Opinion: First they came for the Nazis 

“The death knell of freedom of speech in this fair country . . . goodbye freedom of expression, hello thought-crime . . . a small hop, skip and a gulag away from an authoritarian state.” Just a few of the whirling absurdities uttered in response to the latest EU draft proposal on combating racism and xenophobia, in what was a wonderful week for libertarian paranoia on the Blogosphere. 

And there was plenty more. “The phrase ‘first they came’ springs to mind,” said a normally sensible Iain Dale. Well it might indeed spring to mind, but just how relevant is it precisely in the present context? Martin Niemöller, the author of that famous poem, spent seven years in Sachsenhausen and Dachau. We simply have no comprehension of what he endured, though some of our grandparents might. But now, in a bizarre turning of the tables, we are supposed to apply his proverb . . .  how exactly? First they came for the Nazis? It wasn’t until we came for the Nazis that Niemöller was finally set free. 

Ah, but it’s a slippery slope. The thin end of a wedge. It’ll be you and me next. Really? Let’s just stop to think about this for a minute. We hardly have enough prison space for our common-or-garden crooks. How likely is it that the extra places will be found to accommodate a burgeoning population of thought-criminals? I should imagine that only the vilest of thugs would fall foul of any proposed race hate legislation. Moreover, any borderline or malicious prosecution would in all likelihood create an immediate backlash, drawing even greater attention to the original “offence.” So counterproductive maybe, but no slippery slope. 

Of course we don’t need to go to jail to have our freedoms curtailed. Didn’t you know that the forces of “political correctness” are now sweeping the nation to such an extent that we may no longer speak what is on our mind? We are not allowed to “say the unsayable” anymore. What exactly the unsayable comprises, is not entirely clear – it is, after all, unsayable. But “something racist” would not be a bad bet. Now admittedly the “diversity” agenda can become a little tiring after a while, but it’s all part of our discourse. Political correctness (whatever that is) is not an attack on free speech. It’s freedom of speech in action, operating in a marketplace of ideas. 

And it’s a marketplace which has, in the last decade, been blown wide open. It’s easy to forget just how empowered we have all become, in recent times, to make our thoughts and feelings known to the wider world. The Internet has precipitated a seismic shift in the geography of influence, which traditionally was the sole preserve of those able to write a book, or write for a journal or newspaper. That last week’s brouhaha was conducted via a medium which allows anyone with a modem to broadcast to the entire planet, is a stupendous irony which seems to have been lost on just about everyone. 

I never cease to marvel at my ability to publish instantaneously around the world in my boxer shorts. Nor do I cease to marvel at those who cry that their freedom of expression is under attack, employing the selfsame medium so to do. It’s as though some of our Bloggers have read a little history, and therefore know that freedom of speech is the first casualty of a totalitarian regime, and then think that must be what’s going on here. No it’s not. We’re in a new technological situation which has no historical precedent, and which may ultimately call for new modes of thought and new rules of engagement.

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8 Comments

  • The greatest question that every liberal has to face is that of tolerance; specifically, how much do we tolerate the intolerant?

    My answer is, significantly different to your own, but it’s no longer the position I took in my youth of ‘if I’m not tolerant to them I can’t reasonably demand they be tolerant of me’, although I have yet to convince myself that that is actually an unreasonable position. Instead, I invoke JS Mill; error has to be allowed to promulgate. In the ensuing collision between truth and error, truth is forced to clarify itself, becoming more obvious and accurate, and error is shown to be wrong, to be lies, to be unconscionable.

    It’s the same reason I dislike people no-platforming the BNP. How can we take on their poison and destroy them and their lies if we never engage with them? If we ban expression, the people holding these views will not go away, and will not change them. It simply gives them a tagline – “We’ve got the truth the establishment doesn’t want you to hear”. Their filth is never challenged, and the people listening to them are sucked in, and lost for good.

    I’m not worried we’re entering a totalitarian state, the aims of the law are admirable, but the way of doing it is wrong. The rules of engagement for the new forms of technology may indeed need to be rethought and redefined, but banning speech, however repulsive, will not end it – it will simply stop us from being able to combat it, because it won’t be in the same arena. If we want to have any chance of ending it, we need to have well observed, well evidenced public debates, where those who wish to lie about history can be shown as the peddlars of hate that they are.

  • Angus J Huck 25th Apr '07 - 12:11am

    I’m a little bit mystified by all this. Is the author referring to the decision of the 27 EU Justice Ministers not to order member states to ban “Nazi symbols”, Holocaust denial and Armenian Genocide denial?

    While I fail to see why the EU should have the power to tell national parliaments how to make their criminal law, the decision was quite sensible, and the banning tendency didn’t get what they wanted.

    A prohibition on “Nazi symbols” would have caused great offence to Hindus, for whom the swastika is a sacred symbol, and to Basques, for whom the lauburu is a national symbol. And a ban on the swastika would require the British Museum to withdraw some of its exhibits (including not a few Ancient Greek vases).

    The author might also mention that the faltering emergence of a public interest defence to defamation helps lift the greatest single restraint on free speech in this country.

  • Hywel Morgan 25th Apr '07 - 12:54am

    “the aims of the law are admirable, but the way of doing it is wrong.”

    But what are the aims of the law? Basically to make it a crime to say something which isn’t true. In any rational political sphere saying something that isn’t true is easily defeatable by the force of reason?

  • Angus J Huck 25th Apr '07 - 11:49am

    According to the report in “The Guardian”, no changes to UK domestic law will result.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/eu/story/0,,2061767,00.html

    I do have difficulty with attempts to legislate against “race hate”. In my opinion, this kind of thing is best dealt with as a public order issue.

    If a rabble-rouser exhorts a bunch of skinheads to burn down synagogues, then of course he should be prosecuted. He is inciting people to do something criminal and intends them to do it.

    The likes of David Irving, on the other hand, thrive on the kind of publicity their enemies give them. They scribble, but they don’t actually encourage people to break the law.

    That’s the crucial distinction, as I see it.

    Britain has no need for entnazifizierung laws, for the simple reason that we never came close to electing a Nazi government.

    The following link is a Bronze Age vase adorned with swastikas. It is legal to display it, and we can be trusted to look at it (I think).

    http://perso.wanadoo.es/historiaweb/antiqva/viajes%20miticos/la_estela_de_ategua.htm

  • The 2006 act may or may not be tougher than these provisions but it isn’t (or wasn’t about a week ago) UK law over a year after being passed by Parliament.

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