Flemming Rose Free Speech


Thank you for this kind introduction.

It’s a pleasure to be here, especially in this wonderful building.

I will not talk about cartoons today. I will be happy to answer questions, of course, if you have any regarding the cartoons, but what I’m going to say of course is informed about my thinking about the cartoon crisis that took place almost ten years ago. What it means for our understanding in the approach to free speech in the world today.

I will talk about free speech in the globalized world. Let me start by saying that I believe that we find ourselves in a new situation when it comes to the global debate about freedom of speech, because the debate is being driven by two new factors that didn’t used to be part of the framework within which we talked about free speech.

The new factor is technology, the digital technology. That means what is being published in a small language, in a small country that very few people would read and have access to, is now being published immediately, everywhere, and people can not only read and access it, they may also react to it even five thousand kilometers away, as we experienced it during the cartoon crisis.

So technology is the one new factor that we have to deal with. The other new factor that isn’t that new but its scale is new, and that is migration. You experience it here in Finland, countries around the world are experiencing this factor, that means that never have so many people moved across borders in such mass numbers as they do today.

So every society in the world, or at least the vast majority of them, are getting more and more multicultural, more and more multi-ethnic and more and more multi-religious. The “new technology” means that when information travels, context disappears, and it creates enormous room for manipulation and misunderstanding.

Even cultures that were pretty close can experience this kind of misunderstanding, as we saw in the spring of 2015 Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, received a free speech award for their courage from American PEN, and it created a huge debate in the United States. In fact, in America people perceived Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons as racist, while in France many people saw them as targeting racism.

So in this new world of technology and migration the key question is: how do we safeguard, how do we protect the fundamental liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of religion in a digital and borderless world?

I will come back to my answer to this question in my final remarks, but let me at this point say that we need a common global standard for free speech and its limits, in order to be able to defend free speech across borders.

As long as we do have an international standard it is possible for international free speech organizations, free speech advocates to approach violations of free speech in other countries and to defend people who are being targeted for what they say.

We already have a pretty good infrastructure for a global public space; that is the internet and satellite TV. When it comes to the law, what is going on in our daily lives, in places around the world, I think we are moving in the other direction.

Instead of working out or approaching a common standard of free speech and limitations on speech, we are experiencing a more and more fragmented concept.

Why is that? Why is this taking place?

I think one key answer has to do with identity politics. Both on the level of government and on the level of different groups, religious, ethnic, so on and so forth, that want to protect their identity and themselves against criticism.

Instead of focusing on what unites us as human beings across borders and cultures, more and more people around the world tend to focus on what makes them different from one another and protect that identity against criticism and a free and open debate. The consequence of this development is that it’s cultures, ethnicities, nations and maybe even certain versions of history that get protection, not the individual, and the most important minority in any society is the individual.

Unfortunately this trend is going on all around the world today, and in fact, speech has never experienced so much regulation as it does now in the beginning of the 21st century.

When did this trend start? why did we end up in this situation?

You may be surprised but in fact it all started in Western Europe, the birthplace of the Enlightenment and the doctrine of religious toleration.

And how did it start?

It started in the 1990s, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with laws criminalizing Holocaust denial, and these laws are driven by what I would call a benign utopia, Europe’s dream of a world without hate. But as we know from history, when it comes to utopia, the first victim is always freedom. Every time we try to create it, a more perfect world.

In fact, these laws criminalizing denial of the Holocaust, they were passed with the best of possible intentions in order to protect the victims of the genocide of European Jewry during the Second World War.

In 2008 the European Union demanded that all member states pass these laws criminalizing the denial of the Holocaust or downplaying the importance of the Holocaust. Today these laws are the books in 13 member states in the European Union, and just two weeks ago the EU commission in charge of this field once again called on all European Union member states to pass these laws.

These laws are based on a specific reading of the events that led up to the Holocaust and triggered the Holocaust. It is basically saying that evil words will lead to evil deeds. That if you do not criminalize racist speech or incitement you will sooner or later have racist violence.

And if you allow people to deny crime against humanity, you may run the risk that it will repeat itself, it will happen again.

I think that is a problematic reading of the events leading up to the Holocaust, even though I acknowledge and I believe that there is a relationship between words and deeds, and anti-Semitic speech, anti-Semitic propaganda played on a visible role in the events leading up to the Holocaust.

But, in fact in Weimar Germany in the ’20s and ’30s you did have hate speech laws protecting Jews against anti-Semitic speech. If you take Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister of Adolf Hitler, he was taken to court many times by the Vice Police Director of Berlin, Bernhard Weiss, who was Jewish, and Goebbels basically lost all the cases.

And if you take, Julius Streicher, the editor and chief of Der Stürmer, the anti-Semitic magazine that was being published in the ’20s and ’30s, Julius Streicher went to jail twice for anti-Semitic speech. His magazine over the course of ten years was confiscated or taken to court 36 times. So there were laws on the books protecting Jews against verbal attacks, but they didn’t work.

And these laws criminalizing Holocaust denial, they are now being copied and have inspired other kinds of laws in other parts of the world where they do not have the same good intentions.

If you take Eastern Europe, in Eastern Europe the crimes of Communism seem far more present than the Holocaust, so Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania and other Eastern European countries, they have passed laws criminalizing denial of the crimes of communism.

If you take the Ukraine, this Spring, passed four new laws, two of them criminalizing insult to the freedom fighters of Ukraine during the 20th century, which in fact also implies two groups that took part in the Holocaust. So when Western historians write critically about these two groups they may risk being arrested when they travel to Kiev.

The most far-reaching law in this respect was passed in Russia last year, and it is interesting that it was passed with the same reference to the Nuremberg trial after the Second World War as all the other anti-Holocaust denial laws in Europe. The Russian law basically says that it is a criminal offense to criticize the actions of the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

Which means that my good friend Antony Beevor, a British historian who wrote a very good book about the fall of Berlin in 1945 and about the crimes that Soviet Soldiers committed on their way to Berlin, he will not travel to Russia anymore because he may risk being arrested or getting into trouble.

You can get three years in prison for criticizing the policies of Stalin during the Second World War in Russia today. It is being done with the same logic as in Western Europe with Holocaust-denial laws. So I think that this is very problematic.

So what makes it difficult today to win the battle for free speech?

Of course there are many reasons, but today I will point to what I will say is the confusion and misunderstanding of fundamental concepts in a liberal democracy, and I will just name two.

The one is the relationship between tolerance and freedom.

Many people today believe that tolerance and freedom, that they are opposites, that there is a tension between tolerance and freedom and that we have to balance tolerance against freedom to make it possible to live together in peace. That is not the case if you look at it historically, after the wars of religion in Europe in the 16th and 17th century.

The states of Europe, the Protestants and the Catholics worked out a doctrine of religious tolerance that in fact grew out of the right to freedom of religion. The fact that Protestants had to accept that they would be living side-by-side with Catholics whom they despised and hated, and vice-versa.

So historically freedom and tolerance are two sides of the same coin, and the bigger the tension between these two concepts, the more a threat to the foundation of liberal democracies. So I have to, we have to reeducate ourselves about the close relationship between freedom and tolerance. There can be no freedom in society without society being able to tolerate opinions that the majority don’t like.

And freedom doesn’t make sense if it doesn’t imply a wide understanding of tolerance of opinions that we may despise and dislike. So the relationship between tolerance and freedom is one key concept that we have to reeducate ourselves about.

The other misunderstanding I believe, is about the relationship between words and deeds.

Many people today believe that, you know, words can be as violent and hurtful as deeds, and I agree that words can be hurtful, and words can incite from time to time, but if you look at history and the development of free speech, and the fight against censorship, the key distinction was the establishing of a distinction between words and deeds.

If you look at the key difference between free societies and un-free societies, it is exactly that free societies are characterized by clear distinction between words and deeds. It’s why dictatorships and un-free societies they erode that distinction.

In a dictatorship words are being perceived as if they were actions and therefore dissidents and critical voices are being silenced with reference to the fact that they are a threat to the peace of the public order, and so on and so forth. So by equating evil words and evil deeds we are in a way moving back to the time before the Middle Ages, in Europe where people were being burned at the stake for saying critical things about the Church, about God, about people of other faiths, and I don’t think that’s where we would like to go. I think that this is happening because it has become very popular to play the grievance card, that people think that they do have a right not to be offended. I will come back to that in a moment and explain why I think that is problematic, although I’m not in favor of going, you know, walking around and offending people all of the time. That’s not the point, it’s a matter of principle in a multicultural world.

So, what’s to be done, how do we move forward in this new globalized world, where technology and migration makes the world smaller and smaller?

I think basically there are two ways to go. One way is to say “if you respect my taboos, I respect yours”. If it’s a criminal offense to deny the Holocaust, it should also be a criminal offense to deny the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide and other kinds, other genocides throughout history. If we want to be consistent. If it’s a criminal offense to ridicule the prophet Mohamed, then it also should be a criminal offense to ridicule Jesus Christ or Buddha or Hindu gods and Moses and so on and so forth.

And if we want to be consistent in a secular democracy we will also have to protect non-religious ideas against ridicule and criticism, which would imply that this would also be a criminal offense to insult Karl Marx or Adam Smith or other philosophers and thinkers to whom groups of people do adhere.

As you can hopefully see from where the direction I’m moving towards, this will in the end lead to a tyranny of silence. It will lead to a situation if you have a right to criminalize things that you find offensive, then in the end, nobody will be able to say anything without somebody out there being offended, and having the right to shut you up.

I don’t think that is the right way to go, even though it may sound polite and nice on the surface, “If you respect my taboos, I respect yours”. The other way to go is to ask ourselves what are the minimal limitations that we need on speech in order to be able to live together, in peace in a global world?

I believe that the key limitation on speech should be incitement to violence.

No one should be allowed to call for the killing of Muslims or violence against Jews, or against those with red hair or soccer fans or whatever it is. That should be a criminal offense, and that should be the key limitation on speech.

Apart from that I would also be willing to support a narrow understanding of libel laws. I would also support a right to protection of privacy, but apart from that I think people should be allowed to say almost whatever they want. But this is counter-intuitive to the way many of us have been brought up, and the way we interact with one another in daily life.

This is what I had said before, that many people do believe that they have the right not to be offended, but I think that in a democracy, we have many rights. We have a right to freedom of expression, to freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement. We have a right to vote for different parties and candidates in elections.

But I think the only right we should not have in a democracy, is the right not to be offended. That is the right, that is the price we have to pay for enjoying all the benefits and good things of a democracy.

Unfortunately today, many politicians think that the best way to save the social peace is by putting new limitations on speech. Especially during the current situation in Europe, my concern is that politicians will react to this growing influx of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, and will be putting new limitations on speech.

But in fact, I find it logical, if you welcome a more diverse society, in terms of culture, ethnicity and religion, the logical consequence of that is that, there will also be more diversity of speech. Then when we become more different, we will also express ourselves in different ways, and because we believe in different things and we hold different values, there will be clashes of different opinions, of faiths and approaches to life in the public domain.

We should not be afraid of that, I think, but it’s not easy, I know. It’s going to be difficult and therefore I will end my remarks by a modest proposal.

Usually when a public servant, when they offend clients, their bosses sometimes send them to sensitivity training so they can learn to talk in a polite way. That may be good, but I think maybe more of us should also be sent to “insensitivity training” in the sense that we need to grow thicker skins in order to be able to live together in peace in a more diverse world and society.

Thank you.

My comment and question to Flemming Rose.

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