This blog isn’t meant to be about John Stuart Mill and Free Speech, yet the 19th century thinker continues to offer insights on current events. Take for example the recent murder of Samuel Paty. After giving a free speech lesson regarding the Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting Muhammad, Paty was gruesomely beheaded. Later a photo of a decapitated head appeared on Twitter with the message: “In the name of Allah the most gracious, the most merciful, … to (President Emmanuel) Macron, leader of the infidels, I have executed one of your hell-hounds who dared to belittle (Prophet) Mohammad.”
What is the purpose for such an act? It’s simple: it sends the clear message that it is never acceptable to depict Muhammad, whatever context, and to do so will result in death.
Meanwhile France stood her ground. President Emmanuel Macron says that France “will not give up cartoons” and later tweeted, “We will not give in, ever. We respect all differences in a spirit of peace. We do not accept hate speech and defend reasonable debate. We will always be on the side of human dignity and universal values.” As a result, Islamic extremists further retaliated: now three church-goers have been stabbed to death.
President Macron is correct that 1. we should not accept hate speech, and 2. we must defend reasonable debate. However the distinction between hate speech and reasonable debate is not applied uniformly.
For example, France outlaws anti-Holocaust speech under any circumstance. According to France’s Gayssot Act, it is illegal to question the existence of crimes against humanity. Such a law infringes upon both freedom of expression and freedom of thought.
Although Holocaust denialism is completely false and contains absolutely no truth whatsoever, it does have one benefit. It keeps the memory of the Holocaust alive, a memory that will soon be forgotten. To counter this, we need to defend the Holocaust against deniers. As Mill says, truth must be vigorously debated otherwise people won’t know what their belief means nor why they believe it. Thus, debating Holocaust deniers is how we keep our belief in and memory of the Holocaust alive.
I am by no means advocating for Holocaust denialism. Rather, we must balance free speech, offensive speech, and hate speech. For example, discussing Holocaust denialism is, by nature, offensive. However, it is not hateful, per se. On the other hand, denying the existence of the Holocaust with the intent to cause prejudice and discrimination toward Jews is clearly hateful and should be regulated as such.
Similarly, discussing depictions of Muhammad is offensive, but it is not hateful unless such a discussion and/or depictions are intentionally used to instigate Islamic extremists or to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment. So why is Holocaust denialism off-limits but showing depictions of Muhammad fair game?
In both Europe and America, national conversations on balancing free speech, offensive speech, and hateful speech are sorely needed opportunistic politicians are already using this catastrophe to their advantage. Not only are populist Muslim leaders using this opportunity to secure more power, but Macron himself is divvying up right-wing support by attacking Muslims as a group. The intent, of course, is to win over an electorate that gave fascist leader Marine Le Pen over 10 million votes.
In line with fascist politics, French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, has further called Muslims “the enemy within.” This was followed by the closure of religious centers and groups. Absurdly suggestions were even made to remove ethnic food aisles. By painting Muslims as “the enemy within”, French officials are really saying that Muslims are a threat to law and order. Officials are deliberately and misleadingly equating Muslims with Islamic extremists.
As philosopher Jason Stanley says in How Fascism Works, such “rhetoric is explicitly meant to divide citizens into two classes: those of the chosen nation, who are lawful by nature, and those who are not, who are inherently lawless” (p.110), Ironically for a country that bans Holocaust denialism, such rhetoric is not only fascist, but specifically straight out of the Nazi’s political playbook.
By labelling Muslims as “the enemy within”, France is problematically ascribing the character trait of “criminal” onto Muslims. Stanley says that “politicians who describe whole categories of persons as ‘criminals’ are imputing to them permanent character traits that are frightening to most people, while simultaneously positions themselves are our protectors. Such language undermines the democratic process of reasonable decision making, replacing it with fear” (p.115).
By describing a whole group as “criminal”, no distinction is being made between individual members who commit homicide for pleasure and members who commit minor traffic violations. As Stanley correctly argues: this affects perceptions (p.113-15). As a result, members of the group no longer seen as part of “us”. This lack of distinction changes attitudes and shapes policy negatively. For example, in the United States, the attribution of “criminal” to African-Americans led to their mass-incarceration (p.117).
If we compare this to Muslims, we see that French officials have deliberately divided French society between “French” and “Muslims”, i.e. us vs them. Such a move is intended for political purposes. For Macron, it means gaining support ahead of the 2022 elections in a country where Marine Le Pen is the most trusted politician to fight terrorism. And consequently, it means that Macron’s defence of free speech and liberal values is really a subversion of democratic values.
Do you think that President Macron is being hypocritical? Do you agree with France’s response to Samuel Paty’s murder? Let me know in the comments!