It would be a fair assessment to conclude that many people consider some statements not what they would like to hear -- whether by Salman Rushdie, Geert Wilders, Ingrid Carlqvist, Douglas Murray, Lars Hedegaard, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, Theo van Gogh, the Mohammad cartoonists, Stéphane Charbonnier and other editors at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, among others. To say their remarks are sometimes regarded as controversial would be an understatement. Often, they are vociferous and vocal critics of extremist Islam, immigration, censorship and other policies -- and they have been accused of Islamophobia, hate speech, and inflaming racial and religious tensions. Several have been threatened with jail and death. Some have been murdered for their warnings.
Importantly, though, none of them has ever directly incited violence against a religion, ethnic minority, or sexual orientation.
Do not these voices, however repellent to some, deserve the chance to be heard without threat of retaliation? Their opinions are often not of the mainstream, but should that lead to censorship, death, or for Wilders and Sabaditsch-Wolff, court trials, for expressing their views?
On May 31, the European Commission announced its decision to control s-called "hate speech."
As democratic societies, we presumably believe that what strengthens our democracies, and separates free societies from the many authoritarian regimes, is free speech: the ability to air thoughts freely without fear of punishment. There is a saying that the founder of civilization was the first person who threw a word instead of a stone.
Throughout history, it is the minorities or the lone voices that need from the majority to allow everyone to question, comment on and criticize opinions with which they disagree. Freedom to be wrong, heretical or "blasphemous" -- as we have seen with Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Darwin or Alan Turing -- is the only way that civilisation can grow.
All of us are free not to listen to people with whom we disagree. We are also free to expose their arguments as false. Currently, those who defend free expression are not discussing ideas; they are discussing whether or not one should have a right to speak. Censorship moves debate away from the issues, then the issues remain undiscussed.
The irony is that these censors and would-be censors, such as the European Commission, the Dutch and Austrian courts, Facebook and Twitter are using their freedom of expression to suggest that someone else be robbed of his freedom of expression.
If there is no discussion of ideas, we must ask which ideas are acceptable and which are not, and with such questions, we move into the territory of Orwellian thought crime, which is where the proponents of censorship apparently want us to be. George Orwell's 1984 was not a manual; it was a stark warning about authoritarianism and censorship.
Is it possible that the censors may wish not to discuss ideas because they fear the answers?
When we present uncomfortable truths, or even untruths, they need to be heard, such as those who argued the world was flat or that vaccinations caused smallpox. It was only freedom of expression that enabled the abolition of slavery, or that supported the theory of evolution, voting rights for women, the Civil Rights Act, or equal opportunity for marriage for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals.
Freedom of expression is the tool that allows those who challenge injustice, prejudice and extremism the chance at least to present their case.
If we never listened to what we find uncomfortable, we would remain stagnant, probably with unbending ideas.
As unpleasant as it may be to listen to opinions that might differ from ours, the alternative, to suffocate free speech, is worse -- and incalculably more corrosive to civilization. If the violence carried out in the name of Islam poses a serious threat to the security of the Western World, or if new arrivals in a country are heavily involved in criminal activity, such as trafficking in drugs or humans and are filling the prisons disproportionately to the rest of society, those seem problems that it should be the duty of any citizen to point out. One might wish that these were not true, but the first step in correcting any problem is to be able to state it.
Censorship, by suppressing discussion of problems, therefore fails, counter-productively, to tackle what is causing them. Stifling discussion will not make the problem go away. Meanwhile, it festers and grows worse.
One cannot have discourse if there is no opportunity for opposition. We are now seeing European courts, the European Commission, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the UN Human Rights Council seek to silence those whose views they oppose.
It even turned out, at least in Germany last September, that "hate speech" apparently included posts criticizing mass migration. It would seem, therefore, that just about anything anyone finds inconvenient can be labelled as "racist" or "hate speech."
Censoring, ironically, ultimately gives the public an extremely legitimate grievance, and could even set up the beginning of a justifiable rebellion.
There is currently a worrying trend. Facebook, evidently attempting to manipulate what news people receive, recently censored the Swedish commentator Ingrid Carlqvist by deleting her account, then censored Douglas Murray's eloquent article about Facebook's censorship of Carlqvist. Recently, the BBC stripped the name Ali from Munich's mass-murderer so that he would not appear to be a Muslim.
Yet, a page called "Death to America & Israel", which actively incites violence against Israel, is left uncensored. Facebook, it seems, agrees that calling for the annihilation of the Jewish state is acceptable, but criticism of Islam is not. While pages that praise murder, jihadis, and anti-Semitism remain, pages that warn the public of the violence that is now often perpetrated in the name of Islam, but that do not incite violence, are removed.
Even in the United States, there was a Resolution proposed in the House of Representatives, H. Res. 569, attempting to promote the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation's Defamation of Religion/anti-blasphemy laws, to criminalize any criticism of "religion" – but meaning Islam.
Yesterday, at an airport, an advertisement for Facebook read, "A place to debate." Should it not instead have read, "A place to debate, but only if we agree with you"?
We should fear all censorship whenever and wherever we find it. We should welcome the right of anyone to speak. Not to allow differing points of view only entrenches positions by depriving people of the opportunity to hear anything that contradicts them. For those doing the censoring, that is doubtless the point.
But instead should we not be asking: who will be next? If voices, one by one, are silenced, who will be left to speak?
Robbie Travers, a political commentator and consultant, is Executive Director of Agora, former media manager at the Human Security Centre, and a law student at the University of Edinburgh.