Free Speech by JJ Hodari

On February 3rd, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that French ‘comedian’ Dieudonné M’bala M’bala had been banned from entering the UK, subject to an exclusion order on the grounds of public security. Dieudonné, who for a brief time achieved monoymous status, sought to enter the country in order to show solidarity with his fellow countryman, Nicholas Anelka. A month earlier, Anelka had been charged by the Football Association for making the now infamous ‘quenelle’ gesture and has since been sacked by his club West Bromwich Albion. Both Dieudonné and Anelka maintain the gesture is anti-establishment and not racist.

Dieudonné who’s fame has, unsurprisingly, risen in direct correlation to his notoriety, is a stranger to neither controversy nor public order sanctions. He has been the ‘victim’ of several court actions, which have only served to strengthen his resolve and affirm his popularity. One of his most memorable reactions to a court order was to create the song ‘Shoananas’, a mash-up of the Hebrew word for the Holocaust, ‘Shoah’, and the French word for pineapples ‘ananas’. Its aim: to make a mockery of the Holocaust and the Holocaust ‘industry’. It contains incendiary phrases such as “You must never forget…there’s a way to make money” ending with Dieudonné shaking his behind to the beat. At the time of writing, the original video had over 485,000 views on YouTube, with a secondary version garnering a further 350,000.

Skipping across the political spectrum over the last decade, Dieudonné has moved from a 21st Century left position (pro-immigration, pro-workers, anti big finance and, of course, anti-Israel), to a muddled politic, which analyst Dave Rich describes as “petty nationalism, married to Occupy’s 99%”. This unseemly red-brown alliance was perhaps consecrated in 2008 when far-right French leader Jean-Marie La Pen became godfather to Dieudonné’s third child. It is beyond doubt that the preoccupation with both Israel and Jews provide an alluring catalyst for the NSP Party.

Definitions of modern antisemitic language can roughly be split up into three broad categories. First, there are the ‘wolf’ cries when the State of Israel is legitimately criticised like any other country. Second, there are cases where clumsy cab-driver intellectuals, or obsessive hobby-politicos, push the boundaries of anti-Zionism into the territory of antisemitic rhetoric, sometimes without expecting to. (Roger Waters for example often genuinely derides claims that he’s crossed the pulpit, despite releasing a giant inflatable pig stamped with the Star of David a long with fascist, communist and capitalist symbols, at a Belgium concert in 2013). Third, you have real, classical antisemitism, which can take on a variety of forms from across the political spectrum. Sometimes this is under a thin veil of anti-Zionism, or nationalism, or as in this case, stark bollock naked. I needn’t go into much detail to confirm Dieudonné’s visceral obsession with Israel and Jews. From his mocking of the Shoah above, to his claim that a Jewish lobby rules the world, to casually associating respected French journalist Patrick Cohen with the gas chambers, there is a constant preoccupation with the aim to make Jews, fascists and capitalists almost synonymous. Why would the quenelle be performed outside Jewish landmarks and, more recently, Auschwitz, if there was no Jewish link? Why does Dieudonné’s side kick wear striped pyjamas and a yellow star? Dieudonné, has tapped into the long-running discourse between France and its Jewish inhabitants, which is steeped in a tumultuous history, encompassing Jewish rights in the French revolution, the Dreyfus Affair and the mirky world of Vichy France.

But, this article is not to argue between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, nor is it to argue about the guilt of Dieudonné, his disciples, or whether the Quennelle is anti-establishment or antisemitic (it’s not mutually exclusive). No, I’d like to briefly examine the notion of freedom of speech in general, and in turn, posit the most effective way of combating the down-trickle of repugnant views such as Dieudonné’s.

At any point in history, begins George Orwell, there is an orthodoxy of opinion. In 19th Century America for example, the majority believed that African-Americans were inferior. To mobilise political support for black emancipation would have been incredibly unpopular. This was, of course, true of many of the other colonial powers at the time. However, come 2012, over 65 million Americans voted for a black President. Thus, we see both the political and cultural hegemony, or the orthodoxy of opinion, in the US shift dramatically in less than 150 years. (This is not to claim that racial inequality has been eradicated in the US, mind.) However, In 2007, the American James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA, claimed that blacks were genetically inferior to others. The Nobel Prize winner was subsequently banned from delivering a lecture at London’s Science Museum on the grounds that he’d gone beyond the acceptable point of debate. Regardless of what you think of the political expediency of Watson’s opinion, he should have been allowed to debate with others, and, to have his disastrous views publicly challenged. One can’t simply rest in the accepted opinion of the majority, because there have been many points in the past, and present, that a country’s moral heterodoxy has comprised the worst and most repellent of all human capabilities.

This brings us to two essential questions. The first, how do you know what you think you know? This is a question that the great Christopher Hitchens posed to his audience at the Hart House Debating Club. If someone came up to you and said the world is flat, you’d think they were mad. But, what if they had figures and maps to support their assertion? Do you have the requisite understanding to put them right? This is a rather fanciful example, but what if the next person told you that the Holocaust was largely overstated? Does each of us have the necessary information to debate David Irving in a room full of Holocaust agnostics? The second question is, who exactly would you choose to arbitrate what can and can’t be said? Having worked a little (being more than enough) with politicians, I wouldn’t trust half of them to sit the right way up on a toilet seat. Similarly, the law isn’t infallible or universal. There were a number of laws passed in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and today in countless countries in the developing world that we in the UK would find morally repugnant. There are a number of freedom’s of expression afforded in this country that are banned in others. E.g. in Germany today it’s illegal to question the veracity of the Holocaust. Hitchens says that the person who doubts the Holocaust must be given extra protection as, not only must this view have taken them sometime to come up with, but it may contain a grain of historical truth. We must not take refuge in the majority opinion. Freedom of speech is as necessary for the individual as it is for the audience. People must be challenged on their perceived opinions.

One counter-argument which is often made, is that freedom of speech is not an absolute right, and that those who cause severe offence or incite racial hatred should not be tolerated, especially from outside of the country. Let’s tackle causing severe offence first. This statement usually, unfortunately, pertains to religions. Any person should have every right to criticise any theory or set of beliefs. Just as communism and capitalism can be lampooned, so should Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s decision to deride Islam was as brave as the decision to axe the episode was miserable. It was a chagrin to American society and the first amendment. It is understandable to act with prudence, but ultimately, if an uncompromising and inhibiting dogma is not fought against, then it’s a steady trickle towards either autocracy or meaningless cultural relativism.

Now what about inciting racial hatred. Taking for a given that ‘race’ exists, this concern supposes that unpopular or offensive views will cause violence which is, undoubtedly, a legitimate and very real concern. Indeed, as Orwell states, everyone should have the right to say and print what they think to be the truth, “provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way.” He goes on to expand this caveat, using the example of the imprisonment of Nazi-sympathiser Oswald Mosley. “In 1940 it was perfectly right to intern Mosley…We were fighting for our lives and could not allow a possible quisling to go free. To keep him shut up, without trial, in 1943 (when the national situation was totally different) was an outrage.” The introduction of context is welcome to this debate. Even a proven rabble rouser who organised racially motivated attacks on British citizens, who collaborated with the enemy, must be dealt with as swiftly and soberly as possible by the law.

Also key, is the connection between speech and action. As the writer Kenan Malik argues, “there are clearly circumstances… where someone’s words have to led to someone else taking action.” I have too many friends who hold negative views on homosexuality emanating from a lack of exposure to gay people and culture, which translates into a litany of dangerous notions. As educated folk, they should seek sources beyond the Old Testament on which to base their tired views. Still, it’s their absolute right to protest against homosexuality. But, what if whilst they were protesting, others in the protest started smashing up shops and throwing bricks. Would my friends be to blame? You can’t imprison someone because of an attitude or comment, you can because of an action and the two shouldn’t be conflated. If we do, then we ourselves fall victim to ‘thought-crime’. The crime of punishing people for the way they think.

And this brings us to the crux of any argument about banning hate speech. The ultimate solution. What are we trying to achieve? Let’s take the absurd notion, that those of us who believe in basic human equality, that every person should be allowed to live how and fuck who they want, are actually right. And that those who want to subjugate women, expel the Muslims, kill the Jews, castrate the gays and blow up the infidels are actually wrong. What is the most effective way in which we should attempt to get to a situation where these truths are held universally, diminish unintelligent arguments and preserve the safety of all. Or, as in this case, what to do about Dieudonné.

Giving this the litmus test of whether his speech creates real imminent danger for people in this country, Dieudonné falls short. Fortunately. Yet, we have banned him. We have banned a racist, running on a shallow and transparent platform of anti-establishmentism. Because he is against what our establishment thinks. Very good, that’ll get him. That’ll crush his popularity. The Jews had nothing to do with it. As you were then.

Dieudonné should be allowed in our country. I have faith that, if put in front of the public, his arrogant, primitive ideas will be seen by the majority to be as basic as the orator himself. It’s a confidence I share with the long time castigated Salman Rushdie who said that, “in any open society people constantly say things that other people don’t like…in any confident free society you just shrug it off and you proceed.” Information, if it really ever was, is not static anymore. Not with the internet. You can find all of his shows, all of his views, all of his supporters on Twitter and YouTube. An underground racist, who is kept underground, will keep fomenting. Forced into the sunlight of rational thought though, they will melt soon enough, or at least their sexy, radical avant-garde persona will. As John Milton once put it, to keep out “evil doctrine” by licensing is “like the exploit of that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his Park-gate”.

Education and experience are the ways in which to combat the views of the racist. It’s not particularly pretty, or quick, but it’s the most effective tool we have. Mix our children with other religions from a young age. If children grow up learning about and experiencing other cultures, they will soon find that the majority are not threatening. Of course we need laws to safeguard our minorities, but, if used too readily, these statutes can undermine freedom of speech and thought. As Hitchens continued above, “our prefrontal lobes are too small and our adrenaline glands are too big.” Every person is allowed to have their own truth. If it doesn’t threaten anyone physically (and there must be strict laws based on specific case studies so as to minimise elasticity) then whatever that truth is, should be allowed to be stated and heard.

Europe has a specific history with Jewry, one which, with good reason, causes both sides to be hyper-vigilant on antisemitic threats. I welcome and take solace in this. But freedom of speech must be upheld in general, and case studies must be viewed as such, with responses designed to ameliorate the situation in the short and long term. The counter-productivity of banning Dieudonné outweighs the virtues of not having to hear his views.

The French enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire (himself often accused of holding antisemitic, or certainly anti-religious views) famously said “I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Indeed, Dieudonné, I will fight your views with my own words, and, if the time comes, with all my might.

 

Bio: JJ Hodari is a musician and singer-songwriter from Manchester, England. Currently working on his first EP in London. More info here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/JJ-Hodari/1387134578202311

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