The radical case for freedom of expression

„I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.“

This sentence is often erroneously attributed to Voltaire. However, it was Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1868 – 1956), an English writer, who spoke those words. She penned the sentence in her biography, „The Life of Voltaire“, published in 1903, as an illustration of Voltaire’s philosophy. Ironically, the false assertion that the aphorism originated from Voltaire is protected by free speech!

It’s often stated that freedom of opinion does not include so-called hate speech and falsehoods. But that is exactly what it does. It is the exact definition of freedom of expression, including “wrong” opinions.

The problem is not whether there’s too much freedom of expression. There is either freedom of expression or there isn’t; it’s as simple as that! There is, however, an excess of fear and indignation. Opinions that hurt because they are either true or are not true can be ignored or confronted.

An insult hurled against another hurts only when that person is mentally aware of it. However, a fist or bullet fired at a person injures the head independently of opinions or attitudes that person may have. Whoever doesn’t listen to an insult is not physically harmed. Whoever doesn’t hear a bullet coming dies. That’s the big difference!

Those who believe that a person who speaks his or her mind is a danger may also believe that a woman who leaves the house without covering her hair or face represents a danger. Censorship is for freedom of speech as the veil is for women’s rights. Every woman should decide for herself whether she wants to wear a scarf or veil, just as every person may decide whether to remain silent. Neither the veil nor silence should be forced.

Freedom of speech also applies to so-called hate speech! Just imagine, you enter a pub and notice a man with a swastika button on his collar. You’d think, „Oh no, a Nazi. I’m not going to sit next to him.“ Now imagine, he’s not donning such a button because it’s against the law. Then perhaps you’d have sat next to him and introduced yourselves. There’d be no shouting „Heil Hitler“ on account of hate speech laws. However, after buying him a beer, it dawns on you in the ensuing conversation that the fellow is indeed a Nazi. Then, it’s too late; you’ve already paid for his beer. Because the swastika and shouting „Heil Hitler“ are prohibited, you were prevented from recognizing the man for who he really is. For my part, I’d rather recognize people for who they are. Besides, I don’t want to chat with a Nazi. I’d rather stand in clear opposition!

I don’t want to abandon the idealistic belief that talking, listening, and arguing can help to recognize, understand, and possibly reduce hate! Additionally, listening can represent a preventative defense mechanism, whereby I can size-up a person and then decide whether I should protect myself from that person. Freedom of expression benefits the person being hated more than the one hating!

There are those who are continually browsing Facebook to find statements they consider to be hate speech. They block said culprits as a feel-good heroic act that puts themselves on par with the “White Rose” resistance group. But, one won’t achieve much by merely throwing epitaphs at political opponents and giving them the middle finger. We must apply methods of political discourse! Whoever suppresses free speech only ensures that opinions and ideological thoughts remain hidden! And those hidden thoughts can suddenly erupt into undesirable deeds. Then, it could be too late!

Those who block out what they disagree with are blind to what is really happening in society. They are then shocked by election results. Of course, such results weren’t anticipated because no real debate had taken place. Opposing ideas weren’t encountered and contradicted. As small children do, they cover their eyes and think all danger has disappeared. Deleting Internet pages in order to prevent something is like books burning!

There is, however, a much more important reason for not banning Nazis from talking. First of all: who should decide who the “Nazis” are and then curtail their freedom of speech?

The term Nazi is becoming more of a meaningless term. The word is increasingly being used by hate-filled people to dehumanize and then deny political opponents the right of free speech. There are some who are so free from any self-doubt and therefore so convinced of themselves that they even justify violence. Such self-righteousness can represent a danger to society.

Those who’ve successfully blocked a person they’ve declared a Nazi will further pursue that strategy. Even Jews are being called Nazis, which, of course, is free speech. Calling someone a Nazi is also free speech! However, that can lead to real violence against people thus brand-marked. It’s a way to dehumanize them.

Those blurting out „defend the beginnings“, are merely constructing a future grounded in their own assumptive fears. Those fears are the root of totalitarian thinking, whereby, instead of discourse, violence is applied as a preemptive strike.

Can censorship be justified as a preemptive strike? At the awarding of the Böll Prize, Herta Müller once said:

„When hate goes for a walk, knives will soon follow.“

In that sense, people who want to ban opinions would logically want to ban the Koran, because of the countless terrorists who’ve walked with passages from the Koran before brandishing a murderous knife.

Knives, however, do not go for walks because of slogans; those who blurt out such slogans are already carrying sharpened knives, with which they cut out and discard opinion – and with which they attack real people! Society’s problems aren’t derived from freedom of expression, but rather from the hateful who want to abolish freedom of expression through violence.

Taping a murderer’s mouth won’t prevent the knife from cutting!

The National-Socialist magazine „Der Stürmer“ was not the main problem; it was the Nazi takeover and the ensuing control over personal opinion and the news media, which would have been crucial in unmasking Nazi propaganda. The national socialists had the knives with which to attack and silence freedom of opinion! Those who are wrong have nothing more to fear than freedom of expression! That’s why the National Socialists declared in their 25-point program:

„23. We demand legal measures against deliberate political lying and its dissemination in the press. To facilitate the creation of a German national press we demand: (…) Newspapers which conflict with the common good are to be forbidden. We demand legal measures against any tendency in art and literature which has a subversive influence on the life of our people, and the closing down of any meetings or organizations which do not conform to these demands.“

For the „common good“ opinions were criminalized, events closed down, books banned and newspapers abolished. That’s the world of the Nazis, which can be summed up as follows: „When lies go for a walk, subversion soon follows.“

But, I prefer to drink English tea with Evelyn Beatrice Hall than taste muddy German coffee.


Translation: William Wires

Über tapferimnirgendwo

Als Theatermensch spiele, schreibe und inszeniere ich für diverse freie Theater. Im Jahr 2007 erfand ich die mittlerweile europaweit erfolgreiche Bühnenshow „Kunst gegen Bares“. Als Autor verfasse ich Theaterstücke, Glossen und Artikel. Mit meinen Vorträgen über Heinrich Heine, Hedwig Dohm und dem von mir entwickelten Begriff des „Nathankomplex“ bin ich alljährlich unterwegs. Und Stand Up Comedian bin ich auch. Mein Lebensmotto habe ich von Kermit, dem Frosch: „Nimm, was Du hast und flieg damit!
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