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A clash of rights: Part One



To begin this week, a daft joke has recently caught my fancy. Two fleas are living in a big house owned by a large family. One day one flea says to the other “why don’t we go on holiday?” “Great idea. Where shall we go?” “How about the other end of the house?” “OK. How do we get there?” “Well, we can hop it, or we can catch the cat.” Over the next few weeks I shall be discussing two fundamental human rights that do not co-exist very easily. The first is the right to freedom of expression, a right that is crucial to democracy, to education and to artistic production. The second is the right to be protected from hate speech, whether this is racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, whatever. The clash boils down to this: given the right to freedom of speech, do racists (for example) have the right to air their views in public, thus causing distress to large numbers of people, and possibly encouraging acts of discrimination and violence? Two apologies to begin with. First, I can’t come up with a satisfactory solution to the conundrum (who could?), so all I can do is to explore the issue. Second, although the problem has surfaced recently in Africa, India and the US, the bulk of my examples will be from Europe, because that is where I harvest most of my news. I’ll start off with an extremely pertinent (and distressing) example from France. In 2015 in this column I wrote a piece on the murders that took place in the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. (To lighten up for a moment, one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever had from a reader was when a colleague from the NUL said “Thanks, Chris, for explaining what Charlie Hebdo means. No-one else has bothered to.”) To re-cap, the magazine published a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed, which was aggressively distasteful, causing hurt and offence to huge numbers of people. An enraged Muslim attacked the magazine’s offices, in the process murdering a journalist and a cleaner. This was six years ago, but as the great American novelist William Faulkner once put it, the past hasn’t really passed — a reality that South Africans, I am sure, are acutely aware of. Last year Samuel Paty, a popular teacher of history and geography at a school in a peaceful Paris suburb, showed his class the Charlie Hebdo cartoon as part of a lesson on freedom of expression. Two days later he was attacked by a teenager of Chechen origin and beheaded. The battle-lines were now drawn. This was tragic – for whatever happened to the concept of conflict management? — and French President Emmanuel Macron stepped in, tweeting in French, English and Arabic: “Our history is one of a battle against tyranny and fanaticism. We respect all differences in a spirit of peace. We will never accept hate speech and we defend reasonable debate.” The last point is well-taken, though why Macron was not willing to categorise the Charlie Hebdo cartoon as hate speech is beyond me. Going way overboard, Macron went on: “To be French is to defend the right to laugh, jest, mock and caricature, which Voltaire maintained is the source of all other rights.” Reaction from dictators across the world was immediate. The repugnant Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey advised Macron: “Go and get your head tested.” In Kuwait French cheeses were withdrawn from supermarket shelves (but not, alas, donated to this French cheese-loving columnist). At a rally in Baghdad one protester bore a placard showing a photo of Macron’s face with the print of the underneath of a shoe stamped on it. All praise, then, to the French imam Hassen Chalghoumi, who said that the murdered schoolteacher was a martyr for freedom of speech and called on mosques to pray for him. How badly such interventions are needed, for in the words of the English poet Matthew Arnold “we are on a darkling plain /where ignorant armies clash by night.” To re-cap, freedom of speech is a fundamental right, and a vital one in the fields of democratic process, education and artistic production. But can that right be defended when it is used to generate hate speech? It is essential for politicians to be aware of the dangers involved in this clash of rights. Some years ago the British Labour (socialist) Party got itself into deep trouble when some of its leading figures made comments that were or could be regarded as being anti-Semitic. A UK newspaper commented: “while freedom of expression is essential to proper political debate, politicians must recognise the power of their language to sow division.” A personal anecdote here. Twenty years ago I attended a conference on African literature at the University of Tel Aviv, Israel. Because of my extra responsibilities (I was made rapporteur) I was allocated two student assistants, wonderful chaps. One was the son of the falasha (Ethiopian) rabbi of Tel Aviv, the other an Israeli Arab. One morning the conference was addressed by the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, who made comments that were explicitly racist, aimed at Arabs. The second of my assistants, who had been sitting with his arm round my shoulder, stood up and made a speech decrying the Minister’s stupidity, insensitivity and irresponsibility. We all applauded and afterwards I said to him: “Superman, Batman, nothing. You are one courageous young man.” To be continued Chris Dunton

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