Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 39 (2014) 514–515
©2014 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation


Review

By Brian Gorman
MacEwan University


BR-7aA Right to Offend: Free Expression in the Twenty-First Century. By Brian Winston. London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2012. 414 pp. ISBN 9781849660150.


It is probably impossible to say anything about A Right to Offend without pointing out how timely it is—largely because this book would be relevant no matter when it was published.

As Brian Winston points out, the struggle for and against free speech is evergreen and never ending, from Martin Luther’s pronouncements and excommunication and John Milton’s Areopagitica, to the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, to Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning. However, it may be the recent attacks on free expression that are not included in this book that go the furthest toward proving the value of this book. For example, the persecution of Edward Snowden in the name of social responsibility; the banning of the film Noah in Muslim countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and Indonesia; and the recent hysterical outrage over Stephen Colbert’s “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong” tweet, which dealt with a statement that was taken out of context by someone at Comedy Central, then disseminated via Twitter and subsequently reviled by people with no knowledge of the show segment from which it had come. In the first case, the perpetrator of the crime of free expression is in exile in Russia; in the last, an online witch hunt sought to drive a man out of his job because some people misunderstood Colbert was attacking the very same thing for which they thought they were attacking him. In each case, special-interest groups used perception of injury as justification for an assault on free speech.

At the centre of Winston’s analysis of the limits of free speech is the perversion of the harm principle: the growing power of people who believe they have been harmed and who attempt to shut down or punish the expression they believe has caused harm, as opposed to provable harm—such as wartime protection of state secrets, hate speech, or incitement to violence. The book begins with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s issuing of a fatwa in response to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, sentencing to death “all those involved in its publication who were aware of its contents …” (p. 5). As Winston writes, this is a classic case of the harm principle being hijacked by those with an agenda to control and direct the public discourse to serve their purposes. This takes the concept of external and provable harm and applies it to internal and subjective harm: “being offended or taking offence, a state which cannot be confirmed by others, chillingly falls within the compass of the harm principle” (p. xiv).

From this starting point, Winston embarks on an epic 355-page journey (not counting notes, bibliography, and index) through the history of those who would take away our right to say things that offend them; those whose stupidity, greed, or self-interest enables and justifies the actions of a person or group and those opportunists who manipulate speech to serve power or maintain privilege. Almost fanatically detailed, meticulously scholarly, and dazzlingly erudite, A Right to Offend is not a book that will send you to secondary sources for background or explanation. The book is encyclopedic in its scope and detail, down to the point of including a detailed explanation of technological determinism before moving into a refreshingly skeptical analysis of online free speech.

In that, Winston joins a growing chorus of observers who see the Internet being “as much of a tool of repression as of liberation … where a thought such as ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident … ’ could be only expressed with one word: ‘crimethink’” (p. 245). As he points out, the Internet is in no way the wide-open, electric agora of anonymous commentary and unlimited expression that the “technicist communitarian utopians” would have us believe. Rather, as Julian Assange discovered, it “has never rendered censorship impotent. Now, it aids surveillance” and gives “the demagogue the ability to speak not in one city to one crowd, nor to a mass of individuals each in their own homes, but to gatherings of thousands in hundreds of locations— millions—at once” (p. 253).

Winston also persuasively argues that few groups give more comfort to the enemies of free expression than those who abuse it under the guise of the public interest. The two cautionary tales of the book that stand out are Edward R. Murrow exposing Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting in the 1950s and the recent Hackgate scandal in the British press. In the first instance, Milton’s arguments about truth vanquishing falsehood in the field proved true, but not before the press’s doctrine of balance helped a cynical, ambitious politician destroy dozens of lives and careers and almost tip a democracy into tyranny. In the second, the greed and amorality of a segment of the press caused the defence of free expression to become “mired in a need to condemn any sense that expression is, somehow, above the law” (p. 19).

In the end, Winston argues, the rule of law, properly exercised, is all we need to curb the self-inflicted injuries of the irresponsible and the abuses of the enemies of free expression. In his conclusion, he lists ten points designed to strengthen existing regulations and more clearly define them, and—perhaps most important—to curtail the ability of special interests to seize the mechanisms of communication and bend them to their purposes.

Despite the enormous range of A Right to Offend, it has a narrative drive and purpose that is clear and well defined. In Part One, Winston details the prosecution of free speech and, in Part Two, he mounts an exhaustive defence. Also, as its 25-page bibliography implies, this book contains a mother lode of references, to which anyone with an interest in the subject will return time and again to mine quotations, sources, and insights.

A Right to Offend is as engaging as it is magisterial. Winston’s relaxed and direct prose and natural storytelling skills—not to mention his obvious enthusiasm for the topic—make it a pleasure to read. You can easily disappear into it and not want to come out for a very long time. 


 



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