Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Europe Rushes to Outlaw Free Speech

The recent indictment of left-wing writer Oriana Fallaci by an Italian court represents only the latest manifestation of a trend amongst European elites to silence opinions that run counter to the politically correct/multiculturalist orthodoxy which has become official government policy throughout most of Europe. Ms. Fallaci was charged with "defaming Islam" for passages in her 2004 book, The Force of Reason, which criticized Islamic culture and religious doctrine for breeding violence. The judge that affirmed the indictment wrote that some passages from Ms. Fallaci's book were "without doubt offensive to Islam and to those who practice that religious faith." Italian Justice Minister Roberto Castelli objected to the indictment, arguing that it endangered freedom of expression, but the judge's ruling stands. Muslim activists were delighted, and most European pundits remained silent. Ms. Fallaci's ordeal, however, is merely the first step in creating officially sanctioned boundaries to speech. In a recent Spiked Online essay, Sandy Starr makes clear that the Internet, that American-style bastion of free speech, is the next target of the European PC police.
The rush to find new legislation outlawing 'hate speech' on the internet has become a Europe-wide project. The 'Brussels Declaration' issued by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) - which came out of the proceedings of its Conference on Tolerance and the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, in which I participated in Brussels in September 2004 - commits OSCE member states to 'combat hate crimes, which can be fuelled by racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic propaganda in the media and on the internet'
The chair of the European Network Against Racism, a prominent network of non-governmental organisations, argued at the same Brussels conference that 'any effective instrument to fight racism' in law should criminalise 'incitement to racial violence and hatred', 'public insults on the ground of race', 'the condoning of crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes', 'the denial or trivialisation of the Holocaust', 'public dissemination of racist or xenophobic material', and 'directing, supporting or participating in the activities of a racist or xenophobic group'. Additionally, 'racist motivation in common crimes should be considered an aggravating circumstance' - as it already is in UK law.

As the idea that 'hate speech' is a growing problem in need of official regulation and censorship has reached prominence across Europe, it is not surprising that the internet has emerged as a particular focus for concern. The internet poses a challenge to older forms of regulation and makes a nonsense of boundaries between jurisdictions. There have been calls for the authorities to close down websites such as Redwatch and Noncewatch - both of which are linked to the fascist organisation Combat 18, and which contain hitlists of supposed Marxists and paedophiles respectively. More humorous websites, such as I Hate Hawick (now defunct) - which consisted largely of strongly-worded invective against the Scottish town of Hawick and its rugby fans - have also come under fire for preaching hate (which is ironic, given that one of the things the website took Hawick's residents to task for was their alleged racism).
While mitigating racism may seem a laudable goal, supressing speech to do so has never proven an effective means. Nor is it moral to forcibly silence opinions - even odious ones - simply because one disagrees with them. Driving politically unacceptable opinions underground only feeds the anger and resentment of those who hold them, and serves to confirm by the taint of conspiracy the validity of such ideas among their advocates.

The European zeal to prohibit opinions that fall askance of the current PC/multiculuralist dogma risks far more than simply increasing the appeal of truly racist or fascist propaganda. In trying to craft regulations that will legally stamp out such objectionable materrials, the definition of proscribed speech has been made sufficiently broad that virtually anything can fall under its scope.
The Council of Europe's Additional Protocol to the Convention On Cybercrime, which seeks to prohibit 'racist and xenophobic material' on the internet, defines such material as 'any written material, any image or any other representation of ideas or theories, which advocates, promotes or incites hatred, discrimination or violence, against any individual or group of individuals, based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin, as well as religion if used as a pretext for any of these factors'. Can we presume that online versions of the Bible and the Koran will be the first things to go, under this regime? Certainly, there are countless artistic and documentary works that could fall afoul of such all-encompassing regulation.
Under such a ridiculously broad definition, anyone arguing to limit immigration could be charged with xenophobia. Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch MP, who has warned of the danger of Muslim immigration and urged Europe to drastically reduce the number of Muslims entering their countries, could be silenced under this rule. Doubly so, since she has also criticized the treatment of women in Islamic culture - criticism which many Muslims do find offensive and for which she has received many death threats. Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker murdered in Amsterdam by militant Muslims angered by his film "Submission" which depicted the plight of Islamic women, would also have been silenced by European bureaucrats. How can truth survive when argument is suppressed?

In accordance with the commonly stated aim of hate speech regulation, to avert the threat of fascism, the Additional Protocol also seeks to outlaw the 'denial, gross minimisation, approval or justification of genocide or crimes against humanity'. According to the Council of Europe, 'the drafters considered it necessary not to limit the scope of this provision only to the crimes committed by the Nazi regime during the Second World War and established as such by the Nuremberg Tribunal, but also to genocides and crimes against humanity established by other international courts set up since 1945 by relevant international legal instruments'.

This is an instance in which the proponents of hate speech regulation, while ostensibly guarding against the spectre of totalitarianism, are acting in a disconcertingly authoritarian manner themselves. Holocaust denial is one thing - debate over the scale and causes of later atrocities, such as those in the Sudan or the former Yugoslavia, and whether it is right to describe such conflicts in terms of genocide, is another, and there is an ongoing and legitimate debate about these issues. Yet the European authorities stand to gain new powers that will entitle them to impose upon us their definitive account of recent history, which we must accept as true on pain of prosecution.
As pernicious as Holocaust deniers are, they are best refuted by an open debate where the facts are aired honestly. Holocaust denial may flourish amongst extremists, where ideology compels acceptance regardless of fact, but it has no chance of gaining mainstream acceptance because of the overwhelming amount of evidence available against it. However, suppressing Holocaust deniers, instead freely debating them, paints their position with a patina of government persecution, which increases their credibility, especially with people who grow disenchanted with the government for other reasons. Worse, by suppressing Holocaust deniers, one creates an official, legally uncontestable version of history. If such an official version of history can be created for the Holocaust, where else can such official government sponsored doctrines spring up? What about people who question the numbers of slaves exported from Africa, or the number of people killed in the Armenian genocide? The Turkish government - which is pushing hard for European Union membership - denies there even was an Armenian genocide. Should Turkey receive EU membership, it might use its political muscle to accuse those who document the atrocities committed by Turks against Armenians as "defaming" Turkey and promoting "racism" against Turks. What if the idea of official doctrines spill over into the sciences? If researchers find genetic differences in ability of features between racial groups, is that racism per say? Even if they can prove it? If European governments get to silence research they find politically inconvenient, what happens to European science. To the Enlightenment concept of free inquiry? The Inquisition that silenced Galileo will be back, this time wearing EU robes. Nor is this idle speculation, the EU apparently is considering such things.

The restrictions on free speech contained in the Additional Protocol could have been even more severe than they currently are. Apparently, 'the committee drafting the Convention discussed the possibility of including other content-related offences', but 'was not in a position to reach consensus on the criminalisation of such conduct'. Still, the Additional Protocol as it stands is a significant impediment to free speech, and an impediment to the process of contesting bigoted opinions in open debate.
As one of the Additional Protocol's more acerbic critics remarks: 'Criminalising certain forms of speech is scientifically proven to eliminate the underlying sentiment. Really, I read that on a match cover.' (7) Proof, perhaps, that you cannot believe everything that you read in the bar. The idea that censorship leads people to speak and act in the correct way is a highly dubious and contested concept. What is certainly true, though, is that once free speech is limited it ceases to be free.
Those advocating restrictions on free speech usually claim that speech is always tied to action, whether that action be immediate or distant. The advocacy of racist, xenophobic, sexist or anti-semetic ideas today, lays the groundwork for violence tomorrow. By this line of thinking any idea that someone else finds offensive constitutes incitement against that person or group. Of course, this abrogates any concept of personal responsibility, a notion that leftist elites abandoned a long time ago.
In the vast majority of instances, however - including incitement to commit a hateful act - no such immediate fear exists. Rather, there is an opportunity for the individual to assess the words that they hear, and to decide whether or not to act upon them. It is therefore the individual who bears responsibility for his actions, and not some third party who incited that individual to behave in a particular way. While it's understandably disconcerting, to take one example, for Nick Ryan - who writes books and makes programmes exposing the far right - to encounter a message board posting about him saying 'someone should knife this cunt', such words are not in themselves a legitimate pretext for censoring internet content.
The issue is not about the right of a handful of individuals to peddle hateful content. Who really cares if they have a voice or not? But what the concern about online hate speech reveals is the level of official contempt for users of the internet. There is a fear that people reading hateful content on their computer will unwittingly take those ideas on board, and be incited to commit violent acts as a result. Therefore, it is assumed that the public needs protection from hateful ideas online in much the same way that children are protected from sites containing pornography and violence. But adult internet users are not children, and nor are they stupid or so easily influenced.
There are legitimate cases of incitement of violence. The demogauge who bays like a wolf in front of an angry mob with weapons at hand, calling for bloodshed, bears responsibility if his exhortations strike an immediate effect, especially if he has good reason to believe they will. And those who openly advocate violence against other persons and groups are inciting violence against them and may be reasonably prosecuted if their listeners heed their call. But to call statements that others merely find "offensive" abandons all reason. If Catholics in the US were offended by articles in the Boston Globe exposing the pedophile priest scandal, should those articles be censored? If news organization cannot report the truth because it might offend someone, what good would they serve?
The British academic David Miller, an advocate of hate crime legislation, complains that 'advocates of free speech tend to assume that speech can be clearly separated from action'. But outside of the obscurer reaches of academic postmodernism, one would be hard-pressed to dispute that there is a distinction between what people say and think on the one hand, and what they do on the other.
Certainly, it becomes difficult, in the absence of this basic distinction, to sustain an equitable system of law. If our actions are not distinct from our words and our thoughts, then there ceases to be a basis upon which we can be held responsible for those actions. Once speech and action are confused, then we can always pass the buck for our actions, no matter how grievous they are - an excuse commonly known as 'the Devil made me do it'.
It is not words in themselves that make things happen, but the estimation in which we hold those words. And if ideas that we disagree with are held in high estimation by others, then we're not going to remedy this situation by trying to prevent those ideas from being expressed. Rather, the only legitimate way we can tackle support for abhorrent ideas, is to seek to persuade the public of our own point of view, through political debate. When the authorities start resorting to hate speech regulation, in order to suppress ideas that they object to, this is an indication that the state of political debate is far from healthy.
As well as distinguishing between speech and action, when assessing the validity of hate speech as a regulatory category, it is also useful to make a distinction between forms of prejudice such as racism, and generic emotions. Whereas racism is a prejudice that deserves to be contested, hatred is not objectionable in itself. Hatred is merely an emotion, and it can be an entirely legitimate and appropriate emotion at that.
It is appropriate to feel hatred at times. Hatred and suspicion are products of our evolutionary past, adapted to protect us from people who have or might do us harm. After September 11th, it remains just an appropriate for Americans (and all civilized people) to hate the Islamist terrorists who planned and committed the attacks, and the Muslims who supported the terrorists and celebrated the attacks. It is not appropriate to hate all Muslims, as the US government went out of its way to make clear. It is also appropriate to feel a certain amount of suspicion toward Muslims, since it is clear that sympathy for the terrorists is manifest among a sizable percentage of Muslims. Acting on that suspicion, however, is constrained by the normal civilized laws governing human behavior and individual violence can never be tolerated. But airing criticism of Muslim culture, motives and behavior and of Islamic doctrine does not constitute violence, nor does it constitute incitement if there is no call to violence. Protecting official versions of the truth - those that correspond to the current politically fashionable consensus - demeans the very notion of truth and addles the collective mind of a society by shackling thought. Worse, it permits bad ideas to escape the winnowing process of debate and scruitiny, while granting them the exalted mantle of "persecuted."
Labelling speech that we disagree with 'hate speech', and seeking to prohibit it instead of taking up the challenge of disputing it, points to a world in which we resort to 'protective stupidity' to prevent the spread of objectionable ideas. Not only is this inimical to freedom, but it gives objectionable ideas a credibility that they often don't deserve, by entitling them to assume the righteous attitude of challenging an authoritarian status quo. This is particularly stark when applied to the internet - where so many ideas float around, and many of these deserve no credibility at all.


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