“You’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an asshole.”
-The Dude, from The Big Lebowski
Freedom of speech is one of those issues that gets me tied up in so many mental knots that I need a couple hours to unwind after thinking about it. I think part of the problem is that it’s one of a very few issues that the very progressive and the very hateful both agree on. I have yet to find a fully satisfying answer, but at this point I’ve decided that a neat solution is unattainable. Life is hard.
In theory, I am of course in favour of freedom of speech across the board. It protects people with critical/unpopular views of the dominant order, allows for some cutting humour, and for music with swear words. In practice, I get really confused when it comes to things like KKK rallies (to use an easy example), or more contemporarily, some of the extreme anti-Islamic trash coming out of people’s mouths and pens worldwide. That’s the kind of stuff that need to stop, and right now.
But literally stopping it (through legal means or otherwise) won’t erase the ideology that gives birth to it. The best answer I’ve been able to find to all this is to meet the speech in question with a whole lot of positive dialogue that counters it. Meet a hate rally with a bigger anti-hate rally. It’s certainly not a quick fix, but it can help stop the spread of violent ideas, and is better than the alternatives.
For some more concrete examples, I’ll talk about the kinds of things that have been happening in Europe, lately. In Holland, the supreme court has decided to put Geert Wilders in jail [The article I linked is pretty one-sided, and I disagree with some of the editorializing, but it's where I heard the news], in part due to a film he made called “Fitna” – which, from what I hear, is highly “problematic” to say the least. He has also called for the Quran to be banned. Not a particularly tolerant guy, from the sounds of it. Still, putting him in jail for it doesn’t set a good precedent. All this is related to the “Danish Cartoons” nonsense that blew up a couple years ago, and is part of a long-string of anti-Islamic speech coming from government officials, editorialists, and right-wing groups across Europe. Or North America, for that matter, but that’s not my focus here.
Now, I’m not going to blame the victim and say Theo Van Gogh “had it coming” (nobody does), and I’m not going to suggest that the rioting in Muslim countries was anything but a very bad response to the Danish cartoons [update: please see this reply in the comments for a bit of context]. Those are just two of the poor “alternatives” to positive dialogue that I mentioned above, Wilders’ jail term being a third. I’m also going to admit that there are things about Islam – or any religion – that warrant a great deal of critique. But deliberately stirring up hatred (which is what much of the ham-fisted European “critique” is really doing) is the wrong way of going about it. The bulk of it is little more than thinly-veiled xenophobia without any real substance.
When the Danish cartoons fiasco really got going, cartoonists and journalists worldwide ranted and raved about what an outrage it was that the cartoons were banned. Muslims were told to “grow a thicker skin” and that nobody’s got a right “not to be offended.” Fair enough. To an extent, that’s certainly true. But there’s a very big difference between speaking truth to power and mocking an already marginalized group. It’s easy to talk from a position of privilege (ie. the dominant race/religion/class) and tell the downtrodden to “buck up,” but not so easy to deal with what is essentially institutionalized prejudice. After all, Christianity is almost never spoken about in the kinds of terms that Islam is, despite the fact that the bible has just as many inflammatory passages.
All this meandering blabbering (sorry about that – like I said, this topic ties my brain in knots) can be summed up by that Big Lebowski quote above. All too often, “freedom of speech” is a wall that racists hide behind, tossing slurs at whatever minority is within range. Still, the only way to ensure that valid, useful critique is fully protected is to protect everything – even the most bile-filled garbage. Let the rest of it become social taboo. Mr. Wilders should be allowed to say whatever he wants to say, if only because censoring him will serve only to bring more people to his side – and it won’t change his mind. He’s not strictly wrong about freedom of speech, but he’s definitely an asshole.
On the photo: I saw this paste-up on the side of a “Metro” daily newspaper box. While it’s likely that some poor employee was just trying to clean up, I wonder if someone tried to tear if off because they didn’t like the message (which, I am guessing, is “Your Time Is Now.”) At any rate, I’m glad someone is going around Vancouver sticking up positive (if trite) messages. It’s something that I myself had been planning to do a couple years back, but never got around to doing. Maybe one of these days I’ll join the party.