On Thursday, March 29th 2012, the German left-wing party Die Linke called its Facebook fans to report the right-wing party’s, NPD (yes, the Nazis), Facebook page so that it will be removed.
Many did it. I didn’t.
I chose to confront the page operator and followers with the consequences this action has for freedom of expression:
I argued it to be a violation of the NPD’s followers and voters constitutional right of free speech and a contra-productive act.
Many did not agree with me, citing the law against incitement of people (§130 Volksverhetzung).
Some called me a defender of NPD that (ab)uses the free speech argument.
Most of them didn’t even take the time to reflect their actions before rushing to report the page.
A very few supported my opinion.
The (very exciting and interesting!) discussion did end with some consent, namely that this kind of censorship (my words) is contra-productive and that dialog and education are the measures needed.
14:45 The dubious action succeeded. The NPD Facebook page was deleted and so were all its mentions on FB. Including our discussion (and that’s why I can’t quote some brilliant phrases).
Did I say contra-productive? I think I did.
In the following days, calls around FB to report the new NPD page incited similar discussions between friends and me.
So why could (and should) one protect the free speech of Nazis?
There is a motto that I follow in life: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (wrongly associated with Voltaire, but actually written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall about Voltaire’s work).
Following this is sometimes uncomfortable, it’s easy for us to disagree with some opinions, it’s much harder to protect their right to be heard. But when our opinion is rejected, we sill want to be able to speak it up, don’t we?
But they’re Nazis, they evoke incitement of people
Yes, and we mustn’t agree with them. What they say is racist and disgustful, but not illegal.
Saying that “foreigners are … and Jews are … and gays are …” is not illegal. Calling for violence against them is. Calling to get them out of the country isn’t illegal (whether we like it or not).
By the way, saying that “Nazis are… and we should get rid of them” is also legal. Many used this phrase the last couple of days.
Neo-Nazism – i.e. contemporary NPD, the Neue Rechte, or the example of Sarrazin’s book – uses more unobtrusive language, hidden messages and pseudo-scientific and intellectual arguments. This is (amongst others) a result of censorship. The more you ban those people free speech, the ‘better’ they will articulate their racist ideas.
Furthermore, when a person is denied from her right to make an argument, she will only be more stubborn refusing to change her mind, or at least open up for discussion. Just think about it, we all know it from our everyday life.
However, when there is a call for violent acts or an active abuse of a person (e.g. child pornography), I will be the first to support action against it – real world action, not only reporting the page to FB. Because (in contrary to the discussed case) this is no matter of free speech, but rather of sedition.
In heilTunes, I sketched a general framework that can help us deal with extreme cases, such as right-wing extremist content.
§ 130 Volksverhetzung
§ 130 is a very important paragraph. But it is also important to acknowledge its limits, a hard task considering it’s vague formulation.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 describes a dystopia, where books are burned together with their owners. It wasn’t always like this in Bradbury’s world: first, some books containing incitement against one group were banned, then another one, and another, at some point nothing was allowed to be said or be written anymore. Books and their holders are to be burned.
Besides, if you interpret § 130 as broadly as some people did in our FB-discussion, about 90% of Germany’s population should be in prison.
I do not defend Nazi’s. Those who know me, know that my political opinion is far away at the other end of the political spectrum.
But I am a defender of free speech. Everyone’s free speech. Especially of those dissonant tones that deviate from the mainstream discourse.
Having to discuss this with supporters of Die Linke – a party that continuously produces controversial discussions; often needs to fight for its own right for free speech; and whose elected politicians were being “watched” by the German Verfassungschutz (a German intelligence service) – wasn’t something I expected.
Some tried to delegitimize my argument by saying I was comparing Die Linke with NPD. I wasn’t. I was comparing two parties that do not always posses mainstream positions and fight for the freedom to express those opinions.
At the bottom line, it’s not the opinions that are in line with mainstream, which need protection. Dissonant tones, the opinions we don’t always like, the ones we like to hate, the ones that we don’t agree with and are offended by – their right to be expressed is the one that needs defense.
By the way, Noam Chomsky made a similar argument regarding a French holocaust denier.
Slacktivism at its best
This right for freedom of expression applies also to right-wing extremists, as long as they’re playing by the rules.
If you are worried about the circumstances (e.g. adolescent / people of “weak” character / socially outcast being caught by those ideas), then…
START DOING SOMETHING! Invest in education, open opposite discussion-groups, support human-rights organizations, vote for another party…
Pseudo-Activism in form of reporting a FB page will maybe calm your conscious, but is doing more harm then good.
So how does it feel to defend a Nazi’s free speech?
Weird and full of inner conflicts.
I know that Nazis would be happy if I was gone (to another country or completely). Be it due to the choice of my “better half”. Be it due to some genetic coincidence (they won’t care I’m actually an Atheist). Be it due to my accent.
I also know, as one person mentioned during the FB discussion, that the NPD would lift the right of free speech if they could. But it’s still no argument to deny it from them.
Should I defend the rights only of those who accept me? Should I degrade myself to their level and deny them of rights only because I don’t like them? Should I stop reaching out, just because they won’t?
Sorry, I can’t. Also if it means I will be on the first line of defense, protecting their free speech against all chances.
Die Linke often need similar support. Believe me, when it happens you can always find me on the first line of defense as well. And not just because I agree with they’re opinions.
Protecting free speech feels good, no matter what.