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'Self-censorship leads to self-segregation'

Neil King
September 7, 2018

In the wake of the Chemnitz demonstrations, Germany is facing tough questions. Civil rights lawyer Nadine Strossen tells DW why the best way to deal with hate is free speech, not censorship.

Deutschland Rechte Demo in Chemnitz
Image: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Nazi salutes, xenophobic chants — the far-right protests that saw thousands of people take to the streets of Chemnitz have reignited the debate about how dangerous far-right ideology has become in Germany.

As the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party joined hands with neo-Nazis in the wake of a stabbing of a German, allegedly by refugees, German authorities responded by considering surveillance of the party.

Read more: Can Germany’s far-right AfD be subjected to surveillance? 

The rise of populism and hate speech is not restricted to Germany. Other democracies in Europe and the US are also affected. But is stricter legislation, surveillance and censorship the right policy to counter this trend?

Nadine Strossen is a New York Law School professor who served as president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for more than 17 years. She was the first woman and youngest president to lead the ACLU. In her new book entitled: Hate – Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, not Censorship, Strossen calls on lawmakers around the globe to resist the temptation to tackle hate speech with censorship or stricter legislation.

Citing evidence from many countries, including Germany, she says that hate speech laws are at best ineffective, perhaps even counterproductive.

DW: Should people with extreme far-right views be allowed to express them publicly, on TV talk shows for instance? Or should they be censored?

Nadine Strossen: I would say certainly not censor it unless it reaches a level of directly causing imminent serious harm. But in each particular situation you have to make a strategic judgment about what is the most effective way to counter it. If this is somebody who has actual political influence, it is really important for people to hear these views.

Free speech, not censorship

And what about a neo-Nazi on the streets, for instance if you had taken somebody from one of the demonstrations in Chemnitz?

I think it would have to serve a positive constructive function, in this case informing people of what these ideas are, so they can understand that this is a serious problem. Now, when I am talking about reaching out to racists I'm thinking more of a one-on-one scenario, and there are people who do this. Some are experts in psychology and social psychology, who have really made it a mission to reach out on an individual-by-individual basis with even committed, avowed racists. And they have had great success in wooing them away from that hateful ideology.

USA, Washington: Protesters wearing masks prepare to burn a Confederate flag in Washington in August 2018 a year on from demonstrations in Charlottesville
Nadine Strossen says free speech is the best way to deal with hateImage: picture-alliance/T. Katopodis

Do you get a sense that people these days are more comfortable demonizing and labeling their opponents rather than actually seeking an honest and open debate with them?

This has been a growing problem in the US and I know in other countries around the world as well, in society and the political system in general. It's what many sociologists call tribalism, that people identify so strongly with their political party, in the US for instance, or their candidate, and it's tied up also with what we call identity politics — who you are in terms of race and religion and gender.

First of all, there's a fear that people have different ideas or different backgrounds. But there's also an increasing fear of unwittingly saying something that is perceived as insensitive even though you have no negative intent. And this is another reason why I believe a punitive approach [to hate speech] is really counterproductive. Yes, there are people, who are out-and-out, explicitly racist, but I believe in your country and mine that this is a small minority. A lot of people who are punished under European-style hate speech laws and in the United States are subject to severe criticism and denunciation; they are people who have just used a word that was seen as sensitive or they've blurted out something in a Tweet that was stupid, but they're not bad people.

Civil rights lawyer and author of "Hate – Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, not Censorship" Nadine Strossen
Nadine Strossen says hate speech laws are at best ineffective, perhaps even  counterproductiveImage: picture-alliance/Photoshot

If I've understood you correctly, people are self-censoring themselves because of the fear of saying something wrong?

We are walking on eggshells. There is so much self-censorship, and particularly on the important issues, i.e. race and religion and immigration. These are the most critically important, most hotly-debated topics in our political system. They're the ones where we should have that freest, frankest, most candid uncensored debate, and that's where people are frightened to open their mouths!

Read more: Violence in Chemnitz: A timeline of events

And is it possible that precisely these people who are censoring themselves, that they could be the haters of tomorrow?

I'm not as concerned about that. But I am concerned about a lost opportunity to increase understanding. I think this self-censorship leads to self-segregation — you're probably more frightened to speak to a member of a different racial group or different gender identity or ethnic background for fear of unwittingly insulting that person. That means we're losing the opportunity to build friendships and one-on-one relationships. And social scientists say that by far the most effective way to overcome any kind of prejudice is to actually have contact.

What you have just described, this must be very frustrating for people. If they are bottling up their own views and can't find a platform any more, on which to talk about them, could this push people towards more radical groups and actually go out onto the streets and demonstrate?

For certain people, I have no doubt that this would be a motivating factor. And we hear that in the US people who have joined white supremacist groups, the people who support the racist rhetoric of our president, we hear them say they love that Trump is what they call politically incorrect. He gets away with saying what they wish they could get away with saying.

A sign with the words: 'Does the media control the government? Or vice versa?' hangs during a demonstration in Berlin in 2014
Does the media control the government? Or is it the other way around?Image: Imago/IPON

You are a very staunch defender of free speech and very critical of censorship. Do you think free speech will prevail? Is it a losing battle given how things are shaping in certain countries around the globe?

If I could amend your statement, which I take as a compliment to be a staunch defender of free speech, I am an equally staunch opponent of hate. My book is called 'Hate: Why we Should Resist it With Free Speech, not Censorship'. The only verb in that title is "resist." I care as fully about resisting hate as you. You know my personal history — with a father, who was almost exterminated thanks to Nazism in Germany, and I've been a passionate supporter of human rights in the US and around the world.

The civil rights movement in my country was considered to be hateful and dangerous and threatening, and our strong protection of free speech only came to the fore in the context of the civil rights movement to stop southern communities from imprisoning [activists]. Martin Luther King wrote his famous letter from a Birmingham Jail. Why? Because his speech was considered dangerous! Today, you have politicians in this country saying Black Lives Matter advocacy is hate speech. They want it to be treated as a hate group and monitored.

We have to acknowledge that hate is such a subjective concept, and therefore we cannot trust any government official or for that matter any private sector media company or social media company to decide which ideas we deem to be hateful and therefore should be suppressed. I think the only hope for any kind of human rights is through robust free speech and as an activist and as somebody who's lived quite a long time now, I am very optimistic that in the long run all of this freedom and equality will prevail as being mutually reinforcing.

Nadine Strossen is a New York Law School professor who served as president of the ACLU for more than 17 years. Her book "Hate - Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, not Censorship" was released in May 2018.

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