This week we are joined by Flemming Rose, the editor who defended Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s printing of 12 cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in 2005. We talk about the tradition of religious satire in the Western world, the importance of free speech to pluralistic societies, and the dangers of censorship—even self-imposed censorship—on those societies.
Show Notes and Further Reading
Flemming Rose’s book, The Tyranny of Silence (2014), has a new paperback edition coming out this year. In the book he provides a personal account of an event that has shaped the debate about what it means to be a citizen in a democracy and how to coexist in a world that is increasingly multicultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic.
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: Today we’re joined by Flemming Rose. He’s a journalist and author of The Tyranny of Silence. There’s a paperback edition of The Tyranny of Silence coming out next year and it has got a new chapter on the Charlie Hebdo killings.
In that chapter, you mentioned rather a chilling fact that your name appears on Al-Qaeda’s most wanted list of individuals guilty of offending Muhammad. So maybe start by just the story of how you ended up on such a list.
Flemming Rose: Well, I ended up on that list after being responsible for the publication of 12 cartoons, depicting the prophet Muhammad in the fall of 2005.
Trevor Burrus: They were published in?
Flemming Rose: They were published in Jyllands Posten, the paper where I worked. I’m soon leaving my post to become a fulltime free speech advocate, writer, speaker and debater. I mean that list was created I think a while ago. In fact, I had forgotten about it and I also think that the Danish police had forgotten about it for a while. But it resurfaced after the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
There were 11 people on that list, three Danes among them, two of my colleagues at the paper and I and one French, Stéphane Charbonnier, Charb the editor-in-chief who was killed and they crossed out his name on that – you know, like a most wanted list in the US and said, you know, now there are only 10 people left. That list was behind an imam in Yemen from Al-Qaeda or the Islamic state who praised the killings in Paris and said, “We helped these guys to commit this great act,” and then the list of the 10 people who are still on that list was in the background.
In fact at the time I was asked by Danish TV to come on the air to comment on it and I said, “No, thank you.” I mean what am I supposed to say? And they wanted to play it and I said, “Well, every time you air that list, you will just increase the threat against me. It’s up to you. I’m not giving you any advice but I’m not going to be in the studio commenting on that list.” So that’s the background.
Trevor Burrus: When you published the cartoons, did you expect this?
Flemming Rose: No, of course not. Nobody did. Even experts on Islam in Denmark, a well-known Danish expert on Islam, who was very critical of the publications, the cartoons, said in the fall of 2005, “This is never going to be a big international issue.” Two months later, everything exploded in the Middle East.
I mean I didn’t even know how sensitive the depictions of the prophet Muhammad is to many Muslims, but there’s some way to go from that to start killing people and committing terrorist attacks and things like that. I think it was a coincidence of many factors that you have interests of authoritarian regimes in the Islamic world coinciding with the interest of the imams in Denmark who wanted to take this case to the international Muslim public opinion and to turn it against Denmark and the newspaper.
Unfortunately, it was very opportune for some of these regimes in the Middle East, especially the Mubarak government in Egypt, the Fatah government in the Palestinian territories, the Pakistani government, imams in Saudi Arabia, to exploit this issue for their own ends. So it was not – it was not written somewhere by – that this case was determined from the outset to become a big international controversy.
Trevor Burrus: But you knew there was – around the publication of the cartoons. Can you talk a little bit about why you published it at the time? What was the discussion? So you knew you were doing something a little provocative or at least a lot provocative.
Flemming Rose: I do that every day as an editor. So – and most of it goes unnoticed. I mean that’s the job of a newspaper editor and get – try to challenge your audience. No, but of course the cartoons didn’t come out of the blue. In the fall of 2005 – well, early fall, August – beginning of September, there was a big news story in the Danish press about a children’s book, about the life of the prophet Muhammad and the writer said, “I wrote this book but I cannot find an illustrator. I have offered the job to several illustrators and they said no, thank you because they were afraid.”
The one who finally said yes insisted on anonymity due to fear for his life and he later admitted, the illustrator, that that in fact was the case, that he was afraid and this was a front page news story in Denmark. At the time we did the usual reporting. We called the association of painters, the association of illustrators and the association of writers to ask, “Is this self-censorship? What do you think about this? Is it a good thing, a bad thing?”
That was the first round of the chorus of the story and then we had a follow-up discussion. Can we do anything more in this story? And somebody came up with a proposal. Why don’t we ask illustrators in Denmark to draw the prophet? So we can find out if there is self-censorship or not.
So I would say back then I was trying to pose a challenge that would answer two questions. One was, “Is there self-censorship when it comes to Islam? Are people in cultural life in Denmark and probably Western Europe making a difference when it comes to Islam? Do they treat Islam in a different way than they treat Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and also non-religious ideas? And if there is self-censorship, is that self-censorship just a product of people’s fantasy? Is it something that they make up, they just think that something might happen or is this self-censorship based in real fear?”
Ten years later, we have to admit that the answer to both questions is yes. There is self-censorship and the self-censorship is based in real fear because people have been killed and I have to live with security in Denmark just for being the editor behind this initiative.
Aaron Ross Powell: So a lot of people have responded to publication of these cartoons and similar occurrences with saying first, you should have known what would happen or at least had an idea that this was more dangerous and not a particularly good idea. But also that even if – we can all admit shooting people because they published cartoons is not acceptable. But even with that, there’s still something morally wrong with publishing things that you know are going to be profoundly offensive to a subset of people that – I mean obviously someone – in order to kill because you were offended, you have to have been offended fairly deeply.
Flemming Rose: Well, that’s like John Kerry who said there is a difference between the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the one November 13th in Paris. I don’t think so. I mean Charlie Hebdo, yes, people were offended by some of their cartoons but they were perfectly within the limits of French law within French tradition and they did not take exception with Islam. They offend all religions and politicians.
So I think that is a flawed argument and it’s also a rationalization after the fact. In fact I didn’t know. We didn’t know how offensive this was for too many Muslims. But I also think it was exploited. Yes, I mean every time I turn on my TV, I’m offended. I’m deeply offended by a lot of what I see. Reality TV and Donald Trump or whatever it is. It’s very offensive.
But I don’t try to get these shows banned and I don’t threaten to kill people if they appear on these shows and that’s a big difference. I mean the price you have to pay for living in a liberal democracy and enjoying all the benefits of it is that from time to time you may be offended by what other people say.
That’s one of the reasons why I think the way I do about this issue because I didn’t know about all the taboos within Islam when it comes to depicting the prophet. I think now a lot of people know but there are 10,000 religions in the world, 10,000 religions. Am I obliged to know every taboo of every religion in the world and obey it, not to offend what is sensitive to people?
I think it’s impossible for an individual to know everything and then it boils down to you’re only going to take into consideration the taboos that make it difficult for you because people react in a violent and threatening way. That’s very undemocratic. It’s the assassin’s veto as Timothy Garton Ash put it in the New York Review of Books, and I think that’s not fair and I also think if you go back to the cartoons, that in fact many people never saw maybe except for one. But there were 12 cartoons and if you look at them and you compare them to other religious satire in Denmark and Western Europe, they are very innocent in many ways. They do not in any way transgress the limits for what we usually do when it comes to religious satires.
So I would make the point that by publishing those cartoons, we were not asking more of Muslims. We were not asking less. But we were asking exactly the same of Muslims as we do of any other group religious, non-religious, and in that lies a fact of recognition of the Muslim community as an integrated part of our society. That’s why I from time to time maybe a little bit provocatively call the publication of the cartoons an integration project because we integrated the Muslim community into the tradition of religious satire of Denmark that has existed for several centuries.
So no, I think first it was perfectly within the limits of the way we usually do this and in a multicultural, multiethnic and multi-religious society, it is impossible to know the sensitivities of any – of every group and individual and if you want to be consistent, in applying the principle do not offend, it will lead to the title of my book The Tyranny of Silence.
Trevor Burrus: Now you write about in the book that there is nothing in Islamic law per se. I mean I’m sure there are huge debates that actually prohibits first of all non-Muslims from making representations of the prophet. But even – you write that until recently people could buy posters of a young Muhammad in Iran and so this is somewhat new in the sense first of all enforcing Muslim law or pretending that you are enforcing Muslim law on non-Muslim countries or within Muslim countries.
Flemming Rose: Yeah, I’m quoting the preeminent scholar of Islamic art, Oleg Grabar, who unfortunately passed away not long ago, a French expert on Islamic art and he makes the point that there is no dogma. There is nothing in the Quran that prohibits images of the prophet and even this so within Shia Islam. That’s why you can buy those posters in Iran or at least you could do it on so – maybe 10 years ago.
But also within Sunni Islam, I mean in Copenhagen where I live, there is a museum where we have 13th or 14th century images of the prophet. So it is a recent phenomena and much of this is based on lack of knowledge. It is true that if you go into a mosque you will not see images and they have a more …
Trevor Burrus: Geometric kind of art.
Flemming Rose: Yes, yes. In a church you will see paintings on the walls and things like that. So that is a difference but it’s not that you never had that within Islam. It has been an evolving tradition and it hasn’t been the same way forever.
Trevor Burrus: How did your time in the Soviet Union – because there was a period where you worked for 14 years I think it was and …
Flemming Rose: I spent 11 years in the Soviet Union and Russia.
Trevor Burrus: How did that teach you about free speech?
Flemming Rose: Well, it taught me a lot. My wife is from the former Soviet Union. I met her when I started there in 1980 and 1981 at the height of the Cold War. When I came back, I started working for the Danish Refugee Council as an interpreter. So I was in fact working with refugees from the Soviet Union and among them dissidents and that was a defining experience I would say. I got very much involved. I traveled with banned literature, brought it into my friends, brought letters back from them to Europe.
So I very much identified with their course and I learned the – how bad it is for a society to have censorship and especially self-censorship because in a way you have censorship in the Soviet Union but for most of the time, I mean people knew in advance what the limits were.
So they internalized the kind of intimidated public swear, so they would never go beyond what they knew were the borders even though they were not necessarily stipulated within the law and that was very – it was very bad for society and it was a fear society. People were afraid. They were not – they do not speak their mind, only in kitchens at home. They were very suspicious of people they would meet in the public space if they didn’t know it.
All these things made a huge impression on me. I mean I grew up in Denmark, a quiet, peaceful, relatively liberal country. Suddenly I am in the Soviet Union, a totalitarian system that is very oppressive where people are being sent to labor camps for saying quite innocent things.
So I very much identified with the cause of the dissidents and it was the – I understood later because people asked me. Why was it so important for you to defend these cartoons? Because I realized that a lot of Danes were not willing to do that. So I understood that that forming experience in the Soviet Union and Russia and my work in the Danish Refugee Council in fact played a very important role.
Trevor Burrus: How did Danes respond to – because …
Flemming Rose: They were divided.
Trevor Burrus: Pretty – 50-50? I mean were you …
Flemming Rose: Yes, 50-50.
Trevor Burrus: Were you upset by – you didn’t get an outpouring of support?
Flemming Rose: I was surprised. I mean there was a narrative that had to do with – this is racist. This is bigotry once you offend a weak, marginalized minority. But that’s not the way I looked at it. I mean I’m married to an immigrant myself. I don’t see myself as a bigot in a way. I lived abroad. So I’m used to this side by side with people from other cultures, belonging to other religions and so on and so forth.
But that was a very dominating narrative in Denmark at the time and it still is somehow. But I came back to Denmark from Russia in 2004. So I had only been in the country for one year. I left in 1990. So I hadn’t been part of that debate about integration, immigration, Islam. That was all new to me. But I was very surprised that so many people didn’t get my point. But I would say ten years after the fact, the situation is different.
Trevor Burrus: Better or worse?
Flemming Rose: Well, both. No, but it’s – I’m not being seen anymore as a marginal bigoted figure. I think more people have come to understand that I had a point and I’m basically making an argument from liberal in the European sense of the word position, that I’m not out to get any minorities, that this is about fundamental principles of a free society and that is what I’m defending. I mean just to give you a few figures. In the spring of 2006, right after the crisis, less than 50 percent of the Danes thought that it was the right thing to do to publish the cartoons. I think 45, 46, 47 percent. Today, that figure is somewhere between 60 and 70 percent.
So it’s an increase of more than 25 percent, 20, 25 percent. It’s almost a constitutional majority that now believe that it was the right thing to do. So in that sense, I have become more mainstream in Denmark and I also think it’s because it’s very difficult to make the case today that it was some – just some kind of cheap stunt.
We see what is going on in Europe, that we have a problem. We had to deal with it. I think that’s also why the cartoons won’t go away. I mean they keep coming back because all the issues are focused in the debate about the cartoons. So in that sense, a lot of things have moved and I have in fact been awarded several prizes in Denmark for my work. At the same time, around the anniversary of the 10th anniversary of the publication of the cartoons and since September 2015, the vast majority of the Danes also think that we should not publish them again.
So you have almost 70 percent believes that it was the right thing to do. But only 25 percent think that we should do it again. How does that connect? It connects in the way that the – it has to do with fear. People are afraid of what might happen if we do it again. So don’t challenge fate.
Aaron Ross Powell: I’m curious about the – it’s notable that you published cartoons and that elicited this violent reaction and it elicited the condemnation of a lot of people who didn’t think that violence was the right answer and then the Charlie Hebdo was about cartoons and it feels like there’s this divide between – maybe we think that humor and cartoons are a lesser form of speech. They’re the kind of thing like you just shouldn’t do that. But we don’t see – well, first off, we don’t see violence against say the publishers of Christopher Hitchens’ books or Richard Dawkins’ books who are far more condescending towards Islam than these cartoons were.
So we don’t see violence against that but we also don’t see the kind of public like, oh, you shouldn’t be doing this and it’s – you know, “you kind of deserved what you got” attitude. So is there something about satire humor that makes it an easy – I mean obviously part of it is that cartoons are pictures. So if you can’t read the language, then you can still see the offense in those. But you’re not going to pick up a book. But is there something more to it than that, that it’s about cartoons and not about prose?
Flemming Rose: No. I think you are getting at what I intended to say that it’s the power of images. That’s – I was surprised about the strong reaction to the cartoon. So I started studying the theory of images and I found out that that is also – originally in the bible, you also had a ban on images of God.
Trevor Burrus: The second commandment.
Flemming Rose: Commandment, sorry, not amendment. Yeah.
Flemming Rose: So images are powerful in the sense that they are open for interpretation and you had the – iconoclasts also, the destroyed images and you can read into them almost whatever you want and they get a life of their own because there was also a discussion about how should we interpret the cartoon of the prophet with a bomb in his turban. Some people say, well, this says that the prophet is a terrorist. This says that all Muslims are terrorists while I believe that it was basically saying some people are committing violence in the name of the prophet and that’s a fact.
I mean we know but you have all these different interpretations. So I think it has to do with the power of images. But it has also to do with the lack of a tradition of religious satire when it comes to Islam, at least dealing with the prophet.
We take it for granted now in the West but if you go back in Western history, you can say that the history of religious satire in the West is a story about our liberation from the gods or liberation from the gods exercising social control and power. Religion was being used to intimidate, to control, to oppress and to fight against that was in many ways done through religious satire.
You don’t have that in Islam and there is a very interesting story about this. I have a good friend who is – was born in Egypt and who used to be a member of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt. His father was an imam in Egypt and he came to Germany I think in 1995 to study religion.
He had a Catholic friend, German, who one day told him a very dirty joke about the Virgin Mary, the most sacred figure for any Catholic. Hamet, that’s his name, he was just shocked. How can you tell a joke about what is most sacred to you and even laugh at it yourself?
He was so shocked that he broke off relations with this good friend because he was afraid. Will he ask me to tell a joke about Muhammad? Will he himself tell a joke about Muhammad at some time? So he went into – he got more and more radicalized and then you had the cartoon crisis in Denmark and you had Charlie Hebdo and he started reading about the history of religious satire and he understood that this tradition of satire in the West has created the conditions for a more free relationship with God, that religion is not being used to exercise social control and oppress people. But people have a relationship with their God that is based on a free choice.
The tradition of satire has been very important in paving the way for this and that’s why he said, well, we need more Charlie Hebdos in the Muslim world. We need more Muhammad cartoons and you have people who are saying, well, we should not charge Muhammad because that’s the only thing hundreds of millions of people, hundreds of millions of people have in the Muslim world.
I turned that around and said, well, maybe the only reason why they only have Muhammad is because they have not tossed him, because our tradition of religious satire and criticism of religion is part and parcel of our tradition of the freedom and of our ability to build competitive societies. But you can challenge authority and ask critical questions.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think that possibly allowing religious satire can help strengthen religion in some way or …
Flemming Rose: Absolutely, it is.
Trevor Burrus: Because people take it …
Flemming Rose: We have just forgotten because some people say to me, well, your argument about defending religious satire is very abstract. What we need is to fight for the right to scientific inquiry and things like that. We had just forgotten how important a role religious satire played in the struggle for freedom, in the West. You can see it if you look at the Muslim world.
Trevor Burrus: But the Muslim world is probably more – religious belief is not very strong in Western Europe right now and the Muslim world is probably more – it might be very hard to quantify.
Flemming Rose: That is true. But if you talk to devout Christians in the West, many of them would be able to laugh at joke about Jesus. You would see no – you would see very few Muslims being able to laugh at a joke about Muhammad because it’s taboo.
Trevor Burrus: But we did have – very recently and I imagine they’re probably still in the book since I’m – even states but are not enforced blasphemy laws. It used to be quite common. I mean Christendom used to be fairly controlling …
Trevor Burrus: Burning people at the stake during – the 30-year war was a huge problem. What – you write in the book about an exhibit at the Tate Modern where the artists had shredded a Quran, a bible and the Talmud an they said, well, we might have a problem because of the shredded Quran, but no one said we might have a problem because of the shredded bible or the shredded Talmud. NO one would really care about that. What happened in your theory for Christianity …
Flemming Rose: We insisted on keeping on criticizing, ridiculing, mocking Christianity. As I say, it doesn’t mean that – yes, there are few or maybe believers in Western Europe but there are still a lot of believers who are devout Christians but they have – they are used to the fact that their faith may be ridiculed and criticized and being the target of satire. It doesn’t make them less religious. They may be offended if it’s a bad joke but they may also be able to laugh at it. But I think more importantly, it has meant that religion is not being used to exercise power and control in the same way as it used to be.
I really do believe that if you go back to Dante if you go back to Erasmus of Rotterdam, to Goethe, and [Indiscernible] and in our time Monty Python, Mr. Bean or the – whatever it is, it seems just like entertainment and it is in a way but it’s – it had a very profound I think influence on our way at looking at these things and it’s lacking in big parts of the Muslim world.
Aaron Ross Powell: Well, it’s striking how much it’s not just – I mean so the Muslims are upset and are offended by this. But even – but many Westerners seem to be maybe increasingly opposed to free speech and they’re – it certainly isn’t religious. It’s – I mean many of them especially like in American college campuses, religion is not that dominant. But there’s this notion that there are minorities, historically oppressed people who are harmed by saying things that might offend them or challenging their views and that maybe we shouldn’t have that absolute freedom, that we’re abusing it and it’s OK to scale it back. So outside of the Muslim world, this seems to be a move back in the other direction, that we learned our lessons from the Western religions but now we seem to be forgetting them.
Flemming Rose: Well, I think – I mean that’s nothing new in this but I think it’s about identity politics, that we live in a globalized world. We are exposed to a lot of information. It’s very difficult to answer questions like, “Who am I?” It’s not that easy. So it’s a challenge of modernity and post-modernity that you don’t have a fixed – you’re not born into a family that very early determine you’re going to be this and that. You have to invent yourself and I think that’s great because with that comes freedom of choice. You can do whatever you want.
But it’s also a challenge in the way that it makes it difficult for many people to answer the question, “Who am I?” and it means that more and more people want to have an identity and protect that identity against criticism. So you have this tribalization, a categorization of society where we are more focused on what makes us different from one another than what we share as human beings.
In fact we share far more than it divides us. I mean we have the same genes. We have the same capabilities and so I think when we have this discussion, we should try to focus what we share as human beings and not try to pretend that if you are a different color or from a different part of the world, that you are just so different, that it’s unable to make any comparisons with the human beings in other places of the world.
Aaron Ross Powell: This seems to fit in an interesting way with the distinction that you make between – so we say like there are laws against say Holocaust denial in a lot of Europe and there are laws against anti-Semitic speech.
You draw a distinction where you say that there’s a difference between attacking or criticizing ideas which the – say the cartoons about Muhammad are and attacking individuals, which is what the anti-Semitic speech is. But is that complicated by this notion of people setting out to construct identity because – they’re constructing their identity by internalizing sets of ideas and then they see it as when you criticize these ideas that they hold dear, you’re not just attacking the ideas but you’re attacking the holders of those ideas at a personal level as well.
Flemming Rose: Yes. I mean a couple of points. There are laws against Holocaust denial within 13 member states of the European Union out of 28 and the new commissioner for justice and home affairs within the European Union, a Czech lady, is in fact now pushing for implementation and passing of these laws in all member states.
We will also see a toughening of speech laws against xenophobic speech and so on and so forth. So – but – and then you have the debate about Islam and there are people who are comparing these things and saying, yes, well, for a Muslim, it’s as offensive to attack the prophet as it is to a Jew to deny the Holocaust or saying something anti-Semitic. I don’t agree with that even though that may be the perception. I think there is a fundamental distinction to be made as you said between attacking ideas and religion as a set of ideas and attacking individuals and groups.
But I don’t think it should be a legal one as it is in many European countries where in France for instance, it is – you don’t have blasphemy law in France. So Charlie Hebdo is not being convicted for blasphemy when they ridiculed the prophet. But you do have hate speech laws and you do have a law of criminalizing Holocaust denial and so people will be convicted if they denied the Holocaust. I think that should only be a moral distinction. I don’t think it should be a legal one. I think it’s alienating a lot of ordinary Muslims in France because they say, well, we don’t have protection in the law against ridiculing what is sacred to us while the Jews, they do have laws protecting their sensibilities. So why have this double standard? I don’t agree with the argument that it’s not – there’s no moral equivalence. But I don’t think that you should make that a legal distinction.
The problem is that the more diverse our societies get in terms of culture, ethnicity and religion, the more groups will come forward and demand the same kind of protection as we have when it comes to anti-Semitic speech. We end up – I mean it’s already happening. In fact in Eastern Europe, they were asked to pass laws against Holocaust denial. They passed them but then they said, “Well, we have a problem with the crimes of communism. So we have to pass a law criminalizing denial of the crimes of communism.”
In Ukraine, they have a problem with recognition of their struggle for independence in the twentieth century. So they passed a law criminalizing criticism and denial of the fact that Ukraine had fought for independence in the twentieth century. So you see even in democracies, you see governments and parliaments passing laws about a certain version of history. It’s just – it just doesn’t fit liberal democracy and it’s very easy for authoritarian regimes to use that approach to suit their needs if they want to silence critical voices.
Trevor Burrus: Now America stands pretty unique in the entire world in terms of protecting free speech at a much more absolute level. Do you – in your book, you wrote about – so we have the European Court of Human Rights which is I would not really call the court of human rights. It’s sort of a court of preferences of Europeans but nevertheless, they did – a professor or Turkish history in a book portrayed Muhammad in a negative Light apparently and he was fine in Turkey which apparently has very, very poor free speech laws because this week the story came out that a guy – did you see Facebook meme post where you compared the president of Turkey to Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movie and now the court is Turkey is going to have to decide if Gollum is a good guy or a bad guy because it’s illegal to insult the president in Turkey.
But the European Court of Human Rights agreed. They have held the ruling on the grounds that the book contained an abusive attack on the prophet of Islam and that believers can legitimately feel that certain passages of the book in question constituted an unwarranted and offensive attack on them. Now this is a very strange definition of right, in America this would never happen. Why do you think America stands so unique in the free speech …
Flemming Rose: Because you have the First Amendment.
Trevor Burrus: Is the sensibility more free speech?
Flemming Rose: I would say that on the level of law and the constitution, America has the best protection in the world of speech. But I would say on the level of society and social pressures, I think America may be worse than Europe. There is a big difference between what you are allowed to say within the limits of the law in the US and what people actually say and what the consequences in social terms are for saying something offensive with speech codes, with people being fired if they say something offensive or outrageous. That would not happen in Europe.
But you will see far more court cases in Europe. So I would say the distance or the difference between the law and actual speech in Europe is narrow than in the United States. I mean we also now have the – especially in the UK with these trigger warnings and save spaces and micro aggressions on campuses where you try to shut down speech that you don’t like. But I think it has gone further in the US than in Europe. We maybe – I don’t know if we are in for surprises further down the road.
Trevor Burrus: The things seem to be trending in the wrong direction …
Flemming Rose: There has never been so much regulation on speech in the world as we have now.
Trevor Burrus: Except for maybe during the Renaissance.
Flemming Rose: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: The Catholic Church and things like this.
Flemming Rose: Yeah, but they did not have that many laws. But you would not be allowed to say a lot of things. That’s true but you have so much regulation now on speech and …
Trevor Burrus: It’s bad here too. I mean the college campuses and everything, it’s quite bad here.
Flemming Rose: Yeah. And the irony is that you would have very few people standing up and saying I’m against free speech. They would all say I’m in favor of free speech but – and then the funny thing starts and it goes back – that’s what I think is so wonderful about the First Amendment, that you cannot balance the First Amendment against any other law. You will look at the first amendment on its own merits and you will not look at dignity or democracy or racism and so on and so forth.
That is what makes America different from other parts of the world. In Europe, the rights of free speech have to be balanced against other considerations. It may be democracy. People say something undermining democracy therefore they’re not allowed to say it. People say something undermining the dignity of an individual. Therefore you don’t have a right to say it. People say something insulting, a specific group, therefore you don’t have a right to say it because it undermines democracy and so on and so forth.
So – and I think that is a key distinction that goes all the way back to ancient times where you have the rights of free speech as an individual libertarian. It’s a natural right and then you have the right to free speech as one of many rights that has to be balanced according to what the powers that be want.
So it’s a right that we give to you but we can also take it back and we can limit it in the way we want if we find it necessary. I think that is a fundamental dichotomy and we have to reestablish the right to free speech as a right that we have as individuals and it’s not something that we have received from the government.
Aaron Ross Powell: I have to wonder how much of this desire especially say the United States to – the increasing desire to seem to legislate speech. It’s a product of changing technology and the way that technology enables us to experience each other. Because you have a situation where they’re – it’s a big country and there are lots of different norms and different communities at different norms and our little group might think it’s OK to tell racist jokes and their little group doesn’t.
For much of history, the things you said never traveled outside of your group unless maybe you had so much money that you could publish books and newspapers and whatever else. But now with the internet and with global water coolers like Twitter, what I say can spread around the world and so people can see this offense and one of the things that has always struck me as really fascinating is the way that people not only get offended by seeing offensive speech but that they seem to seek it out now in order to make themselves offended.
So you will see articles that will – there will be some event where – like a decision about a cop shooting a black teenager will come down and people, journalists, whoever else, will go on Twitter and search for racist tweets and then republish them and there seems to be this kind of odd desire to just gather and aggregate the offensive things and make ourselves feel offended and then extrapolate from that to, oh my god, we need to restrict all the speech because there’s so much racist speech out there and it’s this weird, weird thing.
Flemming Rose: Yes. Just to give you an example from Denmark, a rather well-known Danish politician I think it was – was it after Charlie Hebdo? No, I think it was a little bit earlier. There was a terrorist attack by Islam as the radicals and then he wrote on Twitter – the Muslims – it was after an attack on Jews in France I think. The Muslims are trying to finish the job that Hitler didn’t finish.
He was taken to court and convicted for racist speech. The odd thing is that at the time when he made this tweet, he had 63 followers and it was retweeted 21 times. When he was convicted in court, it was printed in all the big newspapers in Denmark and broadcasted on TV. So if you really want to make sure that this kind of speech is not being broadcasted, you should not have taken him to court and it’s exactly the same you say.
They tweet these racist phrases all over the place and I – we – I think we know from history that the law is not the most effective tool to fight racism. It wasn’t in Weimar Germany in the ’30s, they had hate speech laws. It didn’t prevent Hitler from coming into power and the Holocaust.
In ex-Yugoslavia, you had a law criminalizing incitement to ethnic hatred. You could go to jail in Yugoslavia for telling an ethnic joke in a restaurant or waving national flag on a soccer stadium. It didn’t prevent ethnic wars from breaking out and people were killed in the tens of thousands.
You had a similar law in the Soviet Union. It didn’t prevent ethnic wars from breaking out after the fall of the Soviet Union. So the law is not a very effective tool and I would also say that the laws that we pass in order to protect minorities against bating could very easily be turned against these minorities if we get another political majority.
Just to give you an example from the Netherlands there is a right wing popular politician by the name of Geert Wilders. It’s the second biggest party I think in the Netherlands and he wants to ban the Quran and he wants to do it using the same hate speech laws that the powers now are using against him and taking him to court for offensive speech.
So I think it is in the interest also of minorities not to have these laws because they can be turned against them and if you look at history and all social movements for change, women, blacks, homosexuals, whatever it is, laws have always been used against them to silence them. So I think history tells that we should be very careful to pass laws to protect minorities against insults because they can very easily be turned against them.
Trevor Burrus: We’re recording this about three weeks after the Paris attacks in November of 2015 and so we have a new reason for fear especially in Western Europe but of course we also had a shooting in America that seems to have ties at least initially as we believe to Muslim activity. We also have a growth of the college campus free speech in here and we have hate speech laws in Western Europe and increasing scope of these. It seems like a very – a time to be very pessimistic about the future of free speech or the future of self-censorship out of fear in Western Europe and that it’s just going to get worse before it gets better. How do you respond to that? Or maybe you just full agree …
Flemming Rose: I am an optimist by nature but I’m also very concerned. I think things are getting worse and it sounds maybe like a contradiction because you never had so much speech on Facebook, social media, and there’s a lot of offensive speech there, like a garbage can.
But I think it’s not so much public discourse. It’s because the things that we used to say in our private homes around the kitchen table, they are out there. But as I said earlier, there has never been so much regulation of speech and I think as you mentioned earlier, the forces of globalization are in a way forcing this upon us in a very aggressive way. So we have to make some hard decisions and because of communication technology, because of migration, most societies in the world will grow more and more diverse.
When you have diverse societies you will have clashes between different ideas, between different ways of the living, between different religions and so on and so forth. So it’s a fact of life and unfortunately, too many politicians believe that the way to save the social peace in this world of growing diversity is to sacrifice freedom.
So we need less diversity of speech in order to promote growing diversity of culture, religion and ethnicity. I think if you really favor a diverse society, you would also have to favor more diversity of speech because when we are more different, we will express ourselves in different ways and we will have questions.
So we have to reeducate ourselves about this notion that in a democracy you have many rights. You have the right to free speech, the right to freedom of religion, the right to vote for different candidates, the right to freedom of assembly, the freedom of movement. But the only right you should not have is the right not to be offended.
But unfortunately many, many people sincerely believe that they have a right not to be offended and if they are offended, it’s legitimate to tell people to shut up and they are in fact doing it in the name of tolerance. They’re saying you are intolerant when you say something that offends me so you have to shut up. That is in fact the exact opposite as the original concept of tolerance which means the ability to live with things that you don’t like, that you hate and that you – I mean tolerance implies that you do not threaten people. You do not commit violence in order to silence speech that you don’t like, and you don’t try to ban it. But many, many people are doing exactly that in the name of tolerance.
Aaron Ross Powell: Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more about libertarianism and the ideas that influence it, visit us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org.