February 05, 2006

For the liberty of unlicenc'd printing

"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties."
John Milton, "Areopagitica"

Last week, I just happened to find on my parents' shelves their copy of "Where There's a Will" by Rumpole creator and former barrister John Mortimer; it came out the other year when Mortimer was in his early eighties but seems quite prescient in light of recent events. The book amounts to a curmudgeon's -- and why does curmudgeonly increasingly seem to be a synonym for common sense? -- last will and testament of advice to leave behind, from the dangers of political correctness to the joys of outdoor sex. And surprise, surprise, one of the chapters (lucky number 13 as it happens) is titled "Causing Offence" which Mortimer, naturally, supports:
A life during which you're caused no offence would be as blandly uneventful as death itself. Being caused offence stirs up the spirits, summons up the blood and starts the adrenalin flowing. ... A state in which everyone tiptoed around whispering for fear of hurting somebody's feelings would be dull beyond human endurance. A political or religious belief which can't stand up to insult, mockery and abuse is not worth having. ...

It seems to me to be an insult to the religious beliefs, as well as to those who hold them, to say that they need the special protection of a law which makes it a criminal offence to hurt people's feelings. ...

In fact being caused offence not only stimulates debate but confirms belief and strengthens it. Milton, no enemy of religion, had it right when he wrote 'if we have free speech truth will look after itself'. And if we have a censorship which stops us offending anyone, the truth may be concealed in the surrounding blur.

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