”Eppur si muove” – and yet it moves. This is what the Italian mathematician, physicist and philosopher Galileo is said to have mumbled to himself, when in 1633 the Catholic Inquisition Galilei had forced him to recant his claim that the Earth revolves around the sun.
One could come with a similar quiet comment after 14 authors on February 22nd – after the assassination attempt on one of the chief editors of Dispatch International – expressed their unconditional support for free expression in Danish daily Politiken. Thus, something still moves in an otherwise entirely frozen Danish public debate – or rather: lack of debate.
If we go back some 4 or 5 years, nobody would be surprised to see authors fighting for the widest possible right to free expression. They live by expressing themselves, and one who does not dare to use his voice can create neither literature nor journalism of even the slightest value. A wretch like this is betraying himself, and will be condemned to a shabby existence as either a propagandist or a court jester.
Yet today it is almost a sensation to see authors asserting the primacy of free expression, after almost every ambitious writer has maintained for years on end that her most significant task is to show respect and tolerance, in addition to speaking nicely to and about certain specific groups.
But here comes the 14 – five women and nine men – setting the record straight. Just like the Danish philosopher Kai Sørlander, they seemingly want to define tolerance as something to be exercised by the recipient of a message – not the sender. And respect is something one needs to earn – not something one can automatically demand. Perhaps not as clearly defined as by Sørlander, but at least in that direction.
Here is what the 14 write in article 2 of their manifesto for freedom:
“We differentiate between tolerance and respect, and define tolerance as the ability to bear with those of a different opinion, and we define respect as obedience, esteem and reverence.
“We tolerate all expressions, including the intolerant, but we will at any time counter all forms of intolerance with criticism and disrespect.
“We do not recognize the desire for respect as a rationale unto itself. In our view, intolerance constitutes a threat to the open society, while on the other hand, lack of respect is the most important defense for democracy”
There are many other good things in the declaration, including this from article 5:
“We condemn the non-dynamic view of culture and humans, and the application of this view to justify that one cannot or should not criticize cultures, ideologies etc., or their adherents, unless one belongs to them or supports them.”
It is doubtful that most current authors will understand what their colleagues are trying to say here. If one has practiced many years to act like a Pavlovian dog every time the command “Respect!” rings out, it can be difficult to get the brain working again.
But with their manifesto, the 14 have in any case indicated what a grown-up debate of culture could be about. It will be interesting to follow its future trajectory.