In the marketplace of ideas, the best one will win. This market metaphor for freedom of expression is the very foundation of our democracies.
But are there limits to how far the freedom can go? Should some ideas be simply taken off the shelf?
Europe is witnessing a rise of far-right movements. On Saturday (11 November), Poland’s Independence Day, 60,000 nationalist marched in support of white supremacy with slogans such as “Pure Poland, white Poland!” and “Pray for Islamic Holocaust”.
There were no swastikas (Poland does not forget the invasion at the hands of Nazi Germany) – but participants in the nationalist march paraded falanga flags, an anti-semitic, far-right symbol from the 1930s.
In Ostia, an Italian seaside town and the ancient port of Rome, a local mafia-boss head-butted a journalist and broke his nose. The journalist had asked him about his clan’s links with the neo-fascist movement Casapound. Its leader recently announced his bid for the Italian premiership in the spring 2018 elections.
In the Czech Republic, Japanese-Czech Tomio Okamura came third in the recent elections by drumming the message “No to Islam. No to terrorism” – even though Muslims are only 0.02% of the population in the country – compared to 6% on average in the EU.
In Germany, the far-right AfD was the third party in the September elections; in Austria, far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache got into government after campaigning on slogans like “more courage for Viennese Blood”.
In Hungary, the space of the far-right, previously occupied by Jobbik, has increasingly been taken by the former centre-right Fidesz, whose leader, Prime Minister Victor Orbán, is busy whitewashing the role of Hungary in the WWII extermination of 600,000 Hungarian Jews and campaigning against immigrants.
Parties campaigning against [pick minority group of your choice] are not a new thing in Europe – in fact, it is something that we have a remembrance day about, we study in school, we erect memorials to help us remember. But apparently, we don’t.
This raises the question of what ideas can compete in the democratic race.
States that were ruled by Nazis/fascists during WWII had to come up with a way to prevent history repeating itself.
In Italy, the law forbids the creation of a fascist party (even if it’s not named as such), and since 1952 it’s been a crime to be an apologist for those years.
The country is currently debating a new law which will punish the Roman salute or Nazi-fascist propaganda by up to two years in prison – after neo-fascist movements became increasingly vocal.
In Germany, Nazi parties are not allowed to use Nazi symbols or salutes, or even mention the name Hitler – but this does not mean it doesn’t happen.
Yet no EU leader is speaking up against the rise of the far-right in all its ugly declinations – white supremacist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, racist, nationalist – even though the EU has officially condemned “all totalitarian regimes”.
The EU’s much-trumpeted action against hate-speech limited itself to voluntary guidelines for online platforms, which may (but don’t have to) adopt them to limit the use of illegal content.
Is it out of fear that it might face backlash as an attack on ‘freedom of expression’?
There is no easy answer to the question of what ideas can be floated in a democracy. But there is a kindergarten maxim which would serve us better than the ostrich-syndrome currently on display:
“Your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins.”
The first is the momentum gathering around far-right movements (made of offensive words, violent acts, and many votes) – and the nose is that of European democracies.
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Look out for…
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Views are the author’s