july 31, 2011; updated mar 27, 2012
rankly, I couldn't care less about what Anders Behring Breivik, the accused Norway killer, was trying to achieve by murdering so many people last week. The right thing to do would be to take everything he ever wrote and burn it. It would be a small loss: by all accounts, his 1,500-page "manifesto" consisted mainly of rants plagiarized from random Internet sites and from other mass murderers, including the Unabomber. So much so, that one wonders about its authenticity.
We are also told that on his Facebook page, two days before slaughtering 76 people in cold blood, he suddenly changed his profile to call himself a "conservative" and a "fundamentalist Christian" who is unhappy about multiculturalism and Muslim immigration. This is all also a bit too convenient. Why is it so far beyond comprehension that a mass-murderer might also--gasp--lie?
But suppose, for the sake of argument, we believe the story that somebody could think that committing such an atrocity would be a good way to protest multiculturalism and immigration. Then we are forced to ask a difficult question: is this what happens when one political side makes expressing the opponents' point of view illegal? By using the power of the State to suppress viewpoints that the majority do not want to hear, are European societies actually encouraging violence?
Norway's Constitution nominally gives its citizens "free speech" ... except that "blasphemy" and "hate speech" are forbidden. Criticism of the state or of any subject can be limited when "weighty considerations" justify it--in other words, whenever the state (and, since Norway is a democracy, the people) dislike intensely enough what's being said.Using the legal system to block "harmful" speech is no different in principle than burning books.
In practice, as in many Western European countries, this means that criticism of Muslims is absolutely forbidden. Just as in America, in any discussion of a social group or a race, only one side--the side of multicultural platitudes--is permitted. If anyone expresses any contrary views, that person is immediately branded as a "racist." In America, where we're drowning in a sea of parasitic lawyers, it means you're fired from your job. In many other countries, it results in prosecution and imprisonment.
Canada, for example, tried to prosecute writer Mark Steyn for expressing the idea that the rapidly-increasing population of disaffected Muslims in Europe who are hostile to Western culture could be a problem. This high-profile case was designed to intimidate people from considering the expression of unpopular ideas. Steyn survived, and even wrote a book about it, but many less financially secure writers would have had their writing careers destroyed. It's not clear whether Canadians are permitted to read his book, but it's clear that any discussion of Muslims that does not include a glowing paean to how wonderful it is to have them there, and what a wonderful, peaceful world they and all the other ethnic groups have created by working hand in hand, is verboten.
The idea is that saying otherwise is "hate speech." As the wise Obi-Wan once said (okay, several dozen times), hate leads to fear, fear leads to hate, and hate is the path to the Dark Side ... or something like that ... oh wait, is that racist? Whoops!
Just recently, we observed the spectacle of liberals openly cheering for the death of former Vice President Dick Cheney after his heart transplant. Their social leaders have called for mass murder of "these people" (i.e., their political opponents), and their TV "comedians" called Sarah Palin words that would get me in trouble if I even mentioned the first letter of them. Calling for the death of people with whom you disagree is about as hateful as speech gets. Yet the news media rarely, if ever, comment on it. Whether that's because they agree with the sentiment, or some other reason, is unclear.
Would these liberals commit mass murder on the basis of those hateful ideas? Possibly not. For one thing, most liberals can't tell one end of a firearm from another. Lucky for us, I guess. For another, these commentators and bloggers are free, at least in America, to express their hate to their readers. Likewise, the readers are also free to form small cliques who convince each other that the writers' ideas make sense. Although this creates divisions within society at large, it also promotes ingroup cohesiveness, which discourages individual acts of violence. That is the power of freedom of speech--and, arguably, its main purpose.(Continued at right)
But consider what would happen if these people were prohibited from expressing their ideas. Their frustrations would build into hatred. and, unable to express their rage, they might well try to tear down their own country in a revolution or terrorist acts, or strike out in violence against their perceived enemies. Or, in order to prevent their opponents from rebutting their ideas, they might try to use the power of the state to suppress the ideas of their enemies, as was done in the Soviet Union, Communist China, and Eastern Europe during the 20th century, and in Canada and parts of Western Europe in the early 21st. They would start with lawsuits, then new laws, and finally, as we've seen in Canada, tribunals.
Using the legal system to block speech deemed "harmful" is no different in principle than burning books. Both have the same objective: to get rid of unwanted ideas by preventing people from communicating them to each other. Future generations will view our attempts to suppress dissent in the same way that we view the book burnings and the tribunals of the Inquisition of the 15th to 18th century.
Take another example: speech in the workplace. Even the American federal government recognizes the importance of allowing workers to discuss their working conditions with each other. The National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from taking punitive action against employees who engage in concerted activity to discuss their working conditions. True, it doesn't work: employers simply make up some other reason for firing their employees. But by its existence it shows that even the U.S. Government recognizes the importance of allowing people to express their frustrations. It could be called the Anti-Going-Postal Law. If employees can't commiserate about the fact that their boss is an illiterate Nazi bean-counter, their rage will build up, and some of them, perhaps a loner who has no other means of expressing himself or herself, or perhaps some other unstable individual like a Nobel-prize-winning economics editor for a major newspaper, would be tempted to solve the problem with violence.
But what about the harder cases? What about Germany, where it is illegal to say "Heil H***r" or to draw a sw**tika? The laws there are so strict that many lines in the TV comedy show Hogan's Heroes had to be changed. Or what if some individual were to advocate murder, child pornography, or maybe even the eating of trans-fatty acids? Here again, suppressing ideas doesn't work. Ideas are the brain's way of making sense of the world. They allow individuals to plan their behavior. If the forbidden ideas help them to make sense of events, people will continue to believe them, regardless of whether they're permitted to speak them aloud. If discussion of the ideas is suppressed, some will come up with plans that, if not openly discussed and refuted, will be carried out, with disastrous consequences.
For example, there are probably just as many neo-Nazis in Germany now as there would be if it were not illegal. The difference is, they refuse to identify themselves, so the government doesn't know who or how many they are. Likewise, our desire to eat trans-fats and hamburgers cannot be suppressed, even if we're sent to the gulags and forced to eat soy products all day. We are genetically programmed to like hamburgers, just as we have been programmed throughout millions of years of tooth and claw and club over the head to feel rage against our enemies.
These ideas have to be argued against intelligently or they will explode in blind rage, as they have done time and again throughout history. Using the power of the State to suppress them won't make them go away. But it will make it more likely the person will express their rage immediately, using displaced violence, instead of writing a nasty editorial on it and having it published on the front page of their newspaper where it belongs, and where we geniuses in pajamas can rip the idea to shreds on the Internet. As we say here in the States: If you make expressing ideas a crime, only criminals will express ideas. And it goes without saying you probably won't like their mode of expression.