Hats off to British actor and comedian, Rowan Atkinson, most known by Americans for his nod to silent-film era comedy shorts, in which he plays a hilariously bumbling child-like character by the name of Mr. Bean.
Atkinson gained a bit of high-profile attention back in 2012 for signing an open letter and giving a pro-free speech statement on the heels of a proposed British law that would, essentially, send anyone who so much as smirks, packing for the slammer.
The controversial “insult law” comes from Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. And while this news if far from “hot off the press,” it is resurfacing now at a time when free speech is once again in serious danger of going out of style.
“The simple truth is that in a free society, there is no right not to be offended. For centuries, freedom of speech has been a vital part of British life and repealing this law will reinstate that right.”David Davis, Conservative member of British Parliament
Here is a transcript of Atkinson’s speech.
“The reasonable and well-intentioned ambition to contain obnoxious elements in society has created a society of an extraordinarily authoritarian and controlling nature, it is what you might call the ‘new intolerance.’ A new, but intense, desire to gag uncomfortable voices of descent. ‘I am not intolerant,’ say many people. Say many, soft-spoken, highly-educated, liberal-minded people. ‘I am only intolerant of intolerance.’ People tend to nod sagely and say, ‘oh yes, wise words, wise words.’ And yet if you think about this supposedly inarguable statement for longer than five seconds, you realize that all it is advocating is the replacement of one kind of intolerance with another. Which to me doesn’t represent any kind of progress at all! Underlying prejudices, injustices, or resentments are not addressed by arresting people. They are addressed by the issues being aired, argued, and dealt with—preferably outside the legal process. For me, the best way to increase societies resistance to insulting or offensive speech is to allow a lot more of it. As with childhood diseases, you can better resist those germs which you have been exposed. We need to build our immunity to taking offense so that we can deal with the issues that perfectly justified criticism can raise. Our priority should be to deal with the message, not the messenger. As President Obama said in an address to the United Nations only a month or so ago, ‘laudable efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics or oppress minorities. The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech.’ And that’s the essence of my speech, more speech! If we want a robust society we need more robust dialogue, and that must include the right to insult or to offend.”
Well said, Mr. Bean!
“Jesters do oft prove prophets.”William Shakespeare