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The Dutch Wilderness: A Defence of Freedom of Speech

European Correspondent, Neil Thomas discusses whether the controversial views of the Dutch Freedom Party leader, Geert Wilders, can be justified by freedom of speech.

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.

This oft-cited quotation by Voltaire is the classic expression of the democratic principle of freedom of speech. It underpins mainstream society’s tolerance of a wide diversity of opinions and publications that do not conform to its underlying rationales.

The authoritarian alternative would be to crush dissenting voices in the interests of psychologically affirming and practically enforcing majority beliefs, ensuring the security of their perpetuation.

The automatic reaction of most to the choice between these democratic and authoritarian options would be to opt emphatically for free speech. However, it is important to recognise that society places many limits upon free speech, such as legal constraints upon defamation and social disapproval of unpopular opinions, with the general purpose of minimising the potentially harmful consequences of true freedom of expression such as the incitement of violence and negligent advice.

Thus, the issue of freedom of speech is far greyer than the black-and-white dichotomy we would like to picture it as. The notion of true freedom of speech is a naively absolutist interpretation of democratic ideology. The democratic state, as endorsed by the social majority, ensures that in fact true freedom of speech does not exist.

The question then becomes entirely value-based; to what extent should society limit freedom of speech? What balance should be struck between an acceptable level of potential harm and the supposed right of all to speak whatever they wish?

Given that a certain level of potential harm (obviously, as necessarily determined by the state and its agents) is in fact desirable in order to maintain the benefits of free speech, I will defend the freedom of expression and criticise the hate-crime trial of Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders. I do not agree with what he says, but I think it is ultimately in the interest of Dutch society that he should have the right to say it.

Wilders is an extremely controversial figure in the Netherlands and Europe. His personal views have been described as extremist, racist, and hate-mongering. He believes in the taxation or banning of the Islamic headscarf worn for religious reasons by many Muslim women. He believes immigration from Muslim countries should be stopped, current Muslim immigrants should be paid to leave the Netherlands, and Muslim immigrants convicted of criminal offences should to be stripped of Dutch citizenship and deported.

He believes the Koran is ‘fascist’, comparing it to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and wants it banned. He has released a short film based upon his interpretation of the Koran entitledFitna (roughly Arabic for ‘strife’), which juxtaposes images of suicide bombings with verses from the Koran.

His stated mission is to stop the ‘Islamisation’ of the Netherlands. Additionally, Wilders’ Freedom Party (the PVV) has 24 MPs in the Dutch Parliament, making it the Netherlands’ third-largest party, and has an agreement with the governing centre-right minority coalition whereby the PVV will support coalition policy (creating a one-seat majority) without the responsibilities of actually being in government, giving Wilders some degree of influence over government policy.

Wilders is currently on trial in the Netherlands for inciting hatred and discrimination towards Muslims, though prosecutors initially dismissed the case against him, stating that whilst his views were offensive to many Muslims, there was no legal case to answer on the grounds of freedom of expression. A panel of judges overturned this decision by re-framing Wilders’ comments as potential hate speech requiring the establishment of a clear demarcation of acceptability to ensure the continued health of democratic society.

The immediate emotional reaction of most to Wilders’ viewpoints would indeed be utter disgust and moral outrage, and a consequent sentiment that the charges would be justified. However, I argue that, like the Dutch State Prosecutors, we must think deeper and more rationally about Wilders as whilst his comment are deeply offensive to many Muslims, they should not be punishable because they occur within the context of socio-political debate and do not condone or encourage racial violence.

Wilders defends his views by using rhetoric from the Dutch libertarian institution and traditional Western liberties such as freedom of speech, a value fundamental to the Dutch Constitution. He argues that he is only “intolerant of the intolerant” and believes Western culture is superior to “retarded” Islamic culture due inter alia to the latter’s conservative stances towards the rights of females and homosexuals.

He also states that he despises violence and merely wants to state his personal opinion in the context of generating public debate; a typical Wilders quote is ‘I don’t create hate. I want to be honest. I don’t hate people. I don’t hate Muslims. I hate their book and their ideology.’  And, regardless of his actual motives, he has certainly succeeded in generating a firestorm of public debate around the issues of freedom of speech and whether or not Islamic immigration poses some kind of ‘threat’ to Western Europe.

Much of Wilders’ reasoning seems flawed, such as the tension between relying upon freedom of speech arguments to justify banning the Koran, his failure to account for varying degrees of belief and fundamentalism within Islam, and not recognising that increased immigration is vital for continuing European prosperity due to aging populations. However, if the expression of suspect logic (as opposed to the deliberate and illegal manipulation of information for the purposes of deception) is grounds for legal sanctions then all of us would be in court! And whilst Wilders’ speech conveys hatred for a religion, he has never expressed this hatred as a desire for violence and nor has he attempted to incite it. Hence I do not defend Wilders’ speech, but I believe it preferable to be allowed to be freely expressed.

Because freedom of speech arguments must in reality be framed as subjective value judgments of what is a desirable extent of freedom and corresponding potential harm, it is necessary to consider the content of any ‘questionable’ speech to judge whether or not it should be illegal. Without making comment upon Wilders’ actions as a legislator or endorsing the desire of the content of his speech, I personally believe his expression of opinions on immigration and Islam is valid in a democratic Dutch society.

I may believe his views to be vile and their justifications flawed, but that is exactly just my own personal belief.

Wilders has his personal beliefs and (as far as I know) his expression of them has not directly incited violence against anybody. Just as he should thus be allowed to air his negative opinion of Islam, so others should be allowed to air criticisms of Christianity, Judaism, or any other religious or political belief system. If the state does not permit one to criticise a certain religion this is tantamount to ideological authoritarianism and, at the very least, encourages ignorance and prevents the free exchange of ideas from maximising the information available to people when formulating and evaluating opinions and beliefs.

Relatively laissez-faire limits on freedom of speech in democratic societies are a vital ingredient for public debate, which plays an essential role in the formulation of public perception and thus governmental policy.

Wilder’s populist views represent a rationalisation of the anger felt by economically threatened sections of Dutch society experiencing the insecurities that accompany global economics, the financial crisis, and living in more ethnically mixed societies, and that share a sense of being dispossessed by foreigners and humiliating loss of national, religious, and social identity and belonging. I would argue that Wilders’ articulation of these (perhaps irrational) rationalisations of the actual frustrations of a significant portion of the populace represents a socially dynamic contribution to Dutch society and because of this should not be legally sanctionable; this is my subjective evaluation of what is a desirable extent of free speech.

Wilders’ contributions are dynamic because they provides the vehicle by which to bring the otherwise silent concerns of disempowered citizens into the public domain, providing a pressure-valve for social discontent and enabling these concerns to be properly addressed by the polity. As no direct harm is being caused by Wilders’ speech, it is more socially beneficial for his view to be aired such that it may be argued to its logical limit in the public domain and can be judged adequate or insufficient by a populace (and a government) that is fully informed of all of the arguments and rationales for and against.

Perhaps, rather than Islamic immigration, the true cause of Dutch society’s underlying frustrations is more likely to be a lack of support mechanisms designed to deal with adjustments in economic and social structures.  If this is the most socially desirable conclusion and in fact objectively accurate view then such conclusions should be the product of the rigorous social debate generated by the airing of Wilders’ views.

Generally, society is better off having an open discussion rather than suppressing the valid expression of an opinion that could lead to more insightful and socially beneficial policy-making.

Whilst there is not space here for a rigorous articulation of his arguments, Wilders basically expresses support for discrimination based upon religion. Religious discrimination in action represents an unproductive and unnecessarily harmful curtailing of socio-economic freedom, but expressing an intangible desire for religious discrimination only in theory ultimately does not cause harm that should be legally sanctioned. Religious doctrine should be just as rigorously debated as the words of any politician. It’s a fine line but fundamental principles are at stake.

Geert Wilders should be acquitted.

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One thought on “The Dutch Wilderness: A Defence of Freedom of Speech

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