French comedian – so called – Dieudonne M’bala M’bala has made headlines recently for his Jew hatred. Yes I said Jew hatred and not anti-Semitism. Let’s just call a spade a spade and stop “dressing it up” with a fancy term. I have always felt that the very term anti-Semitism somehow makes Jew hatred seem less offensive.
Many Americans may not have heard about Dieudonne. (He either goes by one name to be cool like Madonna or because his full name is too long for people to say.) That is because it is really a local French story. But we have obviously heard about it in the Israeli media and it has been reported on the European cable news channels that we get here in Israel.
Apparently he goes into anti-Jewish rants at his shows. French politicians have stepped in to “ban” him from doing so. But is this right? Let me now give my two cents worth on the issue of free speech. You obviously want to know what I think; otherwise, you would not be reading my articles.
I never understood the concept of “hate crimes” as they are called in America. (Or maybe as a friend of mine use to always tell me “you understand it. You just don’t like it.”) Assault is assault and murder is murder. O.K., if there are extenuating circumstances then the prosecutor will call it manslaughter or give a lesser assault charge. But if I beat the crap out of someone just because I don’t like him then why should it be any less a serious crime – or worse – than if I did it because of his race, religion, ethnicity, etc.
I do understand the concern over racism and other forms of hate. I know that people feel that crimes related to racism should be treated more harshly because that might help to stop people from attacking people just because of who they are. “Might,” but not definitely. Also, as the argument goes, if Germany had such laws before 1933 then the Nazis might not have been able to get away with intimidating so many people.
The problem that I have with hate crime laws is that the government is, in effect, legislating what people believe. In other words, we are talking about thought crimes. I was always taught that in a free and democratic society you must tolerate the most heinous beliefs. This is because if you ban any type of belief/dogma, no matter how atrocious it may be and for no matter how good a reason, then you set a precedent to ban any type of belief.
Today we all agree that racism is wrong. But once we set the precedent by banning it in any form, then tomorrow a majority might agree that a certain religion or political belief such as Socialism or even Capitalism is immoral and pass laws against even believing in it.
The same is true for freedom of speech.
Now let me take a step back. We obviously all agree, as the courts in America and most descent countries have held, that free speech does not include the right to call upon people to commit a crime. So while you might be free to curse the Jews or insult Blacks, you may not call on people to commit acts of violence or other crimes against them. You would then be equally responsible for such crimes, should they occur, as if you had committed them yourself.
But can or should we go so far as to prohibit hate speech. No!
I do agree that there are certain exceptions to this rule. For example, if it can be proven that in a specific case such speech, while not openly calling on people to commit crimes, leads to crimes being committed against the specific group then it can and should be curtailed.
There are two excellent examples of this. The first is homophobic speech. I do believe in freedom of religion and agree that those religious leaders and clerics who believe that homosexuality is a sin should have a right to preach what they believe. But events have shown that such speech does lead to acts of violence against gays. It is therefore incumbent on those clerics to, simply put, “tone it down.” They have no right to incite violence and I suspect that in many cases they are not truly sorry to see that their words led to brutality against gays.
Another exception is Holocaust denial. Holocaust deniers are not ignoramuses. They know that the Holocaust did happen and they deny it for political reasons or because they hate Jews. Some may do it just because they make money selling their books to racist idiots.
Denying the Holocaust is like denying that George Washington was the first president of the United States or that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Certainly anyone who would teach Holocaust denial in any school or university should be fired for cause. But should it be illegal to do deny the Holocaust? No!
There are two countries, however, which clearly have a right and an obligation to ban Holocaust denial and to make it a criminal offence: Israel and Germany. Israel for obvious reasons and Germany because they were the ones who perpetrated it and must take extra care to prevent such a thing from ever happening again anywhere. They have also banned all Nazi activity as well as the Swastika in Germany. As an ardent supporter of freedom of speech and expression who would oppose such laws in America I do not oppose them in Israel or Germany.
Unfortunately, these laws go too far here in Israel when it comes to incitement. People here have been investigated and prosecuted for the things that they have said about certain groups or individuals. Rabbis have found themselves under criminal investigation simply because of what they said they believe to be in the Torah when it offended a certain group of people. After the Rabin assassination people were investigated just for saying that they were happy that he was murdered.
That scares me. Such people are idiots, not criminals.
Now back to Dieudonne. He began a number of years ago by denying the Holocaust. He then cozied up to Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France’s racist anti-immigrant National Front party. This was a surprising move by Dieudonne because he once opposed Le Pen and is himself Black. In addition, he increasingly used derogatory terms in reference to Jews in his shows.
Dieudonne is also credited with inventing the Quenelle. The Quenelle is a gesture where one touches one shoulder with his opposite hand and sweeps the arm in a downward motion. This is said to be a version of the Nazi salute.
As Dieudonne’s Jew bashing and Holocaust denial increased he was banned by choice (as opposed to by force of government) by French media outlets and theaters. If someone is offensive to the public then television stations and people have every right to ban him. Even if someone is immensely popular – think Andrew Dice Clay twenty years ago – if a theatre owner finds him offensive then it is his right not to book the entertainer even if it means losing money.
Engaging in boycotts is as democratic as Apple Pie — or quiche if you are French. Refusing to interact with a person or buy a certain product because you find the person or thing in question in some way immoral or offensive is another form of freedom of belief. Take Howard Stern, for example. All those people who love hating him can simply choose not to listen to his show. And do not forget the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s boycott of public buses in Montgomery Alabama because they required Blacks to sit in the backs of the buses.
But the French government has gone a step further. It has invoked laws to ban Dieudonne’s shows. French President Hollande has called for a ban because, as he says, Dieudonne is a threat to public order. Dieudonne has already been fined in cities in both France and Belgium for his hate speech.
I would love to jump on the ban Dieudonne bandwagon, but I have serious reservations about limiting free speech in any way. Defending “public order” and prohibiting the immoral were the pretenses used by governments to stop entertainers like Lenny Bruce from performing in public. Such arguments were also used in America to prevent unions from organizing and from civil rights activists from holding meetings and demonstrations.
If we ban racist speech today where will it end? Should we also prohibit any insults? Would it also become illegal to call someone dumb or ugly? How about entertainment critics who pan movies and sports writers who criticize a player or coach’s performance? Will people like me no longer be able to criticize governments or politicians for their policies or actions because it is not nice to criticize?
Remember what your mother always told you: If you do not have something nice to say then don’t say it at all!