YtringsfrihetYtringsfrihet by Bjørn Stærk

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A simple intro to the theme at hand. It is a compelling defense of extending freedom of speech beyond the legal sphere, although Stærk also points to the obvious problems arising from this move. The issues are, as promised by the «Pro et contra» project, not resolved.

I would actually prefer Stærk making the case for his preferred policy on publishing, censorship, and freedom of speech, rather than forcing Stærk into making half‐​baked explanations and defenses of positions he does not hold. For instance, this turns out really odd when Stærk asks us to consider the position on freedom of speech of an anti‐​racist activist, in the context of the assaults on Muhammed cartoonists:

The anti‐​racist has trouble making a coherent argument, says Stærk, because he thinks «the fact that some people are so hurt that they turn to violence is a pity, but almost understandable, considering how widespread islamophobia has become. The free speech provocateurs must take their part of the blame for being attacked, and anyway most of them are really despicable extremists undeserving of our sympathy.»

This strawman is obviously beaten in both clarity, wiseness and intelligence by not only Stærk’s preferred position of the liberal, but also by the religious extremist wanting to deny everyone their freedom of speech. This is meant to illustrate the hypocrisy of the «muddy, middle ground», but is more likely to make the reader question what kind of destructive brain surgery Stærk’s anti‐​racist has undergone. This anti‐​racist is, in fact, quite simply the brainchild of the liberals of that debate, refusing to accept the real «anti‐​racist» (or actually, mainstream) position of simultaneously decrying the violence and the (in their opinion) senseless attempts at putting fuel to the fire of inter‐​religious hatred.

Another weak point of the book is that the principles of freedom of speech boil down to values, in Stærk’s view. Multiple times, Stærk resolves questions with an article of faith: his values are such and such, and that means he would prefer a certain level of that freedom. While my values may differ, and therefore we might differ.

I find this notion unsatisfactory. I do, obviously, agree that human beings have «values», that is: moral preferences. I do not, however, accept these differences of values as explanatory variables in questions of principles. This is a question of mixing levels of abstractions in the wrong way; causation all of a sudden flowing from moral to principles instead of the other way around and/​or affecting each other back and forth. In Stærk’s book values just are. But among the many purposes of speech acts, affecting values is the most important, speaking in strict consequential terms.

This also relates to my third disagreement with the book, which is the underlying assumption of Stærk’s belief that disagreements between people boil down to these different values and traits – as he lists them: «personalities, traits, aims, strengths, and weaknesses». This seems to gloss over the most obvious candidate: differences in the positions of the people involved. Within a single country, animosity between social, cultural or economic classes seems most likely to fuel disagreements.

In this perspective, free speech is not about the «search for little truths», which is Stærk’s self‐​image throughout the book of what his ideology consists of. The most important speech‐​acts in the history of social movements have not necessarily been truth‐​searching, but conciousness‐​raising. The free speech of Martin Luther King jr. is absolutely instrumental to a very significant Good Development, yet it is not so because it respects the differences of all people involved and therefore leads to better knowledge. It is of great importance because it assembles a conciousness of community – of how the animosities and petty differences are actually irrelevant, and that the true enemy is not merely the society at large and the untrue assertions law and custom made about coloured people, but also the assumptions black people themselves hold about society need to be whisked away to begin a true struggle to realise their rights.

In other words: an utter disrespect and disregard for the values of other people of all colours, for the customs of society, for the ideas people held dear.

True, Stærk points to the same thing when he points out that raising the level of conflict might be a beneficial effect of freedom of speech. This, however, seems to fly in the face of the first part’s arguments on the origin of disagreements of principles.

Given such power struggles for values, there might be objective, moral rewards to disregarding the respect of your opponents value‐​system. I am sure Stærk agrees – for instance in the case of islamists and communists he makes the same point. However, this is no anomaly reserved for the purpose of saving lost extremists. This is the overarching purpose of most true, political speech.

Although I here listed only my disagreements with the book, I must also say I agree with the rest. The parts of the book defending the importance of engaging extremists in true, open debate resonated strongly with me, having edited a 400‐​page book of carefully constructed arguments against the counterjihadist extremism of Anders Behring Breivik. That project was met, by many, with the exact response Stærk exposes as dangerous: we should not allow these arguments the dignity of being counter‐​argued. Well, we have to. It is not easy, it is not without perils, it is not without undesired effects, but otherwise we as a society will have trouble defending our dogma when the next demagogue comes around.

And Stærk would know: his refutiation of Fjordman’s writings on the inevitability of the islamist invasion of Europe are almost unique. Not because Stærk ever was in a minority denying the claims. But because he was one of very few engaging in debate about them.

The book is a must read, but also a short and easy one, sure to provoke, assure, amuse and maybe even put you off balance.

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