Where Free Speech Is Deadly

A woman puts flowers in tribute to the victims of a deadly knife attack at the Notre Dame church in Nice, France, October 30, 2020. (Eric Gaillard, Reuters)
Attacks in France should remind us that the threat to our freedom is not “hate speech,” but those who hate speech.

There is an idea, exceedingly popular of late, that the greatest threat to democracy is “hate.” We tend to agree, when encountering this argument, that hate is a dreadful thing. And that it is. But what, exactly, do we mean by it? One person who dared to drill down on the idea was Samuel Paty, a French middle-school teacher, who, during a lesson on freedom of expression, showed his students pictures of Mohammed from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. I say “was” because Paty (a husband and father of a small child) is now dead. A short distance from his school in the Parisian suburbs, Paty was beheaded in broad daylight by a knife-wielding man shouting “Allahu Akbar.” Yesterday, France reckoned with the news that another knife-wielding man, shouting the same Islamist mantra, beheaded one woman and killed two others at a Catholic church in Nice.

To continue the spirit of Paty’s civics lesson, which of the following do you find to be most “hateful” or threatening to democratic freedoms: (1) Presenting pictures of a naked prophet to adolescents in the context of a lesson on freedom of expression; (2) Subscribing to a religion other than Islam (or no religion at all); or (3) Forcibly removing a living person’s head from his body for something he thinks and thus, by your lights, is?

This is a question someone really ought to ask Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s justice secretary, who, under the guise of “hate speech,” has proposed updating Scotland’s dormant blasphemy law with a new one carrying a maximum seven-year prison sentence for the offense of saying, publishing, or distributing sentiments that minority groups interpret as hateful. On Tuesday, during the Scottish parliament’s discussions of these proposals, Yousaf made clear that he would also like the government to police people’s dinner-table conversations. He suggested to MSPs that behavior that is “threatening or abusive” or “intentionally stirring up hatred against, for example, Muslims” ought not to be tolerated even “in the home,” and indeed “deserves criminal sanction.” If his logic seems repugnant it is because it is the same as Paty’s killer’s — zero tolerance for those who say or do things he doesn’t like.

At the political level, Mr. Yousaf is an authoritarian, armed with an ideology that deserves to be scoffed at in a liberal democracy. But such malignant actors are not only at work in Scotland. In 2011, an Austrian court convicted a woman of “disparagement of religious precepts” after she likened Islam’s prophet Mohammed to a pedophile, saying he “liked to do it with children.” She appealed her case to the European Court of Human Rights, but the court decided that she was not protected by Article 10 of the EU convention on freedom of expression since her words were capable of “stirring up prejudice and putting at risk religious peace,” and further were “likely to incite religious intolerance,” thus placing them “beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate.”

The accusation that someone is “likely to incite religious intolerance” when the people committing the actual violence are the offended, not those doing the offending, is surely the ultimate incidence of what progressives like to call “victim blaming.” Like the man who goes up to the wasp nest with a big stick, the sentiment of the ruling class is too often “Well, what did you think was going to happen, talking about Mohammed like that?”

This is a fallacy, absurd as it is dangerous. For we are not talking about wasps but fellow human beings and citizens who ought to be held to the same standard as everyone else. As the Australian comedian Steve Hughes has pointed out, “Nothing happens when you’re offended.” Hughes then gives a hypothetical example to illustrate the point: “I went to a comedy show, and the comedian said something about the Lord, and I was offended, and when I woke up in the morning, I had leprosy!”

He’s right, of course. As all of us who have ever been offended know, the ground doesn’t swallow you up, you don’t burst into flames, and great festering sores don’t suddenly appear on your flesh. Perhaps you suspect the person offending you of being hateful. Perhaps he is. Perhaps, in turn, you hate the offensive person. Such is your right. Of course, it’d be far better for everyone if you rose above such feelings and rejected the dreaded ontology of opinion that a person is the sum of his worst views. The true social problem that requires political intervention, however, is when violence, or calls to violence against groups or individuals, occurs. When, as in these recent episodes in France, certain individuals will, when offended, try to silence others through violence and murder.

Samuel Paty is a martyr of free speech, rightly called “the face of the Republic” and a “quiet hero” by France’s president. Like James Foley, the American journalist captured and beheaded by ISIS in 2014, Paty incurred great personal risk for standing for a principle, without which none of us could live free and flourishing lives. And yet, there are those in our midst who, by their contorted logic, align themselves with his killer. The paradox of the prevailing wisdom is that the person who calls Mohammed a “pedophile,” or draws him in such a light, is committing an act of violence whereas the Islamist chopping off the unbeliever’s head is merely expressing himself. We are, you see, in grave danger of mixing our nouns and verbs. Real violence is not found in the utterance of “hate speech,” but in the actions of those who hate speech.


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