You are not truly a proponent of free speech unless you defend speech you dislike as fervently as speech you like.
There are many issues concerning the views of the Dutch MP, Geert Wilders, head of rapidly growing political party, the Freedom Party (Partij voor de Vrijheid, or PVV). Dutch prosecutors have charged Wilders with insulting deliberately a group of people because of their race and inciting hatred. Wilders's trial focuses on a speech he gave, in which he asked a crowd of supports whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands. In another instance, Wilders is reported to have stated that The Hague should be "a city with fewer burdens and if possible fewer Moroccans." Wilders admits to having made the remarks.
Geert Wilders during his March 2014 speech, where he asked "Do you want more or fewer Moroccans?" (Image source: nos.nl video screenshot)
The remarks Wilders made about Moroccans, as they target only one nationality rather than immigration in general, may sound ill-judged or distasteful to some. But do Wilders's comments, that there should be fewer Moroccans, actually incite hatred or violence? His remarks do not suggest that people attack Moroccans or that people should hate Moroccans; they simply suggest that there should be lower levels of immigration from Morocco.
While Wilder's comments could certainly be convincingly portrayed as preying on people's anti-immigration sentiment, does that actually make them an insult to Moroccans, or is he simply supporting policies he thinks would benefit his country? As Wilders himself said in court last week, "What if someone had said, 'Fewer Syrians?'"
As a society, individuals are responsible for their actions, so if someone acts upon a distortion of Wilders's words, or is violent because of them, Wilders should not be held responsible for their actions, even if he might choose his words more carefully in the future. A line is dangerous to draw: if we start criminalizing people who have anti-immigration views, poorly expressed or not, then where do we stop?
Is it also possible that because Wilders is labelled as politically "far right," people on the political "left," instead of proposing counterarguments, would like to shut him up by branding him a "racist"?
Here are several more statements, none from Wilders; no one who said them has been prosecuted:
- "We also have s*** Moroccans over here." Rob Oudkerk, a Dutch Labour Party (PvDA) politician.
- "We must humiliate Moroccans." Hans Spekman, PvDA politician.
- "Moroccans have the ethnic monopoly on trouble-making." Diederik Samsom, PvDA politician.
One can see that these statements by politicians of the Labour Party, which is one of the current governing parties of the Netherlands, are more inciting, condemnable statements against Moroccans than anything Wilders has said. Yet no prosecution has been initiated against these individuals.
Would it not be better to discuss a nuanced immigration policy openly, like adults, and thereby eliminate prejudice through rational argument?
Prosecuting Wilders has only emboldened the anti-immigrationists, making them less responsive to reason and discussion. Ironically, this trial has moved many left-liberals, who might be criticizing his views, instead to defend his fundamental rights.
On limiting immigration in general, some critics consider that calling for a moratorium on immigration is illiberal -- often other groups such as Christians and Yazidis might be fleeing from ISIS or other extremist Islamic organizations. Basing immigration on nationality might also bring back memories of Nazi Germany, when restrictions often were based on crude religious, ethnic and national caricatures. Other critics seem uncomfortable with calls for the dominance of "Christian, Jewish and humanist traditions" within Dutch culture. How, they ask, can one effectively police a "culture" without seemingly authoritarian restrictions on those who might not fit into it?
Still other critics argue that prohibiting the construction of new mosques restricts religious freedom, and could cause further tension with members of the Islamic community, instead of working with them to solve their conflicts with the West.
But what does one do if immigrants prefer not to assimilate?
That, for example, is not an anti-immigration argument; it is a legitimate question that needs to be answered. There are also many questions that pertain to what a society might look like if there is a tectonic demographic shift, along with a tectonic shift in culture that might accompany it.
As one commentator explained, if you have an apple pie with a few cranberries, it is still an apple pie; but if you keep adding more and more cranberries, at some point it is no longer an apple pie, it is a cranberry pie. That is what the Aztecs faced when the Spaniards arrived in South America. That is what Christianity faced in Turkey when the Muslim Turks arrived. Today, in much of the Middle East, Judaism and Christianity have virtually ceased to exist.
Hard as it might be to contemplate, Europeans might at some point be faced with a painful choice: Which do they want more, the humanistic values of individual freedom or an Islamized Europe?
Whether or not one agrees, especially with the tone, this is the dilemma Wilders has chosen to face -- before a transformation becomes so fundamental that it cannot be reversed.
Although he has come down on the side of liberal values, this is seen by critics as violating other liberal values, such as not to judge one culture superior to another.
But what should one tolerate, if the other culture advocates stoning women to death for adultery? Or, without four male witnesses attesting to the contrary, regarding rape as adultery? Or executing people for having a different sexual preference, or religion, or for leaving the religion? Or beating one's wife? Or condoning slavery? Or officially regarding women as worth half a man? Is it a humanistic, liberal value to stay silent -- to condemn at least half the population to that?
What if before the Civil War in the United States people had said, "Slavery? But that is their culture!" The British in India outlawed suttee -- a ritual in which widows are thrown live onto their husband's funeral pyre. Is it humanistic say "but that is their culture"?
These are values over which wars have been fought.
So even if many of the policies of Wilders might drastically differ even from those of this author, in a truly liberal, humanistic society, it is one's duty defend Wilders's right to express his views without fear of retribution.
If we fail to do that, what we end up with is an authoritarian state in which government agencies decide which views are acceptable and which are not. We have lived through that before with the Soviet Union, and we are now living through it again with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran. A happy picture, they are not.
As history shows, as in the French or Russian or Cuban Revolutions, when one person's views are suppressed, eventually everyone's views are suppressed. Who decides on the deciders?
If a court in a Western society decides to censor or punish Geert Wilders or others for non-violent speech, the court not only attacks the very humanistic values and liberal society we claim to hold dear; it brings us a step closer to totalitarianism. Even the idea of having an "acceptable" range of views is inherently totalitarian.
"Acceptable" thoughts, by definition, do not need protecting. It is the "unacceptable" thoughts that do. The reason the right to freedom of speech exists is to protect the minority from the majority -- so we can openly, freely exchange opinions and have discussions.
If we wish to have any kind of democracy in more than just name, people need to able openly to challenge ideas that are considered unquestionable, even sacred, as well as people who are considered sacred.
Only open discussion can have a beneficial influence by highlighting problems and shaping policy. In discussing even outlandish views, we are reaffirming our right to say them, justifying why liberal values of freedom are paramount. Freedom of speech is the ultimate liberal value -- and it is the first freedom that people who wish to control us would take away. As the historian Clare Spark wrote, "Most of European history, with the exception of England, repressed speech that was anti-authoritarian. One might think of Plato, the Spanish Inquisition, and the career of Spinoza for just a few examples."
Therefore, no proponent of democracy, humanism or liberal values should call for Wilders to be punished or censored for his remarks, even if they might be thought questionably expressed. When you defend the fundamental right of another to express his view, it does not mean that you agree with the view. It does not mean that you would refrain from attacking that view if it seemed based on flawed premises -- or even if it did not. Freedom of speech means opposing someone with counterarguments, not trying to silence him.
If Wilders' views are thought to be anti-humanistic, criminalizing his right to speak freely is even more so. Criminalizing speech only harks back to Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for "blasphemy," for saying there were a plurality of worlds; or to the trial of Galileo Galilei for claiming that the earth moves around the sun; or the Scopes trial, which attempted to criminalize Darwin's theory of evolution.
Repressing speech only dangerously hinders the liberal cause. Groups that, in an authoritarian manner, call for censorship and the suppression of debate are being allowed to thrive. We are seeing this now in America on campuses and in the authoritarian attempts to prevent voters from hearing presidential candidates by disrupting speeches. When one fails to answer difficult questions or tries to silence their proponents, instead of solving the problem of prejudice, you are in reality feeding their prejudices and allowing them to grow unchallenged.
We urgently need be concerned about laws that would make "being insulted," a criminal offense. Where does an "insult" start or stop? In addition, people who claim to be offended might just be using the law to try to silence others with whom they disagree. The culpatory aspect of these laws should probably be reconsidered, and possibly revised by the Dutch government, the United Nations in its UNHRC Resolution 16/18, and others trying to restrict free speech.
Finally, criminalizing views such as those of Wilders does not extinguish them. Yes, people might feel intimidated from raising ideas for fear of reprisals, but the suppressed ideas will continue to fester, often with an even stronger force.
It is completely understandable why many are not quick to come to the aid of Wilders because they deem him an opponent. However, if there is one rallying call to those who are in doubt of whether to support Wilders, it is this: authoritarianism is our enemy, whether it comes from Islamism, or laws restricting speech. We may not like that we have to defend people we may even regard as racists or xenophobes, but if we do not defend the rights of all, then who will be next among us to have his rights eroded?
Censorship is not a path we should wish to take. While we may rightly fear those on the political right, we would do well to fear even more the autocratic thought-police and censorship on the political left.
Wilders should not be standing trial for what he has said. Could there be a question of the case against Wilders being political? It sure looks like that.
Robbie Travers, a political commentator and consultant, is Executive Director of Agora, former media manager at the Human Security Centre, and a law student at the University of Edinburgh.