August 11, 2014

Why Hate Speech Laws Have More In Common With Fascism Than Democracy

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What is the issue?

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In America, we enjoy unparalleled levels of free speech.  Whether it’s holding up offensive signs at funerals, calling on people to “slaughter Muslims in the streets”, or neo-Nazis marching through a town filled with Holocaust survivors, no other nation on Earth allows people to express their thoughts to the same extent that the United States does.  Even vague or indirect threats and the advocacy of violence are protected speech under the First Amendment.  However, for those who don’t know, people outside of the US believe that there are two kinds of speech: “free speech” (which is state-approved speech; it’s very common to hear Europeans say that “freedom of speech only means that you can criticize the government”) and “hate speech” (which is offensive and/or incendiary speech). Even the staunchest “libertarians” and “free speech activists” outside of the US firmly believe that “hate speech is not free speech”. While there are a few people there who believe that “hate speech” laws should be made slightly less strict (and these people are widely condemned as Nazis, racists, fascists, bigots, Nazis, etc.), one would be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of the US supports full US-style freedom of speech.  The mere concept is simply unfathomable to them.

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laws against “hate speech” merely push bigotry underground where it can multiply and grow stronger. Bigotry must be exposed to the light where it can be defeated with open discourse.

One place where this phenomenon is highly evident is the Oceanian nation of Australia. There was a huge public outrage in Australia recently when it was proposed that the country’s federal “hate speech” laws be made slightly less strict (each Australian state also has its own “hate speech” laws, with the state of Victoria declaring that even “wholly true and completely balanced” statements can be “hate speech”).  This particular controversy started when popular columnist Andrew Bolt was sued for writing columns which questioned the motives of white people who claim aboriginal ancestry in order to obtain benefits meant for aboriginals, effectively stealing the aboriginal identity for selfish personal gain.  One example of the people called out by Bolt is former drug addict Bindi Cole, a blue-eyed white woman who is so obviously not aboriginal that, deep down, not even the most devoted social justice fanatic could actually believe her claim that she is.

These so-called “fair-skinned aborigines” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) could have very well sued Bolt for defamation and have been compensated for the harm they claim to have suffered, but they chose to sue him for “hate speech” instead, firmly establishing that they had not suffered any actual harm and were merely seeking to make a cheap political point.  Nonetheless, the court found Bolt guilty and, since Bolt is a friend of Australia’s current Coalition government, they pledged to address the issue of Section 18C of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act, which Bolt was successfully sued under and which makes it “unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.”

Instead of repealing the section of the Act that Bolt was sued under, Attorney-General George Brandis proposed slightly altering it so that the words “offend”, “insult”, and “humiliate” are replaced with “vilify”, with “vilify” being defined as to “incite hatred” and “intimidate” being defined as to “cause fear of physical harm”.  To an American ear, this doesn’t go nearly far enough.  To an Australian ear, however, it was an outrageous assault on the sacred human right to not be offended.

Australia nearly passed a law – the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill – that would have made it illegal to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone not only on the basis of their race, but on their “attributes”, including their political opinion, along with outlawing any expression of religious belief if someone were “offended” by it.

The idea of slightly changing federal “hate speech” laws was considered to be completely outrageous by almost everyone in the country, with numerous politicians, journalists, pundits, online commentators, artists, authors, columnists, and others speaking out about the need for strict “hate speech” law enforcement.  Many feared that the proposed  changes would “allow Holocaust denial” (despite Brandis repeatedly insisting that they wouldn’t) – something which hardly anyone in America actually believes should be illegal (Glenn Greenwald reflected on this in an excellent column here).

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poll indicated that 88% of Australians believed that all racist speech should be illegal and people even marched against the proposed changes. Is it ironic for people to protest against freedom of speech? Of course, but not as ironic as journalists loudly supporting state suppression of speech.  Many – including Australia’s taxpayer-funded Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane – even argued that making the country’s federal “hate speech” laws slightly less strict would cause race riots, ethnic cleansing, and outright genocide. “Strict government regulation of speech is the only thing stopping another Holocaust” is actually a very common argument in Europe and the Commonwealth, but it’s a highly ironic one when one considers that Weimar Germany did, in fact, have “hate speech” laws (and convictions), that the Nazis were banned in the 1920s, that Adolf Hitler had been arrested (which, of course, only made him stronger), and that there was absolutely no freedom of speech whatsoever in Nazi Germany. In fact, if there had been freedom of speech in Nazi Germany, it would have been much easier for people to have stopped the Holocaust from happening (or, at the very least, from continuing). In addition, once a society reaches the point where genocide is possible, no amount of speech laws is going to stop it.  One need look no further than the Central African Republic, where the government has all but collapsed and a new Rwandan Genocide is brewing.

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Such a thing is to be fully expected in Australia, however. Australia is, without a doubt, one of the most extreme nanny states in existence – a country where everything from laser pointers to neodymium magnets to leaving one’s car window slightly down is against the law. In the eyes of the average Australian, the role of the government is to serve as a parent to citizens. Australians generally cannot even fathom the idea that one can disapprove of something without seeking to make it illegal. This can be seen in the Australian media’s bewildered reaction to David Leyonhjelm, a politician who, despite saying that he personally disapproves of the gay “lifestyle”, wants to legalize gay marriage. The Australian public simply cannot wrap their head around the idea that a politician would be able to separate their personal opinions from their duty as a statesman. On top of that, the Australian solution to absolutely everything is government bans.

People are racist? Ban racism. If you disagree, you’re racist.

People are getting stabbed? Ban knives. If you disagree, you’re a knife criminal.

Children are drowning in pools? Ban pools. If you disagree, you want children to drown.

People are being mean? Ban people from being mean. If you disagree, you’re a bully who wants people to commit suicide.

What it essentially all boils down to is an extreme level of political immaturity. George Brandis was hugely mocked and widely condemned when he stated that people “do have a right to be bigots”. In America, it’s simply common sense that people have a right to hold any opinion they want – no matter how disgusting or offensive that opinion may be. To an average Australian, however, supporting someone’s right to say something means that one automatically approves of what that person is saying. Ergo, supporting someone’s “right to be a bigot” means that one must also be a bigot themselves. A similar occurrence happened when Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson stated that, while he highly disapproved of the sexist slogans being used by camper car company Wicked Campers, he didn’t believe that the government should force them to change their slogans; this also met with widespread outrage from Australians, who automatically saw him as supporting the company’s slogans since he didn’t want the government to ban them, which most Australians did (indeed, the Australian senate unanimously passed a motion condemning the camper car company and their deliberately vulgar slogans).

As groups like the Westboro Baptist Church have demonstrated, the easiest way to make people hate bigots is to simply let the bigots speak out freely and openly.

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There is not a single public figure in Australia who supports full US-style freedom of speech – a concept which is completely unimaginable in Australia, where most people do not make any distinction between speech and action. In Australia, openly supporting freedom of speech is more than enough to get one fired from their job, if not outright lynched. George Brandis and the Coalition government merely wanted to slightly amend the laws in order to allow “legitimate” (read: state-approved) speech because, as previously mentioned, friend of the government Andrew Bolt was sued under them. As the Coalition government abandoned its plans to amend the law following massive backlash, self-styled champion of free speech George Brandis also introduced draconian new “anti-terror” surveillance legislation that criminalized the “support or promotion of terrorism” and a new “metadata retention” scheme to monitor people’s usage of the Internet. The Attorney-General – who is routinely attacked in Australia for being too “ultra-libertarian” – also wants to introduce new Internet filtering in a throwback to Australia’s laughable attempts to filter the Internet during the Julia Gillard administration. Since the Gillard administration also attempted to secure total state control of all media outlets (a plan which many Australian “journalists”, of course, wholeheartedly supported), one can surmise that it’s only a matter of time before the current Tony Abbott administration revives this idea as well. After all, they’re also introducing a “Children’s eSafety Commissioner” to monitor “cyber bullying”, while Australia is also determined to ban protesting and outlaw journalism.

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At one point during the Gillard administration, Australia nearly passed a law – the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill – that would have made it illegal to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone not only on the basis of their race, but on their “attributes”, including their political opinion, along with outlawing any expression of religious belief if someone were “offended” by it. The proposed law also would have reversed the burden of proof, as it stated that accused individuals were to be declared guilty unless they could prove their innocence.  The Australian Greens, of course, opined that the proposed law “didn’t go far enough” (it’s hard to imagine what “going far enough” would be for the Greens – perhaps executing anyone who ever mutters an “offensive” word to themselves in private?).  While one shouldn’t expect the current Abbott administration to revive this failed law, it nonetheless exists as a testament to just how deep the contempt for freedom of speech runs in Australian society.

people who campaign for censorship never consider the very real possibility that their speech may one day be deemed “offensive” and silenced by the government.

Of course, laws against “hate speech” merely push bigotry underground where it can multiply and grow stronger. Bigotry must be exposed to the light where it can be defeated with open discourse. In addition, once the government has set the precedent that certain thoughts and ideas can be outlawed, there is no limit to what can be censored – after all, who gets to decide what “hate speech” constitutes? Government suppression of speech results in the perception that the speaker must have something important to say (vindicating the speaker’s beliefs and fueling their persecution complex), and it never fails to generate massively increased interest in what would otherwise be fringe and marginal ideas, giving them far more exposure than they ever would have had otherwise. It effectively turns bigots into martyrs, as one can see from the massive upsurge in support that Dieudonné M’bala M’bala and his anti-Semitic ideas received in France recently after he was banned for anti-Semitism. The way to respond to speech is with more speech, not with enforced silence. If anything, laws against “hate speech” actually HELP bigots along with making them angrier and much more likely to resort to violence. As groups like the Westboro Baptist Church have demonstrated, the easiest way to make people hate bigots is to simply let the bigots speak out freely and openly.  Bigots speaking freely actually turns people against bigotry.  The more vile, offensive, outrageous, and over-the-top their rhetoric is, the more they will discredit themselves and the more people will unite against them and everything they stand for. The Westboro Baptist Church, for instance, has done a wonderful job at completely discrediting homophobes and making millions of people (who might otherwise not care) stand up against homophobia. In fact, many have actually accused them of being “black propaganda” (which is a sort of reverse propaganda that aims to make the opposing side look bad by posing as them) agents working to discredit homophobes.

The only way that bigots could actually recruit people to their cause would be by being subtle and not overtly bigoted. And prosecuting people for subtle bigotry would not only be impossible, but would also backfire even worse than prosecuting people for overt bigotry. “Hate speech” laws merely force bigots to be more “respectable”, which can only work in the bigots’ favor. If anything, we should be encouraging bigots to be as shockingly extreme and utterly disgusting as possible so that they stand no chance of ever appearing reasonable or ever winning anyone over.

Of course, people who campaign for censorship never consider the very real possibility that their speech may one day be deemed “offensive” and silenced by the government.  For example, when Unite Against Fascism lobbied for a ban on a proposed English Defence League (EDL) march, UK home secretary Theresa May banned all protest marches for 30 days. Unite Against Fascism responded by saying that they “welcomed the banning” of the EDL’s march, but were outraged at being banned from protesting themselves. This is, of course, nothing unusual. In a similar vein, I remember seeing a Facebook page titled “Australians for a Progressive Society” screaming about “democracy and freedom of speech” when they couldn’t protest, but also demanding extremely strict “hate speech” law enforcement (including for “sexist” speech) because “freedom of speech does NOT give you the right” to say things that offend them. Do these people never consider the fact that there is absolutely no objective criteria whatsoever for determining what is “offensive”? Had the First Amendment not existed, abolitionist speech could have easily been banned as “hate speech” in the Antebellum South – what is considered “hateful” and “offensive” is entirely relative, which is why the government should absolutely never have the power to ban speech that it deems as such. Every single civil rights victory in history has been owed to freedom of speech.

Personally, I find it nothing less than absolutely disgusting and depressing how people who claim to campaign for “human rights” are so opposed to the most basic human right of all: freedom of speech. Since when did “the right to not be offended” trump the right to speak freely? Whatever happened to “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”? As Jacob Hornberger once said, “The true test of a free society in terms of freedom of speech is not whether popular and ‘responsible’ speech is protected from government assault but instead whether the most vile and despicable speech receives such protection. After all, even in North Korea people are free to publish popular and ‘responsible’ materials. People have freedom of speech only when government is prohibited from suppressing the most unpopular and irresponsible forms of speech.” TC mark

featured image – Adam Fagen

This post originally appeared at MoonMetropolis.

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