Friday, April 9, 2010

"The Thought That We Hate"

In a Personal View piece submitted this morning to the Web site for the London Telegraph, Nathalie Rothschild has demonstrated an appreciation of the First Amendment of our Constitution that is probably far richer than that of most American citizens. The circumstances concern the sort of case that tends to produce no end of gray hairs within the American Civil Liberties Union:

A London performance by controversial French comedian Dieudonné – to some, a radical anti-racist, to others a Right-wing, rabid anti-Semite – has been cancelled after complaints from the public. This is bad news not just for those who had hoped to see Dieudonné perform his insulting and tedious skits this weekend, but also for anyone who values freedom of speech and who believes the public can cope with being offended.

Whether or not Rothschild has read Anthony Lewis' "biography" of the First Amendment, she has a clear grasp to the title he chose for his book: Freedom for the Thought That We Hate. She summarizes her defense of Dieudonné's right to perform through three underlying arguments:

First, it would be counterproductive, as it is likely to help Dieudonné claim he is some kind of martyred, free-speech warrior. It will also fuel the conspiratorial mindset of Dieudonné’s fans and others with nightmare visions of a nefarious Zionist lobby occupying, not just Gaza and the West Bank, but also the high seats of power around the world.

Second, if theatres let a small number of individuals dictate which performers they should or should not book, this means that the rest of us will have to contend with whatever shows the easily offended deem acceptable. And since any performance could potentially be deemed offensive by someone, there is no telling which gags will be gagged in the future. The growing culture of offence-taking is likely to lead not just to over-cautiousness amongst programmers and editors, but also to self-censorship amongst comedians, writers and others as they try to negotiate what is and is not going to be deemed too risqué or controversial.

Finally, preventing Dieudonné from performing will only fuel the victim culture that has given rise to the culture of offence-taking, which Dieudonné himself promulgates. His main gripe seems to be that the suffering of blacks and Muslims is insufficiently respected in France, while Jews get too much airtime, sympathy and funding. He has said he will continue to tear up his children’s school books "as long as our pain is not recognised". He claims that he is seeking justice for the descendants of slavery, which he believes Jews profited from in the fifteenth century – that was before they started spreading HIV in Africa, apparently.

Her samples of Dieudonné's material make it clear that this is a performer who traffics in thought that many of us (probably including Rothschild) hate; but her piece makes it clear that she appreciates the difference between thoughts that we may hate (for perfectly good reasons) and hate speech, which is entirely different, at least in the technical framework of speech act theory. The result is that the case she has prepared, itself, will probably be received as thoughts that many people hate; so there is a significant element of risk in her going public with those thoughts. However, there is also a strong element of chutzpah in her defiance to stand for a right she highly values in such a disturbing context. Thus, this piece provides good grounds for her receiving the Chutzpah of the Week award for her courage in taking a position on an issue that many would appreciate but would refrain from ever declaring it in a public setting.

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