The European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs is rarely of interest to anyone outside of Brussels but last month it did something intriguing. It played host to a group going by the unassuming title of the Eminent Legal Experts from the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation. This group, formed by numerous ex-presidents and prime ministers, was promoting its Framework Statute for the Promotion of Tolerance, which makes for a fascinating read.
I am not an absolutist defender of free speech, and, indeed, think that few people beyond the fringes of libertarianism are. I would convict people who incite violence against others, and exclude people who cleave to oppressive values. On the other hand, I am daunted by the scale of censorship that the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation demands…
(a) The following acts will be regarded as criminal offences punishable as aggravated crimes
(i) Hate crimes as defined in Section 1(c).
(ii) Incitement to violence against a group as defined in Section 1(a).
(iii) Group libel as defined in Section 1(b).
(iv) Overt approval of a totalitarian ideology, xenophobia or anti-Semitism
(v) Public approval or denial of the Holocaust
(vi) Public approval or denial of any other act of genocide the existence of which has been determined by an international criminal court or tribunal.
My attitude towards censorship depends, in large part, on social context. A society in which a group faced high levels of violence against minorities, for example, would have more reason to prohibit radical speech than a society in which bigoted attacks were rare. Given that most European countries do not host endemic levels of upheaval and conflict, I see no reason for the breadth of these measures. Why, for example, should people be convicted for approving of totalitarian ideologies? What harm are the poor fools of the Stalin Society doing?
The threat against people who commit “group libel” is intriguing. Here is the definition of the offence…
(a)”Group” means: a number of people joined by racial or cultural roots, ethnic origin or descent, religious affiliation or linguistic links, gender identity or sexual orientation,or any other characteristics of a similar nature.
(b)”Group libel” means: defamatory comments made in public and aimed against a group as defined in paragraph (a)–or members thereof –with a view to inciting to violence, slandering the group, holding it to ridicule or subjecting it to false charges.
I like to think that I would not ridicule anyone for their privately held beliefs, still less for physical characteristics. I do not see the point in going out of one’s way to be offensive. Yet it is sinister that people would convict those who disagree. The kind of atheist who insists that religious people are stupid is obnoxious, but why should they be arrested? And what of those people who have been accused of being insulting? By these standards, yes. Unless they’re young, of course, in which case they’d be sent to “undergo a rehabilitation programme designed to instill in them a culture of tolerance”. This defies satire.
To enact these rulings would demand unprecedented levels of authoritarianism. If we are to take the proposals literally, Stalinists, fascists, Islamists, revisionists, Christian fundamentalists and anyone who is overtly critical of or rude to a faith, race, sex or culture would be taken in by the police. Millions of others, meanwhile, would live in fear of offending anyone who might tar them with the devastating label of intolerance; stymieing efforts to debate or research the ideas that concern them. We would be left not with peace and open-mindedness, then, but fear, suspicion and the fraud of insincerity. Is this among the “mutual concessions” that the authors begin by demanding that we make in multicultural societies? It is not a sacrifice that I believe is merited.
Perhaps it is not worth getting too bothered by this paper. It is not close to being accepted as policy. Yet our leaders have embraced preposterous assertions of “tolerance” before. Caroline Ashton, head of the EU’s foreign affairs, signed a statement that insisted on respect for “all prophets, regardless of which religion they belong to”. Joseph Smith? Reverend Moon? L Ron Hubbard? Large numbers of people, meanwhile, have been detained for posting offensive tweets or Facebook updates; measures that, somehow, has failed to end Internet rudeness. There is cause to be troubled.
It is sad, in a way, that the pluralist dream of the open exchange of ideas and acceptance of cultures has been replaced by this tyranny of tolerance; where different people are united by their mutual unease. It is a dreadful idea, though, which should not, I think, be tolerated.