Freedom of (Hate) Speech

January 29th, 2009

“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.

4 Responses to “Freedom of (Hate) Speech”

  1. Nadia says:

    You’re right about the Danish cartoons’ intentions, there’s a lot of overlap with the anti-Islamic propaganda and outright fascist groups in Europe(google Nazis for Israel.) The cartoons were about as bad as the opinions spouted on Foxnews and morning talk shows though and as such I don’t think a blanket ban is practical, but ‘freedom of speech’ as an excuse is, I think, misleading when we’re talk about giving space to views like that in mainstream media and presenting it as normalized or one “side” of a two sided debate. See that Margaret Wente column in the Globe essentially saying that Native culture is retarded(if you don’t know what I’m talking about do a search and you’ll probably find a facebook group on it.) By publishing it the editors besides, a)obviously wanting to create controversy and sell papers b)as the editors of the only widely read national newspaper are making a statement about what the parameters of debate should be, and that is a different matter than whether Margaret Wente as an individual should be able to speak her mind or not. Another one is during the US election campaigns alot of mainstream papers including the NYTimes agreed to distribute a propaganda movie called “Obsession” with its paper to its subscribers, which was another fitna type scaremongering movie. NSA also found that after Sarah Palin made comments about Obama palling around with terrorists, the number of death threats against him increased dramatically.

    That said in the abstract I do think Canadian and European hate laws are still a good thing, and I like having a legal pretext to crack down on certain extremist groups, (though violent strains of those groups might be more of a concern in Europe than North America right now, we shouldn’t rule out that they will be in the future.)

  2. Nadia says:

    I can talk so much. Anyways regarding the reaction in Muslim countries themselves, take into account that the cartoon protests were encouraged and inflamed by the governments themselves as an apolitical and harmless(to them) way to divert rage(ie in a xenophobic way).
    Last year they tried to stoke that flame again when the cartoons were republished, but people had largely lost interest and didn’t show up. Interestingly enough when the war of last month broke out, rage was just as vehemently expressed against their own governments as it was against the usual places.

  3. Christopher says:

    Thank you, Nadia! Once again, we’re on the same page. My exact position on this tends to jitter around a little, but I do agree that having some moderate anti-hate laws in place is useful. I don’t think jail terms are a particularly good idea, necessarily, but once violence comes into it, I’m then all bets are off and jail is a-okay in my books. It really does need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis– which “law” is not really good for.

    One of my housemates is from Germany, and as you can imagine they’ve got some pretty strict anti-hate laws in place, particularly regarding Nazi slogans/iconography. One of the ways around it is that Neo-Nazi groups put on t-shirts with “88″ on them – “H” being the 8th letter of the alphabet: 88 = HH = Heil Hitler. While I still have no qualms about banning swastikas (especially in Germany), euphemisms arise that can become almost as potent, and anti-hate laws can’t address those. See the case where “Canadians” was/is being used as a pejorative replacement for the n-word in the Southern US.

    You make a very strong point about xenophobia speech being put forth as a reasonable other “side” of the debate. I actually have a post brewing (I have no idea when I will write it) about shifting the terms of a debate: how extreme positions can get presented as a viable option, which then shifts the entire discussion in a distinctly more bat-shit-crazy direction, further away from reason.

    And thanks for adding that bit about the Danish cartoons being used as a diversion for local anger. That was a nuance I’d forgotten about, but it’s an important point. I might actually add a short note in the post-proper about that.

  4. Nadia says:

    Yeah, of course governments using soft targets like foreigners to divert attention in stupid ways is a near universal thing, the rise of fascism in Russia and Eastern Europe in particular, or racism in Italy is getting seriously disturbing, the cartoons thing was just a really spectacular example. Though I’ve definitely known people that were genuinely offended by them, they tended to be more offended by things like wars. I don’t want to overstate this though and say they were completely manufactured: all people have agency, every group has its crazies etcetc, but you definitely can’t deny it as a factor.

    The 14/88 thing is just I think a technicality and I think the meaning of wearing it is pretty unambiguous, actually far less ambiguous technically than a swastika, that has a longer and more diverse history as a symbol, I think what matters more is who is wearing it and why. Maybe that’s too much of an oversimplification, but I mean I don’t live in there, so this is all pretty abstract for me.

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