Canada’s hate speech laws collide with reality

For those of you who are noticing an alarming trend in my writing, I will come clean: I really like Canada. So much so, that I can’t seem to shut up about it. I’d apologize, but a) I’m not sorry, and b) I know that this glut of Canadiana is a passing phase, and I’ll have a new pet topic in a few weeks for you to get sick of. Anyway, as I was saying, I really like my country. There is, however, one aspect of Canadian life that I wish was more, dare I say, American – our stupid approach to hate speech:

The country’s highest court heard arguments pitting freedom of expression against laws banning hate speech Wednesday, setting the stage for an eventual ruling on what is more in need of protection: groups targeted with hatred, or a citizen’s right to speak freely. It could take the Supreme Court months to decide on which side they fall in the case of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission versus William Whatcott. The commission is appealing a decision that overturned its original ruling against Whatcott, who published and distributed four anti-gay flyers in towns and cities in Saskatchewan in 2001 and 2002. They led four people to file complaints with the commission.

As someone who feels most at home talking about things that make polite society squirm – religion, racism, poverty, the idea that people can actually be wrong about things – I place a premium on free speech. Penn Jillette likes to talk about the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution (the right of every citizen to own bear’s arms), saying that it’s the one that protects all the others. This, quite frankly, is militaristic nonsense. A gun doesn’t protect your right against unreasonable search and seizure – you pull a gun on a cop and that search all of a sudden becomes pretty fucking reasonable, amirite? [Read more...]

Hate speech: it’s got a funky beat, and I can bug out to it!

 

One of the frustrating things about delving into the world of anti-racism is that you will inevitably run into someone who makes a completely unbalanced equivocation between the racism that people of colour (PoCs) encounter and the discomfort associated with race relations from the point of view of a white person. “I live in an all-black neighbourhood – I can’t even ride the bus without feeling people stare at me!” And while trying to be careful not to minimize their discomfort, some poor sap has to explain that when you get off that bus outside your neighbourhood, it is in every conceivable way better for you to be  white person than the black people who make you feel like the ‘victim of reverse racism’.

Within the construct of North American racial relations, there are really very few examples of legitimate anti-white racism. If one comes from the perspective that racism is the product of prejudice and power – that is, that racism must have some real force behind it to be meaningful – then there are essentially none. I don’t personally subscribe to that definition, but it does have a lot of merit in specific contexts (I won’t go further than that for now. Maybe another time). Critics of anti-racism, therefore, conflate the approach with simply being “anti-white”, which is about as accurate as saying that feminism is anti-male (but of course there are many who think that as well).

Therefore I am, in a weird way, happy to present you with the following:

South Africa’s high court has ruled that the anti-apartheid song Shoot the Boer is hate speech and banned the ruling ANC from singing it. Afrikaans interest group Afriforum had complained about ANC youth league leader Julius Malema singing the song, which refers to white farmers. Mr Malema and other ANC leaders had argued that the song was a celebration of the fight against minority rule. They said the words were not meant to be taken literally.

Long-time readers of this blog will be familiar with my sometimes-fraught relationship with hate speech. While I am a proud progressive liberal, my stance on free speech is something of a digression from my fellows, who believe that speech inciting hatred can be and should be legally curtailed. My problem with hate speech controls comes from a variety of sources – first of all I am unconvinced that we can define and enforce a consistent standard of ‘hate’. Even if we could, there is incomplete evidence to suggest that hate speech restrictions reduce the amount of hatred in society, rather than simply shifting it underground (where it is arguably more dangerous).

That being said, I don’t think we should simply call all speech good simply because it exists. There is absolutely hate speech, and it is always deplorable. We should criticize ideas vigorously and unashamedly. We should treat the people who hold those ideas as our fellow human beings, with all the fundamental rights we would like for ourselves and those we love. As much as I am happy to criticize religious zealots, or racists, or climate change denialists, or any group that holds positions that I think are destructive, the moment that someone attempts to treat those people as anything other than humans deserving of respect I will take up a placard and demonstrate for their rights.

Not so for Mr. Malema. My attempts at prognostication are usually simple idle speculation, but having read a bit of his background, I think that when a man like Julius Malema gains real political power, it will be the dawn of a dangerous era for South Africa. While he may not harbour legitimate hatred of white people, he is not above fanning the flames of hatred in those that do, and who see their violent hatred reflected in his speech. While his calls to “shoot the Boer” are, to hear him say it, simply a nod toward the history of the ANC, they are also a very specific call for violence. At that point we have left the realm of political speech and entered into criminal territory.

The song can be heard here (although it won’t mean much to you if you don’t speak Afrikaans):

Whatever you think about the content, you’ve got to admit: it’s catchy.

Like any demagogue worth her/his salt, Malema has managed to frame this censure as an illegitimate organization trying to silence the voice of truth coming from the common man:

Mr Malema said he would push for reform to the court system, which he said had not changed since the apartheid era. “If not being transformed means it’s racist, then so be it,” said Mr Malema, youth leader of the African National Congress (ANC). “Once again we find ourselves subjected to white minority approval. Apartheid is being brought through the back door.” He said he wanted liberation songs to be protected by law. “These were the songs of resistance and they will never die,” he said.

I have no problem with preserving historical artifacts, even if they’re racist. I might go so far as to say we should be more protective of the distasteful parts of our history, since they are the ones we need to learn the most from. If the question was whether or not the song can be discussed and the court ruled that the song must be banned altogether, then Mr. Malema would have a valid point. However, what he is doing instead is using deep-seated racial tension to bolster support for his ridiculous and disastrous social and economic policies – a Southern Strategy for South Africa.

Removing for a moment the discussion of who can claim responsibility for the simmering racial resentment that seems to define the political reality for South Africa, it is trivially easy to highlight this as an example of legitimate anti-white racism. A political case is being built around the exclusion and, apparently, violent suppression of the white minority in South Africa. While there are a million issues to tease out from this story – how much of a minority white South Africans really are, for example – even an anti-racist like myself can point to this as a clear case of racist hate speech.

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Fuck you too, Syria

I haven’t commented much on Syria, despite the fact that its revolt is just as bloody and horrific as the one in Libya. President Assad, the ruler of Syria has been waging a constant campaign of terror and violence against his citizens for opposing his regime. One of the more heinous acts I’ve seen come out of this conflict is the savage beating of a political cartoonist:

One of the best-known cartoonists in the Arab world has been beaten up by Syrian security forces, activists say. Ali Ferzat, whose work is critical of the government, was forced from his car in Damascus and badly beaten. The attack comes after 11 civilians and eight soldiers were reportedly killed in different incidents across Syria. The UN says more than 2,200 people have been killed as security forces crack down on anti-government protests that began in mid-March.

The offending cartoon is as follows:

It depicts Moammar Gathafi (which is apparently how it’s spelled in English, according to his son’s passport) fleeing in a getaway car, with president Assad and some tiny guy with an ass for a face trying to hitch a ride. It was cartoons like this that apparently justified his being dragged out of his car and beaten nearly to death. Wikipedia tells me that Assad was educated in opthamology in Damascus and London. I guess he didn’t bother to study classical literature or political science or history or pretty much anything in the humanities. If he had, it would be clear to him that ideas cannot be beaten to death. They can only be countered by other ideas. Beating a person for having and/or expressing an idea does nothing to tamp those ideas down – in the best case scenario it simply prevents that one individual from expressing it.

Maybe Ali Ferzat’s cartoon, drawn as a response to his attackers, will express this idea in a way that even Assad can understand it:

Ali Ferzat – bad mother fucker.

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The barbarians have switched gates

A few months back I wrote a post about Andres Serrano’s artistic installation “Piss Christ”. In it, I made an allusion, likening Philistine knee-jerk religious reactionaries to a horde of barbarians swarming around the gates of civilized society:

The fact is that rationality has surpassed our need for imagined explanations and intuitions  to govern our society. We can govern ourselves based on secular reason – furthermore, those regions that do this more are doing much better than their less-reasoned brethren. Those who would react to an idea by trying to destroy it, and those that think it, must not be the ones to rule us. They should be thought of, in our walled palace of reasoned thought, as barbarians banging at the gates.

Not a flattering image, to be sure, but it was not intended to be. I have nothing but the deepest contempt for those who believe the way to settle philosophical disagreements is through violence or the threat thereof.

I was disheartened, therefore, to see this story in the news:

A Manila art exhibit blasted as offensive to Catholic Filipinos has been shuttered, following complaints from President Benigno Aquino III and death threats to artists and cultural officials. The Kulo group exhibit at the state-funded Cultural Center of the Philippines opened in Manila in June. However, the show began receiving complaints after recent coverage by media outlets in the predominantly Catholic nation. Originally slated to close Aug. 21, Kulo was shut down Tuesday. Specifically, complaints focus on work by contemporary artist Mideo Cruz that mixes Catholic icons with pop culture and sexual imagery and paraphernalia.

We’ve heard about the presence of the Catholic church in the Philippines before, as they have been the chief force retarding that country making any progress toward comprehensive sex education. It’s nice to know that when they’re not dooming a generation to unwanted pregnancies and STIs, they’re still finding the time to act as art critics. Once again, though, I think they’ve completely missed the point of the exhibit:

The exhibition, entitled Poleteismo or Polytheism, includes a statue of Jesus with the ears of Mickey Mouse, and a wall collage featuring images from Christ and the Virgin Mary to the Statue of Liberty and US President Barack Obama. Mr Cruz says it is intended to be about the worship of icons. “This speaks about objects that we worship, how we create these gods and idols, and how we in turn are created by our gods and idols,” said the Filipino artist, referring to the 300 years of Spanish rule that brought Catholicism to the Philippines and the current influences from the US.

Or maybe they aren’t. I remember one of the first problems I had with the RCC as an organization was its insistence on idolatry (yes – I used to be a bit of a zealot). You can’t walk into a church or basilica anywhere in the world without being overwhelmed with religious iconography, which is in direct contravention of the second commandment. Of course accusing the Catholic church of being hypocritical is like accusing a windstorm of being destructive: you’re absolutely right but it’s not going to listen to you. This exhibition calling Roman Catholicism a foreign idolatrous ideology might have just rubbed the Church the wrong way, and so they fixed on (what else?) sex to get everyone up in arms.

You know what they should have been up in arms about?

A day earlier former first lady Imelda Marcos joined the growing protest over the exhibition. She said Mideo Cruz’s exhibition at Manila’s cultural centre had “desecrated” something sacred. Mrs Marcos is one of the country’s main patrons of the art and founded the cultural centre in the 1970s when her husband Ferdinand was president. She saw the exhibition for herself and said she was “shocked” by it. “There were so many symbols of the male organ there – something sacred to be desecrated. It is sad, and it should not happen here in the cultural centre,” said the 82-year-old.

The BBC uses the word “president” a bit too liberally. Ferdinand Marcos was a brutal dictator whose bloody reign was marked with corruption, violation of human rights, and assassination of political rivals. It was only 25 years ago that a huge populist uprising eventually forced him into exile, taking with him large sums of money that he and his wife embezzled from the country they had ruled mercilessly. It is thanks to his corrupt and cartoonishly-evil rule that the Philippines is in the kind of shitty shape it’s in now. And his wife has taken it upon herself to express her “shock” at how something beautiful has been desecrated. The irony of hearing this from the lips of someone who so thoroughly desecrated the principles of democratic government made my eyes swim a little.

I am not offended by this exhibit. I was slightly offended, for example, by some of the more lurid exhibits at the slavery museum in Amsterdam. I am very offended by the depiction of black men as sexual subhuman animals in pornography. Every fibre of my being – everything I have ever believed in, the very bedrock upon which I build my life, is offended by the bullshit that is the closing of an art exhibit because you don’t like the art. However, it doesn’t matter at all what offends me – I don’t have a right not to be offended. But then again, I am a rational human being, not a goddamn barbarian.

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I get e-mail

Regular readers will remember a couple of weeks ago when I went to Amsterdam and stuck it to the reactionary jerk-offs that wanted to burn one of my favourite books. Well I dedicated that post to the author, Lawrence Hill. Mr. Hill’s books have been a major source of inspiration for me both as a writer and as someone interested in race. I sent him a copy of my post, thinking that he’d appreciate knowing that his fans aren’t down with the whole ‘book burning’ thing:

My name is Ian Cromwell, and I am a big fan of your work. You can certainly understand how dismayed and enraged I was when the group in the Netherlands threatened to burn your book over something as silly as misunderstanding the title. I share your outrage over book burning, as I am myself a staunch supporter of free speech as a fundamental right and key to our cultural survival.

I was recently in Amsterdam for a conference, and I took the opportunity to visit the same park where the book burning took place. I brought my own copy and took a couple of pictures, as basically a one-finger salute to the Philistines that think that fire is an appropriate response to disagreement in this century (without bothering to read first, clearly).

They’re up on my website (http://crommunist.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/this-post-is-for-lawrence-hill/). If you would like copies of them, please do not hesitate to contact me. I am looking forward to your next book, and cannot fully express my appreciation for the way your work has helped clarify some feelings I always had but couldn’t really put into words.

Yours sincerely,

Ian Cromwell

I was pleasantly surprised when I got this response:

Hello Mr. Cromwell,

Thanks so much for your words (and photos) of support, with regard to those who were burning the cover of my book in  The Netherlands.  It meant a lot to me to hear from you, and from others who were equally appalled to learn that Mr. Groenberg was planning to burn the book in Amsterdam. I join you in your feelings about freedom of speech as a fundamental right and key to our cultural service (although I would draw the line at hate speech). You probably know that I wrote an opinion piece for The Toronto Star about the book burning:

http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/article/1012068–what-lawrence-hill-tells-dutch-group-planning-to-burn-his-book

If you are willing to send a photo or two to me, for my own personal archives, I would be very grateful.

Wishing you all the best with The Crommunist Manifesto! Great title for a blog!

Sincerely,

Lawrence Hill
mail@lawrencehill.com

In the common parlance of the internet, squeeee! While I think we’d have a lot to hash out with regards to our stances on hate speech, I’m really happy that he wrote me back. I’m going to see if I can parlay this into an interview someday.

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This post is for Lawrence Hill

Regular readers here will remember my frustration and anger toward a Dutch group representing ancestors of former slaves, who threatened to burn a book by one of my favourite authors, Lawrence Hill. Not only are book burnings stupid and counterproductive (since they elevate the profile of the idea you’re attempting to destroy), but they are barbaric and violent. Burning a book is an implicit threat to the author of that book, not simply a rejection of an idea.

The second part of my frustration was the fact that it was clear that the people involved had not bothered to even read coverage of the book. They let their single-minded focus on the issue of the title completely blind them to the fact that the book is about slavery and its related horrors. Not only that, but the title of the book (the source of their objection) is based on an actual existing document – it is a reference to a real thing. If they had stopped for 5 seconds before getting their backs up, they would have easily understood the significance.

However, they chose to ignore the lessons of history and just good sense, and staged the burning anyway. They did it at the slavery memorial in Osterpark in Amsterdam. As you know, I was in Amsterdam recently, and I visited Osterpark.

Mr. Hill, these photos are for you:

 

Something's missing...

Much better

We shouldn’t burn books. We certainly shouldn’t burn great books. We should learn from them, and if we disagree we should exercise our rights to free speech to do so. Those same free speech rights protect things we like and dislike, and threatening those rights with fire is threatening our entire civilization.

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Perhaps a more attractive droid?

There is a particular paradox with my post this morning that I didn’t really go out of my way to point out. That paradox has to do with finding a case that we (as free speech advocates) can sell to the public as an argument for unrestricted free speech rights. Its self-contradictory nature comes from the fact that in a liberal society that respects the rule of law, there aren’t a lot of examples of unpopular speech that the public can really get behind. The most common form of unpopular speech is based in hatred and intolerance, and you can’t really rally too many people behind that message.

But perhaps, with a bit of work, we can convince people of the merit in this:

A Dutch court acquitted right-wing politician Geert Wilders of hate speech and discrimination Thursday, ruling that his anti-Islam statements, while offensive to many Muslims, fell within the bounds of legitimate political debate. Judge Marcel van Oosten said Wilders’s claims that Islam is violent by nature, and his calls to halt Muslim immigration and ban the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, must be seen in a wider context of debate over immigration policy. The Amsterdam court said his public statement could not be directly linked to increased discrimination against Dutch Muslims.

I will do myself the favour of stating unequivocally that I don’t like Geert Wilders, and will explain briefly why that is.

I do not buy the argument that the forces of Islamism are plotting a gradual takeover of Western society. It’s a fear-driven conspiracy theory carefully stoked in the xenophobic parts that inhabit all of us. It is convenient to our story-telling brains to dichotomize world events into “forces of good” and “forces of evil”. Hell, even I’m guilty of it (kind of… I trust my readers are aware of the sarcastic irony behind my categorization).

The reality is more like a variety of several ideologies, each competing for finite political real estate. The Islamist ideology is indeed fighting for supremacy, but not at the expense of Christianity. Islamism isn’t trying to “take over” any more than communism is trying to “take over” – all ideologies are fighting for dominance. This is where Wilders is wrong – he contrasts Islamic domination with Christian domination, when neither of these ideologies is truly dominant. While modern-day Europe owes a great deal to traditions laid down under true Christian ideological domination, most of the freedoms we enjoy today were despite Christian dominance (or rather, in the face of it) rather than because of it.

That being said, the world would be a much better place under the current situation of formerly-Christian secularism rather than an Islamic theocracy. Islam is, as written, much more hostile to the idea of religious pluralism than Christianity – I am happy to grant that. But the fight is not between an Islamic state and a Christian one – it’s between an absolutist state and a pluralistic one. Christian theocracy frightens me just as much as Islamic theocracy. Insofar as Wilders opposes an absolutist state, I am 100% with him. Where he and I differ has to do with his inability to divorce the ideas of Islam and absolutism. The two concepts are overlapping, but only mildly more so than are Christianity and absolutism.

Now, that covers basically where my position differs from Wilders’. The purpose of this post is to point out that what he said was a critique of an ideology, not the people who hold it. Mr. Wilders has gone out of his way several times to make this distinction – it is the religion of Islam he is criticizing as barbaric and dangerous. To the extent that individuals belonging to a religious group follow its strictures to varying degrees (and each insisting that theirs is the ‘true’ way), individual Muslims may or may not represent threats to secular society, just as individual liberals may or not represent threats to capitalism, for example. The courts have ruled precisely along these lines – criticism of ideas does not constitute hate speech, even if those ideas are religious or belong to a minority group.

It is precisely because this case lies on the balance of opposing concerns – distrust of religious extremism and distaste for intolerance – that it can be such a useful case to bring the free speech argument into the public sphere. You don’t have to like Geert Wilders to recognize that categorizing criticism of fanaticism as “hate speech” has very dangerous consequences that will do more to undermine secular society than all the forces of Islamism ever could.

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Free speech advocates: this is not the droid you’re looking for

I am in something of an unusual position, being an outspoken crusader both for human rights and for free speech. It crops up in my discussions of hate speech as a free speech issue again and again. The reason why I say my position is somewhat unique is that usually those who defend absolute speech rights ally themselves on the side of anti-gay, racist and/or sexist bigots. Their position tends to be “I shouldn’t be punished for saying hateful things.” My position is a bit more nuanced – I think that the definition of ‘hate’ is imprecise, and that while we should take note of it, it is far too tempting for the state to abuse the power to criminalize unpopular speech.

A recent court case has free speech advocates salivating like starving wolves in front of a fresh kill:

A comedian who was fined by the BC Human Rights Tribunal after a confrontation with a lesbian couple at a Vancouver restaurant is appealing the decision, arguing the province’s human rights legislation shouldn’t apply to stand-up comics. The tribunal ruled in favour of Lorna Pardy, a gay woman who testified that Guy Earle shouted gay slurs and other insults at her and her girlfriend from both on and off the stage during a comedy show in 2007. Earle and the restaurant were ordered to pay a total of $22,500 in compensation.

Human Rights Tribunals are the bane of the bigoted set. They are intended to find a way to balance respect for human rights with civil liberties, and are empowered to levy fines against people found guilty of discriminating, propagating hatred, or otherwise violating people’s charter rights in ways that aren’t expressly criminal. While they are an imperfect tool, they represent an attempt to uphold the rights of individuals to live free of persecution and hatred.

The reason why my fellow unrestricted speech advocates are so hot about this particular case is because on the surface, it reads like the story of a comedian who made some off-colour comments about lesbians in the context of a comedy performance, and who was subsequently brought up on charges by some overly-sensitive bleeding heart liberal lesbos in the audience who can’t take a joke. ‘Political correctness gone mad!’ has been the cry. ‘How can we allow these Tribunals to bulldoze over the rights of performers to make jokes? Can we only tell knock-knock jokes from now on?’

Hey guys, ‘Knock, knock”

Who’s there?

A maniac that went on a hatred-fueled tirade against two women in the audience that went well beyond the boundaries of his act. A maniac that went on to bodily assault those women when they tried to stand up for themselves. A maniac that completely lost his cool and continued to berate them after his stage show had finished.

Yeah, not so funny a joke now, is it?

If the case had merely been an echo of Michael Richards’ racist tirade against black people, or Tracey Morgan’s recent statement where he said he would stab his son to death if he (the son) came out as gay, then I’d be decrying this decision right along with the rest of my fellow speech defenders. This isn’t that, though. This is the case of a guy who wasn’t content to simply humiliate a pair of women who he claimed were heckling him (this is disputed by the women, who say he began harassing them for the arch-crime of kissing each other), but went on a rampage against them even after he was off stage.

My fellow speechies are holding Mr. Earle up as an example of the overreach of the Tribunal process, but if anything it shows that there are times where clearly some kind of intervention is needed. What occurred at the restaurant was far beyond what one would consider reasonable fare for a comedy show, where the abuse begins and ends on stage. Guy Earle is not the victim of an oversensitive system that bends to every errant whine from a minority group – he’s the perpetrator of a shocking and unacceptable verbal assault that crossed the line from joke to serious when he put down the microphone.

I am not sure what mental deficiency it is that makes my colleagues unable to understand nuance and irony, but it has them hitching their wagon to a horse that isn’t so much dead as it is running in the opposite direction they want to go. If the battle is indeed to bring the free speech argument into the public consciousness – to sell the idea of unrestricted free speech rights to the marketplace of ideas then they’ve picked a real stinker of a human being to make their/our case on.

That being said, if this were a simple free speech issue, I’d side with Mr. Earle in a heartbeat, no matter how despicable a human being I might think he is. What he said on stage may have been defensible speech, but the extent to which he allowed it to go is indefensible conduct. Speech, no matter how hateful, is crucial to the conduct of our society – parasites like Guy Earle undermine the very idea of free speech.

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The Book Burning of Negroes

Long-time readers of this blog (at least, those that memorize everything I say) may remember two salient details. The first is that I am a big fan of Canadian author Lawrence Hill. His books explore race and racial issues through a Canadian and mixed-race lens, so it’s perhaps no surprise that I am such a fan. The other thing that you might remember is that I think book burnings/bans are possibly the dumbest thing of all time – not only because they don’t work, but because they usually accomplish the exact opposite of their intent, and make more people likely to read the book.

And so it seemed as though this news item was tailor-made for me:

A Dutch group is threatening to burn Lawrence Hill’s award-winning novel The Book of Negroes, because they oppose the use of the word “negro” in the title. The Canadian writer’s novel, which traces the life of a slave girl, was recently published in the Netherlands, where a group that represents slavery victims has threatened to burn the book if its title isn’t changed.

This week, Hill received a letter from Roy Groenberg, the leader of Dutch group Foundation Honor and Restore Victims of Slavery in Suriname. “We, descendants of enslaved in the former Dutch colony Suriname, want let you know that we do not accept a book with the title The Book of Negroes,” he said in the letter.

For those of you that haven’t read this book, you should. Hill is a master of the written word, and his skill is on full display in this particular book (which is hailed as his magnum opus, but I think he’s capable of better), in which he takes the narrator’s chair for the coming-of-age tale  of a young African slave girl. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to speak from a complete lack of personal experience (when’s the last time Hill experienced menarche?), but he pulls it off convincingly.

Besides the fact that the book is well-written, it’s also historically relevant. It chronicles the nascent and developing abolition movement in Canada, the United States, and England. It documents (fictionally) the foundation of the country of Sierra Leone, thought of as a refuge for freed slaves. It puts context around a period of history that has many myths built around it.

And these idiots want to ban the book because they don’t like the title:

“We struggle for a long time to let the word ‘nigger’ disappear from Dutch language and now you set up your Book of Negroes! A real shame!” Groenberg’s group plans to burn the book on June 22 just over a week before July 1 — which marks the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands.

This is the same mindset of people who would ban the book ‘Moby Dick’ because children would see a naughty word. First off, The Book of Negroes is an actual physical document, from which the novel gets its name. The title is not incidental – it references both the historical document and the people who are the focus of the story. Slavery abolition is the entire purpose of the novel, and to have an anti-slavery body object based on something like a naughty word in the title, one has to wonder whether they’ve actually read the damn book.

But of course, banning a book doesn’t prevent people from reading it. Especially in this day of instantaneous transfer of information, burning a book is simply raising a flag that says “We are ignorant” and “We are out of touch with reality” at the same time. If people in the Netherlands wanted to find a copy of TBoN, they could simply go to Amazon or any number of other online bookstores. Banning the book is therefore futile. Burning the book may have some kind of psychological satisfaction for the protesting group, but it is an outmoded and meaningless gesture.

Book bans also draw attention to the work in question. In this particular case, I have to confess I’m sort of glad for that. People should read this book, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s excellent. And while I can sympathize with those who don’t want to see racism spread through their country, objections to racist language should be based on fact and reason, not knee-jerk reactions based on poor understanding of language.

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Guilty of hate speech; guilty of crime?

For all my bluster and polemic, I am tormented by a fundamental uncertainty when it comes to hate speech laws. My position on hate speech is unequivocal – I am against it. Spreading hate is abhorrent, and its effects tend to move beyond the words themselves. I am particularly aware of the fact that anti-gay hate speech is part of what is considered civilized discourse in this part of the world, and that the prevailing anti-gay attitude is resulting in serious and often deadly consequences for gay people.

The situation is much worse in Africa:

The South African ambassador to Uganda, a former columnist for South Africa’s Sunday Sun paper, has been found guilty of hate speech for an anti-gay article. South Africa’s Equality Court fined Jon Qwelane $14,450 (£8,920) and ordered him to apologise for promoting hatred in the column published in 2008.

Regular readers will need no reminding about how serious the problems for gay people are in Uganda. Anti-gay hatred has reached the level where people are attempting to pass legislation that would make being gay a jailable offense, with bonus death penalty for ‘repeat offenders’. This is the level where simple hatred has gone beyond privately-held beliefs and entered into the realm of bigotry with the force of law behind it.

However, I am still conflicted over the outcome of this story. The issue with criminalizing speech – any speech – is that it tends to slowly creep toward criminalizing unpopular speech under the guise of labeling it ‘hate’. Many people would label the kind of vociferous criticism of religion that appears on this and other atheist websites as ‘hateful’. Much of this comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the word ‘hate’, some of it comes from the inability to separate a criticism of ideas from a criticism of those that hold those ideas, and some of it is the knee-jerk reaction that happens whenever religious is lampooned.

My concern, therefore, is partially selfish. Even if I were given the opportunity to explain the difference between criticism of sacred ideas and ‘hate speech’, it’s unlikely that judicial authority or the court of public opinion would buy the argument. Popular ideas need to be criticized, because they are the ones that are most often accompanied by legal authority, even when they are wrong or harmful. They are also the least likely to be examined critically by those that agree with them a priori. Punishing those that express criticisms serves to chill fair and open-minded scrutiny.

This example, however, is not a question of fair and open-minded scrutiny. It is a question of victimizing a group of people based on intentional lies and distortions of a segment of humanity whose ‘critics’ don’t want to understand the other side of the story. Those kinds of criticisms are not the kind of thing we think of when we talk about protecting free speech – we think of it in terms of ensuring that police forces aren’t allowed to shut down protest against a corrupt government. However, that idea assumes that popular opinion is on one side of the issue, and the authority is on the other side. I have no doubt that Mr. Qwelane sees himself as standing up against the ‘gayification’ of Africa, and thinks that his is a noble cause.

There is another issue that doesn’t seem to filter into the discussions of hate speech laws – the issue of whether or not they work. This is a real scientific question I’d like to see answered: does the existence of legislation against hate speech reduce its incidence or effect? I’m inclined to think that while fines or prison terms might prevent people from going out in the public square and screaming hateful things in front of police officers, it will not meaningfully reduce the amount of hateful speech spoken among individuals or in groups. We know from observation that while explicitly racist speech is wildly unpopular, there are other ways of conveying the same ideas without saying the words themselves.

I can see the appeal in banning hate speech, because it seems like a tidy way of disposing of a problem. However, there are no quick and easy solutions to systemic problems such as anti-gay homophobia or racism. Hate speech laws are very tempting to abuse, especially since they can be ushered in with high public approval ratings. After all, they are brought in with the very best of intentions:

“We are hoping really that this finding will send a message to community members, a message that says gay and lesbian people have an equal right to the protection of their dignity,” said Vincent Moaga, spokesman for the South African Human Rights Commission, which initiated the complaint against Mr Qwelane.

But there is no real evidence that, beyond donating the proceeds from the fines to LGBTQ advocacy groups, criminalizing hate speech reduces it. More likely, it just makes the identification of hate speech more difficult as bigots learn to adjust their language. And then, as the lines become more and more obfuscated, more and more types of speech are classified as “hate” until even legitimate criticisms are subject to punishment.

My conclusion on this is that, absent of empirical evidence that hate speech laws reduce the amount of hate speech or have a meaningful impact on the climate of hate, coupled with their potential for abuse and the fact that they violate human rights to free speech, I cannot support them. However, I think there is value in identifying hate speech and making it clear that governments and other large organizations aren’t okay with it. Like when Laura Schlessinger did, well… whatever you want to call it… she wasn’t sanctioned by the government or fined – she was just made to leave.

As I said, I recognize that there are many weaknesses in my position, and I am open to evidence showing that laws against hate speech are useful or warranted, but I suspect such proof won’t be forthcoming.

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