Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Is freedom of expression a problem?

French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala became an instant household name in France when he was banned from performing his anti-Semitic stand-up comedy routine. He is notoriously known for implying that a renowned Jewish journalist belonged in a gas chamber. 

Dieudonné may have become one of the most hateful personalities in France but many of his haters still believe that he should not be banned from performing.

It is not very often that the French court decides to restrict freedom of expression, a sacred institution in France. The other time it was done was when it prohibited the wearing of all religious headgear in public school, and more recently the wearing of a full-face veil in public spaces.

I found it interesting that France, a country that gave birth to Voltaire – known for his “I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to my death your right to say it” quote – appear  more willing to use court power to silent offensive speech and curtail the expression of religious identity.

I was told that the majority of the French disagree with the court’s ban on Dieudonné’s comedy show despite many who think he’s a hateful bigot and found his jokes extremely offensive and borderline violent.

I also learned that many French people believe that while the ban against hate speech is wrong, religious headgear isn’t (and other symbols for that matter) because they are two separate matters.

“Dieudonné’s jokes are more than just racist comedy. If you watch his videos online, you’ll see that he’s inciting violence and hatred against the Jew. What he does is criminal. But you [the court] cannot ban his show because that’s against freedom of expression. We cannot allow that to happen in France. It’s much too sacred,” Philippe, a French expatriate said when asked what he thought of the ban on Dieudonné.

“What the court should have done was to give him a prison sentence or a huge fine. There is sufficient evidence to charge him for inciting violence. But to ban his show, that’s just ridiculous.”

Philippe’s concern obviously lies in the protection of freedom of expression, something he considers sacred and cannot be violated.

I was told that the majority of the French are outraged by Dieudonné’s anti-Semitic jokes but like Philippe, they are more concerned that the judiciary may fall into a slippery slope.

“We couldn’t care less about Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. Who the hell is this guy anyway? If civil liberty groups are upset about the ban, it’s definitely not to defend what he did. It’s to defend our right to freedom of expression. We cannot allow the ban to happen because who knows what else will be banned in the future?” Philippe insisted.

“People need to understand this. Objecting the ban does not equate to defending racist behaviour. They are two separate issues,” he added.

Guillaume, another French expat, agreed with Philippe. Although he disagrees with Dieudonné’s racist behaviour, he wished people would stop giving him so much attention.

“I don’t really care about him. He did not exist in my life before but now because of this fracas, everybody knows him and they are giving him way too much importance.  He’s become so popular. Why? There are other more important things that deserve my attention,” said Guillaume.

What is true for Philip seems to hold true for Guillaume as well. According to both, freedom of expression must not be restricted. But what I find even more intriguing is that the duo feel that the French court’s consistent upholding of the ban on religious headgear (more prominently the face-veil worn by Muslim women) in the public sphere is completely justified.

What’s the difference?

“Well, for centuries we’ve suffered the imposition of the Catholic Church. France is a secular country now. There’s no room for people who want to impose their religion on others. You go to school to learn, not to practise your faith. We did not say you can’t have a religion. All we’re saying is religion has no place in the public sphere. You can do what you want in private. That’s your business,” Philippe asserted.

I argued that wearing a headscarf does not mean a person is imposing her religion on others. It is well within one’s right to express one’s religious identity and to practise one’s religious teaching.

“I really doubt that these people are merely expressing their religious identity. I think they are trying to Islamise the country. They are deliberately provoking the public with their religious attire,” Philippe said.

I looked at Guillaume to hear what he had to say about this. He remained silent and appeared to be in deep thought. Perhaps he may disagree with Philippe this time.

Philippe meanwhile continued to express strong feelings against the wearing of religious headscarf in public. He said that those who insist on practising their religion openly should live elsewhere. France is not a country for them.

As I am familiar with such sentiment, often expressed by those who think we (the Malaysian minority) are complaining too much and should leave the country, it dawned on me that freedom of expression wasn’t really the issue here. It was the fear of France losing its secular identity and Islamaphobia that had prompted such different opinion.

I had an epiphany - there are people who are equally as afraid of the threat of converting into Islam as much as the threat of converting out of Islam. I begin to see some sort of a resemblance between religious and anti-religious fanatics.

When I pointed this out to Philippe, he argued vehemently that it wasn’t just the Islamic headscarf that he has an issue with, but all religious headgear and symbol.

“Do you know that Muslims are now demanding public schools in France to serve halal food? I mean, what next?” Guillaume finally broke his silence and that was sufficient for me to deduce that he shared the same sentiment as Philippe.

The French courts may try their best to apply restrictions on constitutional rights as consistently as possible, the French public are quite split on the two issues. This is precisely what makes freedom of expression an extremely grey area. No matter how it is being applied, there will always be someone who is unhappy somehow, somewhere.

To me, freedom of expression is not the problem. What becomes problematic is the hypocrisy of human being – “I will defend my right but not yours”.  

Freedom of expression must be for everyone which is why, it should only be restricted when it is absolutely necessary and within the law. There is no fast rule on what entails necessity. It must always be judged contextually and from both sides of the perspectives.

What could potentially be a solution to address polarity is the emphasis on critical thinking by our society, a faculty so lacking these days.

For many centuries, the Socratic Method or what is commonly known as critical thinking has been the pillar of the finest teaching institutions in the world. Famous for his quote “an unexamined life is not worth living”, Socrates distinguished intellectual and free minds from ignorant fools although he was sentenced to death for making a mockery out of the ancient Greek Gods and the Athenian ruling elite.

His student, Plato, created the first institution of higher learning in the Western world and wrote Dialogues, a book where characters argue a topic by asking each other questions.

The Socratic Method further inspired Plato to expound on his theory of dualism, separating perception from idealism. He illustrated this theory using the cave metaphor – people living in a cave can only see the light within the parameter it is projected upon, hence depriving them from seeing the big picture or external realism as he would call it. Here lies another reason why freedom of expression must not be restricted to allow peripheral points of view.

Plato’s Academia and Dialogues are both famous for promoting critical thinking. The presiding philosophy was that all school of thought must be given equal opportunity for discourse so that students and readers can make their own judgment after careful analysis.

The American Association of University Professor agrees with Plato’s philosophy and thus adopted a Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Code which says:

“Freedom of thought and expression is essential to any institution of higher learning. Universities and colleges exist not only to transmit knowledge. Equally, they interpret, explore, and expand that knowledge by testing the old and proposing the new. This mission guides learning outside the classroom quite as much as in class, and often inspires vigorous debate on those social, economic, and political issues that arouse the strongest passions. In the process, views will be expressed that may seem to many wrong, distasteful, or offensive. Such is the nature of freedom to sift and winnow ideas.

On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful or disturbing that it may not be expressed.”

The code went on to prescribe measures that can be taken to address incivility, intolerance, offensive and harassing behaviour, all short of banning free speech. Click here for the full code.

Freedom of expression can be both empowering and disempowering at the same time. To me, it should not be restricted whenever possible because it can be used to empower more than it can disempower.

As a woman, I may be offended by a disempowering video objectifying women as sex symbols but as a human rights activist, freedom of expression is an inviolable right that must be defended at a reasonable cost. It is because of freedom of expression that human rights values are imparted and upheld all over the world on a daily basis. Finding a balance between these competing interests is not easy and requires time and wisdom to understand. 

To me, it is easier to correct a harm caused by an expression than to correct one that is caused by a ban on expression. For example, the public can challenge an offensive expression through criticism and counter argument when there is space which allows freedom of expression but it becomes extremely difficult to expose and correct wrongdoing in an environment where freedom of expression is being curtailed.

Plato’s theory of dualism explains the inevitability of two opposing views which makes it difficult to judge an issue as simply black or white. As such, the solution should never be to restrict the expression of these two opposing views, but to encourage the audience to think about the views as critically as possible and come to their own conclusion.

Shielding an adult from distasteful or offensive form of expression is not a heroic act. In fact, it can be disempowering and it can perpetuate ignorance. Not only are you treating the adult like a child, you’re saying that you know better. This is an offence many Malaysian politicians are committing on a daily basis. 

Fighting injustices and human stereotypes is not about restricting offensive or distasteful content. It’s about educating and empowering men, women and children on a daily basis to think critically about such content so that they can learn to make informed judgment on their own.
Freedom of expression is not the problem. The lack of it is.

This article was first published here on 13 February 2014.