The Corner

Another Reminder That Free Speech Is not a ‘European Value’

Yes, yes, Cameron,  Hollande and all the rest of them marched in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo murders, but if you actually believed what they had to say about the importance of free speech, you hadn’t been paying attention.

Writing in Spiked, Brendan O’Neill:

It’s the 21st century and Europe is meant to be an open, enlightened continent, and yet a man has just been sentenced to jail — actual jail — for something that he said. Will there be uproar? It’s unlikely. For the man is Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the French comedian, and what he says — that Jews are scoundrels and the Holocaust is a fiction — is deeply unpleasant. Yet if we’re serious about freedom of speech, if we are truly committed to ensuring everyone has the liberty to think and say whatever they please, then the jailing of Dieudonné should outrage us as much as the attempts to shut down Charlie Hebdo or the jailing of a Saudi blogger for ridiculing religious belief. We should be saying ‘Je Suis Dieudonné’.

Due to the regimen of hate-speech laws in 21st-century Europe — which police and punish everything from Holocaust denial to Christian denunciations of homosexuality — Dieudonné has been having run-ins with the law for years. In 2009, a French court fined him €10,000 for inviting a Holocaust denier on stage during a gig. In March this year, a French court gave him a two-month suspended prison sentence for saying he sympathised with the attack on Charlie Hebdo and with the anti-Semite who murdered Jews at a Parisian supermarket a few days later. Now, this week, a Belgian court has given him an actual prison sentence: a court in Liège found him guilty of incitement to hatred for making anti-Semitic comments during a recent show and condemned him to two months in jail.

Yes, the same Belgium that has proved so reluctant to police Molenbeek has taken aim at . . . speech. To describe that poor excuse of a nation as a failing state does not do justice to quite how degraded it has become.  

Back to O’Neill:

Dieudonné’s sentence…sets an extremely dangerous precedent, or rather boosts an already established precedent whereby the state in Europe has assumed the authority to punish not only criminal action and violent behaviour, but also thought and speech. Anyone who feels tempted to smirk at the imprisonment of a lumbering, unfunny anti-Semite should think very carefully, for the authorities haven’t only flexed their muscles against Dieudonné — they’ve asserted their dominion over thought itself, over emotion (particularly hatred), over the right of people to say out loud what lurks in their hearts. The jailing of Dieudonné represents a further encroachment by officialdom into the psychic, emotional lives of their citizens.

…Jewish groups cheering the jailing of Dieudonné should consider the fact that, informally at least, on campuses, Zionism is now treated as ‘hate speech’ and is frequently shut down by intolerant self-styled warriors against ‘prejudice’. The institutionalisation of hate-policing is generating armies of censors keen to shut up things they find offensive or wrong; it gives people a licence to silence ideas that they hate…

People who are serious about standing up to the foul ideologies of racism, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial should not seek to silence such ideas but rather should welcome their expression. Because it’s only in a free, rowdy public sphere that we can argue against them and potentially defeat them…..

Allowing the state to monitor belief represents a brutal reversal of the Enlightenment itself. John Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), set the tone for the Enlightenment as an attempt to ‘settle the bounds’ between the business of government and the business of morality. ‘The business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of every particular man’s goods and person’, he wrote. That ideal is now turned on its head. Across Europe, governments ‘provide for the truth of opinions’, and in the process they silence those they don’t like and patronise the rest of us, reducing us to imbeciles incapable of working out what is right and wrong, and of speaking out against the wrong.

In the Netherlands, meanwhile, the trial of Dutch politician Geert Wilders is scheduled for next year.

His offense? The wrong sort of speech…


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