Free Speech, even for Kevin Myers

Kevin Myers, via the Irish Independent website.Kevin Myers (pictured left) is a mordant and trenchant journalist, possessed of contumacious views and caustic expression. He is a classic contrarian, articulating non-populist positions with style and vigour. Sometimes he does this with Swiftian ridicule and satire; sometimes with polemic and overstatement; and sometimes with acerbic and penetrating insight. When he gets it right, he is one of Ireland’s best exponents of sharp and biting political commentary and analysis.

Though I rarely, if ever, agree with him, I am always challenged by what he writes. Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, advised that one should know the enemy. In that spirit, I read Kevin Myers: I seek him out because I know that I will usually disagree with his views. And the fact that he can challenge my views, or a contemporary consensus, is, in many ways, the best justification for freedom of expression. When he takes a strong position, it challenges those of us who disagree with him to understand our own positions, marshal our thoughts, and understand precisely what we believe and why we believe it, the better to explain why we disagree with him.

However, last week, Myers crossed the line from commenting on the news to making it. In an opinion piece in The Irish Independent, he argued that donor aid to Africa is misconceived. But he expressed this view in characteristically acerbic, not to say overblown, terms. Africa, he said, in a line which also provided the headline for the piece “is giving almost nothing to anyone, apart from AIDS�. Indeed, he wrote that the

… wide-eyed [Ehtiopian] boy-child we saved, 20 years or so ago, is now a priapic, Kalashnikov-bearing hearty, siring children whenever the whim takes him.

There is, no doubt a good argument why we should prolong this predatory and dysfunctional economic, social and sexual system; but I do not know what it is. There is, on the other hand, every reason not to write a column like this.

But write it he did. And the controversy he predicted has indeed erupted. In truth, it was not a difficult prediction to make – he has been here before: for three or four weeks in February and March 2005, outrage and controversy engulfed The Irish Times over an opinion piece Myers had written (in The Irishman’s Diary) objecting to the welfare benefits received by unmarried mothers, who he described as “mothers of bastardsâ€?. And now, inevitably, there are calls (Irish Independent | Irish Times | RTÉ) for him to be prosecuted for having done so: the Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) has complained to the Gardaí seeking his prosecution under the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act, 1989 (here and here).

Any such prosecution would be a mistake. Freedom of expression is a pre-eminent democratic right. It is in the exercise of that right, explaining where he is going wrong, that the best answer to Myers lies. Rather than censor or punish him, the best response is to explain to everyone else just why he is so profoundly wide of the mark.

Indeed, one of the benefits of the controversy ignited by Myers in his 2005 column was the repeated and coherent rejection of his criticism of unmarried mothers’ benefits. It is not all that long ago that his views, and the terms in which he expressed himself, were orthodox and commonplace in Irish society. The fact that this orthodoxy had been successfully displaced has resulted in a society in which his views are no longer acceptable.

This demonstrates how important it is for orthodox views to be challenged. In a democratic society, that is the most important function of the right to freedom of expression. And that is what Myers does; he challenges our cosy and complacent orthodoxies. On other issues, if not on this, his contrarian views might change modern attitudes. It is best for us, then, that he be allowed, nay encouraged, to express them.

As a consequence, the best answer to Myers this time round is argue loud and long why his perspective on Africa is misconceived, or dangerous. An excellent example of this kind of response is to be found in Bryan Mukandi’s blogpost last week (Kevin Myers can keep his money) and in his article in today’s Irish Times (Intolerant words starve Africans of the chance they deserve).

Of course, there are times when Myers miscalculates the effects of his rhetoric. His contrarian technique is a difficult one to maintain, requiring a finely calibrated sense of judgment which eluded him in his controversial columns in 2005 and last week. This failure of judgment is why it is a matter for regret that Myers should have written those pieces in the first place. Nevertheless, though I would profoundly disagree his views, I would defend to the death his right to say it.

Moreover, I would equally defend his editors’ decisions to publish the columns. Freedom of the press is a significant element of the democratic process; and the media should be home to a wide variety of views. However, a newspaper is entitled to maintain its editorial line and journalistic standards, and editors can therefore edit their journalists’ copy or even decline to publish their articles. As a consequence, when a newspaper publishes controversial views, it should do so knowingly. Having done so, newspapers must accept this kind of controversy as the price for continuing to publish their opinionated columnists.

Of course, such columns will offend people. They are designed to do so. Indeed, the fact that many people have been offended by what he said is, in the final analysis, the best reason to allow him to say it. Rights are protections for individuals against majority disapproval. It is precisely to allow the expression of offensive opinions that the right to freedom of expression is necessary. Such offence provokes the kind of response we have seen in response to Myers, and we are all the better for it. In 2005, we learned that Irish society has moved on, that it no longer holds the kinds of views which Myers articulated about unmarried mothers. This week, we have learned that his views about Africa are equally anathema.

The point of freedom of expression is not that any one individual must get it right, but that there is always the possibility of debate. It is only because Kevin Myers got it wrong in 2005 and again last week that there followed an important and productive debate. The critics have been able to take advantage of the very freedom of expression upon which Myers had earlier relied, and take advantage of it roundly to denounce his published views. This is what freedom of expression is for; and it is why the controversy has been good for freedom of expression.

Sun Tzu’s advice was that if you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. After the battles over the views expressed by Kevin Myers in 2005 and last week, perhaps we all now know ourselves and our enemies a little better.