Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Extent of Freedom, Revisited

When I wrote this article, I was perfectly aware that it was a huge troll. I do stand by what I said, but I knew that for but a few exceptions (most of whom are zealots to a degree I find counter-productive, even if I'm on the same side of the fence as them), people would disagree strongly. The default mentality is that freedom of expression should be secured to the broadest extent possible. Even if I thought I found an exception with the minaret referendum - based on Switzerland's unique circumstance of demonstrable democracy - I can't argue against the rule itself.

Then recently, something triggered an odd thought.

What I was reading was a report on (in)tolerance in Estonia, prepared by ECRI - the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance. It's a consultative organ of the Council of Europe, itself a very suggestive and non-binding kind of organization. I have a natural distrust for entities of the caliber that the ECRI purports to be, but the report's findings were reported in the local press, so I went to look at the source.
Before going into my main point, let me just take a second to address the obvious issue with any report on social equality in Estonia: the ECRI report, while somewhat poking the government with a stick on integration, actually recommends outright that Russian schools be closed and all students made to do their studies in Estonian - something that the government has been doing very slowly over the last twenty years, and still isn't close to accomplishing, for fear of being labelled intolerant and discriminative. Which is, well, ironic.
The quote that tripped me up comes from page 8 of the ECRI report:

The provisions of the Criminal Code regarding racism are still very rarely implemented, primarily due to Article 151 which criminalises activities which publicly incite hatred, violence or discrimination on the basis of, among others, nationality, race, colour, language, origin or religion, only if they result in danger to the life, health or property of a person. Therefore, the ECRI considers that the Criminal Code does not, in fact, punish hate speech independently of specific consequences as recommended in its General Policy Recommendation No. 7 on national legislation to combat racism and racial discrimination.

Let that sink in for a second. The European Commission on Racism and Intolerance, part of the Council of Europe, advocates that hate speech be banned - criminalized - outright, even in circumstances where there is no demonstrable harm.

The obvious point is that this is not tantamount to banning minarets. Hate speech is not the same as religious self-expression. The point I tried to convey in the Switzerland article was that any broad-reaching humanitarian policy is only meant to be applied in situations where no clear picture can be established, and that if we encounter a uniquely unambiguous situation where the double majority of a community decides of its own free will to impose a restriction on itself, that decision must be respected - to undermine it would be to defy the very concepts of both liberty and common sense.

Let me be clear: Hate speech does not merit the same treatment.

Let me also be clear that I am not an unequivocal zealot of free speech. Obviously. But my writings here on AnTyx and elsewhere are personal; I am not affiliated with any political party, and while I do occasionally contribute to the media, I have not gotten paid for it in half a decade. My opinions are purely my own; I would like others to agree, but don't realistically expect it.

In other words, I am not the Council of Europe.

Is it really acceptable for a body that is, in its own words, "composed of independent and impartial members, who are appointed on the basis of their moral authority", to publically advocate and recommend that states adopt legislation that limits free speech, even when it causes no demonstrable harm? Yes, the state's obligation to protect its people from direct harm is unequivocal and trumps all other considerations. Yes, hate speech is probable cause for investigation, even if it's not an inevitable precursor of hate crime (one should never underestimate people's inclination to say extremely dumb shit out loud, and yes, I am well aware of the irony of this statement in blog).

Given all that, can a moral authority really recommend a limitation of free speech?

5 comments:

Colm said...

Given all that, can a moral authority really recommend a limitation of free speech?

Tricky one. I guess it all depends on how the listeners regard the intent of the speaker in exercising their freedom of speech. Regardless of the intent of the speaker in making their statement, the listener will always come to their own conclusions. Can we hold the speaker responsible for the action of the listener following the speaker's self expression? In a world of adults I would say no. Why should I be held responsible for the actions of idiots? But we all know that our society doesn't function like that and we must watch what we say incase some idiot listen does something questionable for which we might be held accountable. Crazy (as if people where un-thinking children), but that's our world today.

BTW, ECRI recommending that Estonia's bans Russian-medium education? That flies in the face of the EU's positive support of bilingual education programmes. It has been shown in numerous studies world wide that bilingual eduaction does not harm the child's acquisition of the state language. And that it rather supports the minority language AND leads to a better acquisition of the state language compared to monolingual-state-langauge schools for minority-langauge children.

If the ECRI realls advocates for the end of bilingual Russian-Estonian education for Russian-speaking kids then they can go kiss my arse!

Flasher T said...

Regardless of the intent of the speaker in making their statement, the listener will always come to their own conclusions.

That's right - and I'd very much like to see how anyone expects to prescribe perception in legislation.

It has been shown in numerous studies world wide that bilingual eduaction does not harm the child's acquisition of the state language.

Worldwide, there is rarely this level of entrenched communal disregard for all aspects of the majority culture, language being the primary battleground. Anyway, I think ECRI's point was that Estonia can't possibly provide an equal standard of education for minorities, which is a defensible argument.

Kristopher said...

I was drawn by the education point and Colm's comment.

What's unacceptable is when a government says individuals MUST go through the standard educational system. For example, I find it wrong that Germany bans home-schooling. A family recently was granted political asylum in the US for this reason. That was the correct ruling, in my opinion (though of course it probably is ultimately a victory for people who will teach their kids that the universe was created 3000 years ago but never mind that).

But it's completely OK for a government to withhold public funding for a whole parallel system that is administered in another language. If parents in Estonia want to send their kids to a private school where the language of instruction is English (we're considering it) that's fine. Same goes for Russian.

I just have a problem with my tax kroons going to support it.

Flasher T said...

The US is not a nation state. Germany is, but won't say so in public.

Comes down to my original point though: every community is free to decide by majority to impose a restriction on itself, as long as dissenters are free to leave.

Empirically, it's a lot easier for a kid to study in Russian, but a lot harder to have a career without proficiency in Estonian.

stockholm slender said...

Well, this is a tough one - as a quite classical liberal as regards personal liberties I would say that only outright, direct incitement towards violence should be banned. But with some hate speech it is quite obvious that there is incitement although nothing is directly stated. I guess we can only react on individual basis, no blanket rule is possible.

As regards Switzerland that referendum was an abomination. They do have adequate zoning laws to protect against cultural or historical eye sores, and actually next to no minarets. So, to blanket ban something in advance that might actually be quite fitting to some urban or rural landscapes is a disgusting infringement of freedom of association and expression.

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