If you follow the often heated internet discussions on the upcoming Riga (gay, lesbian, etc.)Pride March, you quickly come to a disturbing conclusion: Latvians love hate speech and hate free speech.
I will come to the hate speech part later. But on free speech, I would be a wealthy man if I had one lat (USD 2.20) for every comment in a Latvian internet portal where someone writes: “I have nothing against gays or what they do in private, but..
-- why must they show it in public?
--let them march at the city dump or in some remote location.
--this march is unnecessary, no one is discriminated.
--this march will generate more hate and revulsion.
--I draw the line at them flaunting their orientation and problems.
--I don’t want them “showing off” to children and youths.
-- I don’t want to be “forced” to listen to them defending immorality and depravity.
--I draw the line on freedom of assembly when it is an assembly of depraved people.
So there...8 lats, enough for a Tex-Mex meal at the excellent but pricey Igvana restaurant just across the street from my workplace. But there is plenty more...
Reading all of these comments, which are from computer-literate internet users, not the lumpenproles, I begin to see that the debate really isn’t about gay people. The issue is denying those who are radically different the right to a public voice. Latvian public opinion, it seems, is enthusiatically in favor of curbing free speech for those it doesn’t like. The mantra “democracy is not anything-goes” (Latvian visatļautība). That is one of those wonderful “prelude phrases”, the prelude being for some kind of often crackpot argument for banning the gay (or Russian, or ex-Soviet geezers) event, or even going further and arresting and punishing those who even thought of marching, rallying or picketing and even further, passing a strict law against expressing that kind of thought.
Last year, under the cover of a pro-family event in Riga on the same day as the 2007 Pride, radical anti-gay activists gathered thousands of signatures demanding a referendum that would ban some nebulous activity called “propagandizing homosexuality” and would have purged any public service jobs involving contacts with children or youths of any homosexual persons. In other words, bring back censorship and the screening (including denunciations?) of a range of public service employees and job applicants.
It doesn’t stop at that. The desire to surpress free expression has gone beyond the gay issue, that is just an excuse for manifesting a widely-held aversion to the fundamentals of democracy. The Latvian National Security Council recently summoned the head of Latvian Televison and told him that there was too much negative reporting, something which could affect “national security”. Then the speaker of the Latvian parliament, the Saeima, seperately said that Latvian television (which is largely state funded) should start its news broadcasts with coverage of government announcements and activities, rather than sensational murders and other news. This would return TV news to the Soviet era, when the lead stories were always about the actions of Communist Party and government officials, followed by stories of eager and happy kolkhoz workers and the Komsomol leaders at the State Detergent Factory 102.
Finally, a new scandal has erupted with Maris Kucinskis, the leader of the ruling People’s Party (TP) parliamentary faction denouncing an unfinished short film as harming Latvia’s image. The film (as seen in excerpts on YouTube) shows a man with a pig’s snout who resembles former Prime Minister and TP member Aigars Kalvitis. The film has been denied further state funding, allegedly on quality issues, but the politicianš remarks lend credance to speculation that the satirical work is being surpressed as an act of political censorship.
These events lead to the disturbing conclusion that Latvia – both at the political elite level and at grassroots – is drifting away from Western-style democracy and a committment to such basic human rights as free speech and assembly. This may not be unique to Latvia, it is said to extend across Eastern Europe and may be a signal that these countries are not paying off the credit of trust and reliance on which they were admitted to the European Union. In other words, the EU assumed that these issues – imperfect committment to democratic values, corruption, economic incompetance, etc. – would be taken care of or go away once the “new EU countries/societies” ate the carrot of being let into the club of democratic values that is the EU. It hasn’t happened in Latvia.
And now to hate speech. Many of those who say they have “nothing against gays doing it in private” then switch to raving tirade mode and write that “ass fucking degenerates should not flaunt their disease, etc.” You get the picture. Instead of marching, these abominations should be marched off for forcible psychiatric treatment, many commentators said. There is, to be sure, no shortage of “hate speech”, which is nothing more than a profound and scary hatred of those who are different. The same, by the way, goes for black people. A local organization of people of color made what I initially thought was a silly objection to an ad about black (HP) computers that work while white (a swipe at MacBooks/mine is black )computers relax. But what followed proved they may have been right. Nobody called the protest by the black people living in Latvian and/or black Latvians silly, as I might have, but jumped right into ravings about n***ers and apes daring to speak up in Latvia and how they belonged back in the jungle or wherever they came from.
The hate level here is also well above what is acceptable for being called a civilized nation. However, as a committed libertarian, I am against any and all forms of criminalization of speech and expression, including so-called hate speech. To punish pure speech, as in the case of a Latvian neo-Nazi who calmly told an audience that gypsies and Jews were not human beings, is also a threat to free speech. I stand firmly by the American model of free speech as protected by the First Amendment (see Anthony Lewis’new book Freedom for the Thought That We Hate) and see hate speech legislation in Europe as making the continent as a whole less free. Once a group whose advocacy of hate speech legislation is hard to controvert, such as people of color (few people in societies outside Latvia are happy about open racial abuse) get their way, the path has been cleared for others, for instance, Islamofascists who can claim racism (many Muslims are from the Middle East and look or dress “Arabic”, others are black or Asian) but are actually, in my opinion, a racially neutral ideology advocating a totalitarian society that would make Stalin sit up in his grave in approval (minus the belief in God part). Punishing anti-Islamic hate speech would amount to banning vigorous public debate on what Islam intends to do with the fundamental individual freedoms of Western society.
So, while Latvians merrily rant against “ depraved deformities of nature” and “blackasses” (they could save their bandwidth if a gay black Latvian showed up), I don’t think that any problems would be solved by criminalizing this kind of speech. Surpressing speech doesn’t eradicate the idea, whether it is right or wrong (and leaves less opportunity to identify and criticize glaringly, obscenely wrong ideas). I would rather know that I live in a potentially pre-fascist society rather than have the people with the police, the guns and the jails keep me from knowing it, just like they will if the totalitarians take over.