it was or more likely not see it as a bad thing at all and hence removed from consideration.

    I like Hichens think that there should be freedom of speech. However, all this usually amounts to is the freedom to be offensive. All we learnt from Hichens speech was that he went to Oxford (he casually mentioned this about half way through) and that he has strong likes and dislikes. So what!

    • scootwes says:

      paul, you don’t think even free speech has limits? Demanding that people be murdered is OK by you? There is a double-standard in Europe: Geert in Holland being put on trial for merely criticizing the tolerance of Islamic calls for violence, yet the Islamic calls for violence are perfectly OK? Europe is being schrizophrenic on this issue, and that is what Hitchins is getting at.

  8. Ben says:

    I don’t think Hitchens was necessarily calling for those protesters to be arrested (though I think the incitement and threat of violence toes the legal line, myself); rather, I think he was pointing out the inherent problem in religiously-motivated speech: at what point is it not a protected right?

    The law he’s defending in this speech eliminates some silly hate-speech restrictions that made insulting a religion a crime. His point, then, is if the law was enforced, and the placard holders cried “Religion!” would the authorities have any recourse?

    It scares me to hear how little you got out of Hitchens’ speech, and that you can reduce it down to “the freedom to be offensive.” You seem the sort of myopic individual who would create such restrictive laws in the first place.

  9. paul says:

    It scares me Heliologue how little you got out of my post. Still only to be expected. Men’s movement posts are littered with personal invective. Insult the person not the idea is about as high as it gets.

    It interesting how so often on men’s sites I read comments about freedom of speech. However, these are juxtaposed with outrage at what they claim is misandry and misrepresentation in the media. If we where to take Hitchens’s opening remarks to heart then we should celebrate such comments as they give us the freedom to change our minds by exposing us to new ideas.

    Most free speech is used to express opinion rather than ‘truth’. However, people usually deceive themselves into thinking that their opinions are the truth and only myopic individuals who lack their superior vision could disagree. I see that as human nature deriving from our self centeredness. But that’s just an opinion not in any way a truth.

    You may be right in your interpretation of what Hitchens said about the placard carriers. However in saying ‘that nobody was calling for their prosecution’ he is demonstrably incorrect. There where such calls and indeed prosecutions. So he was wrong. He was also I suspect trying to make comparison with the treatment of Irving. However, if freedom of speech is indivisible then he needs to support both or neither. Taking refuge, as I suspect you might do, in considering the placards as incitement then you also need to confront the possibility that in questioning the Holocaust there is an implicit condoning and the possibility of encouraging another. I think that is the reason for such a prohibition in the firs place. Which incidentally I don’t agree with. Rather than defend such a ban the point in my post was to challenge those like Hitchens who although purporting to support freedom of speech are in fact trying to establish a platform for their own poison while denying a platform for other people poison. Just an opinion not in any way a truth.

  10. Ben says:

    “Men’s movement”? I’m going to guess you came here from MensNewDaily, which has been linking to this post for a while. I don’t know why they do so, but this isn’t a “men’s movement” blog. It’s a vanity blog, and my tendencies are feminist, anyway.

    More to the point, I think Hitchens does support free speech indivisibly. His contempt for religion notwithstanding, he point was the same as yours: one can’t support one type of speech and disallow another; there can’t be a hate speech law that both protects religions from criticism and seeks to indict speakers of hate, since unfortunately religion and hate have in many instances gone hand-in-hand. The point being that the very enforcement of the hate speech law might be considered hate speech (this is, I think, very clear in the video).

    I’m not going to quibble endlessly about the semantics of “implicit” vs. “explicit,” as I think such a thing is obvious enough.

  11. Tony T says:

    Thank you for posting these. I saw this speech live and it was very invigorating. I appreciate your reply to Shez. To reply with ‘Ah, but you are misinterpreting these texts’ or ‘But it is really intended for love not for…’ is dodging the monkey. After the clarifications are made and the dust clears, there will still be people claiming that a virgin gave birth, that a desert trader received the last revelation of God, that Buddha is reincarnated as others… well I suppose one or more of these may be true, I am only human, but that there are people who are willing to die for these persons whom they have never met will always be a thorn in the side of good, smart, confident people who will not tolerate phantoms and will not see the human project desecrated by madness.

    Tony T

  12. Horizon says:

    Paul – “where” != “were”. Christ.

  13. Steve Scott says:

    Any idea where I could download this? It’s superb.


  14. Ben says:

    Sure, Norm at OneGoodMove has it as a Quicktime file. Alternatively, you can find it on YouTube or Google Video and use a Firefox extension or bookmarklet to grab the source video.

  15. Hitchens in fabulous form.

    “And anyone who doesn’t like it can pick a number, get in line, and Kiss My Ass.”

    Thank you very much.

  16. manicstreetpreacher says:

    Sad as it sounds, I must have watched this speech about 200 times and counting! Absolutely brilliant. Changed at a stroke my views on hate speech, Holocaust denial laws and the value of being a misfit. I listen to it when I’m angry at the world and feel like I’m conforming too much. I even typed out the transcript which I carry everywhere. Voilà: –

    The transcript of a speech by Christopher Hitchens from a debate at Hart House, University of Toronto, 15 November 2006. "Be It Resolved: Freedom of Speech Includes the Freedom to Hate." Hitchens argued the affirmative position.

    FIRE!!! Fire… fire… fire. Now you’ve heard it. Not shouted in a crowded theatre, admittedly, as I realise I seem now to have shouted it in the Hogwarts dining room. But the point is made. Everyone knows the fatuous verdict of the greatly over-praised Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who, asked for an actual example of when it would be proper to limit speech or define it as an action, gave that of shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre.

    It’s very often forgotten what he was doing in that case was sending to prison a group of Yiddish speaking socialists, whose literature was printed in a language most Americans couldn’t read, opposing President Wilson’s participation in the First World War and the dragging of the United States into this sanguinary conflict, which the Yiddish speaking socialists had fled from Russia to escape.

    In fact it could be just as plausibly argued that the Yiddish speaking socialists, who were jailed by the excellent and over-praised Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, were the real fire fighters, were the ones shouting “fire” when there really was a fire in a very crowded theatre indeed.

    And who is to decide? Well, keep that question if you would – ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, I hope I may say comrades and friends – before your minds.

    I exempt myself from the speaker’s kind offer of protection that was so generously proffered at the opening of this evening. Anyone who wants to say anything abusive about or to me is quite free to do so, and welcome in fact, at their own risk.

    But before they do that they must have taken, as I’m sure we all should, a short refresher course on the classic texts on this matter. Which are John Milton’s Areopagitica, “Areopagitica” being the great hill of Athens for discussion and free expression. Thomas Paine’s introduction to The Age of Reason. And I would say John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty in which it is variously said – I’ll be very daring and summarize all three of these great gentlemen of the great tradition of, especially, English liberty, in one go.

    What they say is it’s not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen, and to hear. And every time you silence someone you make yourself a prisoner of your own action because you deny yourself the right to hear something. In other words, your own right to hear and be exposed is as much involved in all these cases as is the right of the other to voice his or her view.

    Indeed, as John Stuart Mill said, if all in society were agreed on the truth and beauty and value of one proposition, all except one person, it would be most important, in fact it would become even more important, that that one heretic be heard, because we would still benefit from his perhaps outrageous or appalling view.

    In more modern times this has been put, I think, best by a personal heroine of mine, Rosa Luxembourg, who said freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently.

    My great friend John O’ Sullivan, former editor of the National Review, and I think probably my most conservative and reactionary Catholic friend, once said – it’s a tiny thought experiment – he says, if you hear the Pope saying he believes in God, you think, well, the Pope is doing his job again today. If you hear the Pope saying he’s really begun to doubt the existence of God, you begin to think he might be on to something.

    Well, if everybody in North America is forced to attend, at school, training in sensitivity on Holocaust awareness and is taught to study the Final Solution, about which nothing was actually done by this country, or North America, or by the United Kingdom while it was going on, but let’s say as if in compensation for that everyone is made to swallow an official and unalterable story of it now, and it’s taught as the great moral exemplar, the moral equivalent of the morally lacking elements of the Second World War, a way of distilling our uneasy conscience about that combat. If that’s the case with everybody, as it more or less is, and one person gets up and says, “You know what, this Holocaust, I’m not sure it even happened. In fact, I’m pretty certain it didn’t. Indeed, I begin to wonder if the only thing is that the Jews brought a little bit of violence on themselves.” That person doesn’t just have a right to speak, that person’s right to speak must be given extra protection. Because what he has to say must have taken him some effort to come up with, might contain a grain of historical truth, might in any case get people to think about why do they know what they already think they know. How do I know that I know this, except that I’ve always been taught this and never heard anything else?

    It’s always worth establishing first principle. It’s always worth saying what would you do if you met a Flat Earth Society member? Come to think of it, how can I prove the earth is round? Am I sure about the theory of evolution? I know it’s supposed to be true. Here’s someone who says there’s no such thing; it’s all intelligent design. How sure am I of my own views? Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus, and the feeling that whatever you think you’re bound to be OK, because you’re in the safely moral majority.

    One of the proudest moments of my life, that’s to say, in the recent past, has been defending the British historian David Irving who is now in prison in Austria for nothing more than the potential of uttering an unwelcome thought on Austrian soil. He didn’t actually say anything in Austria. He wasn’t even accused of saying anything. He was accused of perhaps planning to say something that violated an Austrian law that says only one version of the history of the Second World War may be taught in our brave little Tyrolean republic.

    The republic that gave us Kurt Waldheim as Secretary General of the United Nations, a man wanted in several countries for war crimes. You know the country that has Jorge Haider the leader of its own fascist party in the cabinet that sent David Irving to jail.

    You know the two things that have made Austria famous and given it its reputation by any chance? Just while I’ve got you. I hope there are some Austrians here to be upset by it. Well, a pity if not, but the two great achievements of Austria are to have convinced the world that Hitler was German and that Beethoven was Viennese.

    Now to this proud record they can add, they have the courage finally to face their past and lock up a British historian who has committed no crime except that of thought in writing. And that’s a scandal. I can’t find a seconder usually when I propose this but I don’t care. I don’t need a seconder. My own opinion is enough for me and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.

    Now, I don’t know how many of you, don’t feel you’re grown up enough to decide for yourselves and think you need to be protected from David Irving’s edition of the Goebbels Diaries for example, out of which I learned more about the Third Reich than I had from studying Hugh Trevor-Roper and A. J. B. Taylor combined when I was at Oxford. But for those of you who do, I’d recommend another short course of revision.

    Go again and see not just the film and the play but read the text of Robert Bolt’s wonderful play A Man For All Seasons – some of you most have seen it. Where Sir Thomas More decides that he would rather die than lie or betray his faith. And one moment More is arguing with the particularly vicious witch-hunting prosecutor. A servant of the king and a hungry and ambitious man.

    And More says to this man, “You’d break the law to punish the devil, wouldn’t you?”

    And the prosecutor, the witch-hunter, says, “Break it?” he said, “I’d cut down, I’d cut down every law in England if I could do that, if I could capture him!”

    “Yes you would, wouldn’t you? And then when you would have cornered the devil and the devil would turn around to meet you, where would you run for protection? All the laws of England having been cut down and flattened? Who would protect you then?”

    Bear in mind, ladies and gentleman, that every time you violate – or propose the violate – the right to free speech of someone else, you in potentia you’re making a rod for your own back. Because the other question raised by Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes is simply this: who’s going to decide, to whom do you award the right to decide which speech is harmful, or who is the harmful speaker? Or to determine in advance what are the harmful consequences going to be that we know enough about in advance to prevent? To whom would you give this job? To whom you’re going to award the task of being the censor?

    Isn’t a famous old story that the man who has to read all the pornography, in order to decide what’s fit to be passed and what is fit not to be, is the man most likely to become debauched?

    Did you hear any speaker in the opposition to this motion, eloquent as one of them was, to whom you would delegate the task of deciding for you what you could read? To whom you would give the job to decide for you? Relieve you of the responsibility of hearing what you might have to hear? Do you know any one? Hands up. Do you know any one to whom you’d give this job? Does anyone have a nominee?

    You mean there is no one in Canada who is good enough to decide what I can read? Or hear? I had no idea… But there’s a law that says there must be such a person – or some piddling sub-section of a law – that says it. Well to hell with that law. It is inviting you to be liars and hypocrites and to deny what you evidently already know already.

    About this censorious instinct: we basically know already what we need to know, and we’ve known it for a long time, it comes from an old story about another great Englishman – sorry to sound particular about that this evening – Dr Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer, complier of the first great dictionary of the English language. When it was complete Dr Johnson was waited upon by various delegations of people to congratulate him. Of the nobility, of equality, of the Common, of the Lords and also by a delegation of respectable ladies of London who attended on him in his Fleet Street lodgings and congratulated him.

    “Dr Johnson”, they said, “We are delighted to find that you’ve not included any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary.”

    “Ladies”, said Dr Johnson, “I congratulate you on being able to look them up.”

    Anyone who can understand that joke – and I’m pleased to see that about 10 per cent of you can! – gets the point about censorship, especially prior restraint as it is known in the United States, where it is banned by the First Amendment to the Constitution. It may not be determined in advance what words are apt or inapt. No one has the knowledge that would be required to make that call and – more to the point – one has to suspect the motives of those who do so. In particular those who are determined to be offended, of those who will go through a treasure house of English – like Dr Johnson’s first lexicon – in search of filthy words, to satisfy themselves, and some instinct about which I dare not speculate…

    Now, I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion, and organized religion. Absolutely convinced of it. And I am glad that you applaud, because it’s a very great problem for those who oppose this motion. How are they going to ban religion? How are they going to stop the expression of religious loathing, hatred and bigotry?

    I speak as someone who is a very regular target of this, and not just in rhetorical form. I have been the target of many death threats, I know within a short distance of where I am currently living in Washington, I can name two or three people whose names you probably know people who can’t go anywhere now without a security detail because of the criticisms they’ve made on one monotheism in particular. And this is in the capital city of the United States.

    So I know what I’m talking about, and I also have to notice, that the sort of people who ring me up and say they know where my children go to school, and they certainly know what my home number is and where I live, and what they are going to do to them and to my wife, and to me and who I have to take seriously because they already have done it to people I know, are just the people who are going to seek the protection of the hate speech law, if I say what I think about their religion, which I am now going to do.

    Because I don’t have any what you might call ethnic bias, I have no grudge of that sort, I can rub along with pretty much anyone of any – as it were – origin or sexual orientation, or language group – except people from Yorkshire of course, who are completely untakable – and I’m beginning to resent the confusion that’s being imposed on us now – and there was some of it this evening – between religious belief, blasphemy, ethnicity, profanity and what one might call “multicultural etiquette”.

    It’s quite common these days for people now to use the expression – for example – “anti-Islamic racism”, as if an attack on a religion was an attack on an ethnic group. The word Islamophobia in fact is beginning to acquire the opprobrium that was once reserved for racial prejudice. This is a subtle and very nasty insinuation that needs to be met head on.

    Who said “what if Falwell says he hates fags? What if people act upon that?” The Bible says you have to hate fags. If Falwell says he is saying it because the Bible says so, he’s right. Yes, it might make people go out and use violence. What are you going to do about that? You’re up against a group of people who will say “you put your hands on our Bible and we’ll call the hate speech police”. Now what are you going to do when you’ve dug that trap for yourself?

    Somebody said that the anti-Semitism and Kristallnacht in Germany was the result of ten years of Jew-baiting. Ten years?! You must be joking! It’s the result of 2,000 years of Christianity, based on one verse of one chapter of St. John’s Gospel, which led to a pogrom after every Easter sermon every year for hundreds of years. Because it claims that the Jews demanded the blood of Christ be on the heads of themselves and all their children to the remotest generation. That’s the warrant and license for and incitement to anti-Jewish pogroms. What are you going to do about that? Where is your piddling sub-section now?! Does it say St. John’s Gospel must be censored?!

    Do I, who have read Freud and know what the future of an illusion really is and know that religious belief is ineradicable as long as we remain a stupid, poorly evolved mammalian species, think that some Canadian law is going to solve this problem? Please!

    No our problem is this: our prefrontal lobes are too small. And our adrenaline glands are too big. And our thumb/ finger opposition isn’t all that it might be. And we’re afraid of the dark, and we’re afraid to die, and we believe in the truths of holy books that are so stupid and so fabricated that a child can – and all children do, as you can tell by their questions – actually see through them. And I think it should be – religion – treated with ridicule, and hatred and contempt. And I claim that right.

    Now let’s not dance around, not all monotheisms are exactly the same – at the moment. They’re all based on the same illusion, they’re all plagiarisms of each other, but there is one in particular that at the moment is proposing a serious menace not just to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but to quite a lot of other freedoms too. And this is the religion that exhibits the horrible trio of self-hatred, self-righteousness and self-pity. I am talking about militant Islam.

    Globally it’s a gigantic power. It controls an enormous amount of oil wealth, several large countries and states with an enormous fortune, it’s pumping the ideology of Wahhabism and Salafism around the world, poisoning societies where it goes, ruining the minds of children, stultifying the young and its madrases, training people in violence, making a culture death and suicide and murder. That’s what it does globally, it’s quite strong.

    In our society it poses as a cringing minority, who’s faith you might offend, which deserves all the protection that a small and vulnerable group might need.

    Now, it makes quite large claims for itself, doesn’t it? It says it’s the final revelation. It says that god spoke to one illiterate businessman in the Arabian Peninsula three times through an archangel, and the resulting material – which as you can see when you read it – was largely plagiarized from the Old and the New Testament. Almost all of it actually plagiarised, ineptly – from the Old and the New Testament – is to be accepted as a divine revelation and as the final and unalterable one and those who do not accept this revelation are fit to be treated as cattle, infidels, potential chattel, slaves and victims.

    Well I tell you what, I don’t think Mohammad ever heard those voices. I don’t believe it. And the likelihood that I’m right, as opposed to the likelihood that a businessman who couldn’t read, had bits of the Old and New Testament re-dictated to him by an archangel, I think puts me much more near the position of being objectively correct.

    But who is the one under threat? The person who propagates this and says “I’d better listen because if I don’t I’m in danger”, or me who says “No, I think this is so silly you could even publish a cartoon about it”?

    And up go the placards and up go the yells and the howls and the screams, “Behead those…” – this is in London, this is in Toronto and this is in New York, it is right in our midst now – “Behead those…” “Behead those who cartoon Islam”.

    Do they get arrested for hate speech? No. Might I get in trouble for saying what I’ve just said about the prophet Mohammad? Yes, I might. Where are your priorities ladies and gentlemen? You’re giving away what’s most precious in your own society, and you’re giving it away without a fight and you’re even praising the people who want to deny you the right to resist it. Shame on you while you do this. Make the best use of the time you’ve got left. This is really serious.

    Now, if you look anywhere you like – because we had invocations of a rather drivelling and sickly kind tonight of our sympathy – what about the poor fags, what about the poor Jews, the wretched women who can’t take the abuse and the slaves and their descendants and the tribes who didn’t make it, and where told that land was forfeit…

    Look anywhere you like in the world for slavery, for the subjection of women as chattel, for the burning and flogging of homosexuals, for ethnic cleansing, for anti-Semitism, for all of this, you look no further than a famous book that’s on every pulpit in this city, and in every synagogue and in every mosque.

    And then just see whether you can square the fact that the force of the main source of hatred is also the main caller for censorship. And when you’ve realized that you’re therefore this evening faced with a gigantic false antithesis, I hope that still won’t stop you from giving the motion before you the resounding endorsement that it deserves. Thanks awfully.

    Night, night.

    Stay cool.

  17. fitch20 says:

    Amen. (couldn’t resist)

    I wish he would have spoken about hate laws too. A stiffer penalty for hate laws? You bet. Who says it’s hate? Who says it’s not? What utter bs.

  18. iam terry fc says:

    The importance of freedom of speech – which includes, as the jurisprudence of the US’s first amendment shows, all forms of expression – is so great that it cannot be overstated. though, one must accept that it is not absolute: the old example,is that one cannot shout “fire!” in a crowded theatre where there is no fire. But the circumstances in which some greater benefit is served by limiting freedom of expression have to be such that, on a strictly individual and one-off basis, an overwhelming case can be made for doing it on that occasion alone. There should, in short, never be a blanket proscription of expression. When such expression is libelous or damaging, there can be remedy after the fact, as when someone sues for defamation. Prior restraint on expression, by contrast, should be a rare and exceptional event, as just suggested. And emphatically, the fact that someone “feels offended” by someone else’s utterances – or cartoons or facebook cartoons – ought never to be grounds for quelling free speech.

  19. Margaret Kienzle says:

    If you liked the speech, you’ll love this book. Free Speech for Me–But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other by Nat Hentoff

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