Sindre Bangstad on freedom of speech

There are several extracts from social anthropologist Sindre Bangstad’s book Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia that challenge the assumptions of ‘freedom of speech’. I’m sharing these as I think they contain some ideas to bear in mind when formulating a response to the murder of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, and for analysing whatever shit’s about to come. I’m a big fan of letting words stand on their own merit. Sometimes you don’t need to interject and explain. So below are a few of the strongest points from chapter six of Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia, a chapter on freedom of speech and hate speech. Of course, this is a book that deals with the populist right (namely the Progress Party) and far-right in Norway, but the parallels hardly need to be laboriously explained.

“The existing legal protections against racist and/or discriminatory speech are ultimately aimed at protecting individuals, not groups. Norway, like most other Western countries upholds such restrictions on freedom of expression. While these restrictions comprise legal protections, they offer no protection whatsoever against ‘insult’, ‘blasphemy’ or the dubious concept of ‘defamation of religions’.” p176

“[Knut Olav] Amas [Aftenposten‘s former editor]… seems to endorse the view that as long as contributors of op-ed pieces to Aftenposten do not explicitly advocate raacist views and incitement to violence in the present, then their past and consistent record of doing so matters little. It is therefore unsurprising that Aftenposten would facilitate the debut of Breivik’s main ideological inspiration, ‘Fjordman’ [popular ‘eurabia’ conspiracy theory blogger], as an opinion essay contributor to Norway’s largest and most influential newspaper in April 2013, in a piece in which ‘Fjordman’ interestingly enough loudly proclaimed that ‘the media attempts to scare people [like me] to silence by stigmatizing [brennmerke] certain opinion which the ruling elites disapprove of’.” p182

“They [extreme and populist right-wingers] are not necessarily consistent in their support for more absolutist conceptions of freedom of expression, though. For whereas Islamists want to prohibit forms of speech deemed offensive to Muslims throgh law or a resort to violence and intimidation, extreme and/or populist right-wingers have made the case for banning the Qur’an (Geert Wilders in the Netherlands), prohibiting Lutheran Christian bishops from criticizing Norwegian asylum policies or withdrawing state support from anti-racist civil society organisations.” p183

(For this one, TW: islamophobic language, rape) “In November 2012, a young Norwegian convert to Islam, Per Yousef Bartho Assidiq, who for some years had been active in the Norwegian computer-mediated public spheres, reported the various Facebook  postings that he had received from ‘white’ Norwegian right-wingers. In the posts, Muslims like himself were referred to as ‘vermin’, ‘rats’, and the Norwegian government as ‘quislings’. As for himself, he was warned that he would one day be ‘fucked in the arse well and thoroughly before we throw you to the pigs’.” … Brettschneider argues that hateful viewpoints expressed in and through hate speech threaten the ideal of ‘free and equal citizenship’ which underlies public equality in a liberal democracy.Gelber contends that the very very purpose of hate speech is ‘to exclude its targets from participating in the broader deliberative process’. In effect, some forms of speech are designed to and do silence  the speech of others. … Unlike Assidiq, many young Norwegian Muslims refrain from active engagement in and with the Norwegian mediated public sphere, precisely to avoid the prosper of similar harassment, and intimidated by threats received on these sites, a number of active participants in the mediated public sphere have in fact withdrawn into relative silence. If ‘more speech’ or ‘counter-speech’ is in fact the great solvent that free speech absolutists think it is, what, then, is the ‘reasonable’ and ‘appropriate’ ‘response’ to being called a ‘rat’, ‘vermin’ or to being threatened with anal rape? Is the appropriate ‘freedom of speech’ response simply to assert that one is perchance neither a ‘rat’ nor ‘vermin’, and to suggest, ‘No, thanks, I don’t like to be fucked in the arse’? To date there has been no ‘great liberal debate’ in which racists, fascists, neo-Nazis and their targets have engaged one another in ‘democratic deliberation’ aimed at ‘working out their differences’.” pp184-5

“Not even when the report [The Commission on Freedom of Expression, 1996-’99] refers to the various ‘others’ of Norwegian state and/or society do we get anything reminiscent of a philosophical reflection on the limits of reason in combating various forms of racism and xenophobia when they are expressed in and through the public sphere — nor do we hear of the society power differentials which at any time define what are considered permissible and non-permissible forms of speech.” p204

I’m doubtful that it’s all that meaningful for me to condemn today’s killings, but sure, I’ll say that the murder of these workers is horrible and we can have no idea of the number of lives it has brought to despair. But I have no solidarity or sympathy to offer to Charlie Hebdo, the magazine itself. Its purpose is not to encourage healthy debate or expand freedom of speech to those minorities who feel least able to speak: they encourage media saturation of the speech of a section of the majority who fear and distrust minorities. There can be no debate or ‘counter-speech’ to Charlie Hebdo’s headlines because they are designed to intimidate and belittle minorities and workers. Words are actions and have consequences, and the consequence here is increased marginalisation which, along with French imperialist adventures, could well be the motive behind these  For examples of undeniably racist depictions on magazine covers, see here and here. ‘Criticism of religion’ my arse.

Cartoons depicting Jews as being conniving, having too much power, or all looking a certain way, are also attempts at humour but they are still examples of racist hate speech, and anyone using the lazy excuse of “It’s satirical!” to defend anti-Semitic cartoons has some more work to do. (And Charlie Hedbo is no stranger to racist depictions of Jewish people!) Revolutionary groups must reassess rather than regurgitate the ruling class’s talking points on freedom of expression, and consider how their response will be viewed by vilified and marginalised people. (But I’m sure the NPA will have fun marching alongside the Front National). None of this is to say that struggles for expression within the current system don’t matter, or to discount the freedoms of press we have which were won by workers. The Israeli criminalisation of commemorating the Nakba, Russian and Lithuanian laws against ‘gay propaganda’, and the French ban on Palestine solidarity demonstrations are examples of censorship still to be overcome.

Throughout Sindre Bangstad’s book, whenever he talks about solutions and how conceptions of freedom of speech should go beyond ‘absolutism’, he only advocates working within a liberal democracy. Revolutionary socialists have the same love as Bangstad for liberalism and parliamentary democracy. The freedom for oppressed people to speak their mind and have their views and grievances heard will always be extremely restricted in capitalist society, and while hate speech laws may help, they cannot entirely address this imbalance. When inequality in terms of wealth and power is very sharply divided along racial lines, it’s to be expected that the dominant voices and opinions are too. The last quote I’ve given acknowledges this, and it seems surprising that someone with such an awareness and in-depth knowledge of racism and how public opinions are formed cannot conceive of a better world than a capitalist one.

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