As a Franco-American with strong ties to both cultures, I’ve always struggled a bit to reconcile what “freedom of expression” means in my two countries. While I’m – of course – a firm believer in freedom of expression (part and parcel of being a liberal/progressive), I did not grow up in a country where politicians and opinion leaders could lash out terrible racist or homophobic epithets with no consequences. In the United States, however, I am consistently shocked and angered by some of the stories I come across. Like this:
A South Carolina lawmaker on Thursday called a Republican gubernatorial candidate of Indian descent a “raghead,” saying we have one in the White House, we don’t need one in the governor’s mansion.
Or, this, which is down right infuriating:
An Arizona elementary school mural featuring the faces of kids who attend the school has been the subject of constant daytime drive-by racist screaming, from adults, as well as a radio talk-show campaign (by an actual city councilman, who has an AM talk-radio show) to remove the black student’s face from the mural, and now the school principal has ordered the faces of the Latino and Black students pictured on the school wall to be repainted as light-skinned children.
(emphasis in the original article)
Neither of these stories are particularly different from the hundreds of other stories of racism and intolerance. I think, as Americans, we’ve become numb to this, in spite of the fact that it’s completely outrageous and unacceptable that in 2010, in a supposedly modern and free America, people are still being vilified for their race, creed or sexual orientation – without any consequences.
Freedom of expression is a thorny issue, with deep philosophical implications, and I won’t take attempt to take on this subject in this blog – partly because I have not really made up my mind about my own views as to what freedom of expression should look like.
What I do know, though, is that I tend to prefer the French approach. In France, a 1990 law was passed to criminalize the denial of crimes against humanity. Publications or public expressions of support for these crimes are punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. This meant that Holocaust deniers could no longer publicize their views, and, if they did, would be charged under this law. I’m sure many Americans recoil at the notion that people’s opinions cannot all be shared with the public – regardless of how offensive, outrageous and wrong they are. Another law, passed in 2004, “makes sexist or homophobic comments illegal and forbids job discrimination against homosexuals.”
In my mind, while these laws represent restrictions to freedom of expression, they are also the sign of a society that has the moral courage to distinguish between right and wrong. I also believe these laws – while they do curb people’s individual freedom of expression – actually promote another type of freedom: that of the individual not to be discriminated against, belittled or victimized by bigots. I’ve always marveled at the stories out of the United States where neo-Nazis are prancing around denying the Holocaust, or talk-show radio hosts spewing their racist, intolerant venom. I don’t see what is so “free” about that.
In fact, just yesterday, French immigration minister Brice Hortefeux – well-known for his dislike of immigrants – was fined $900 “private insults of a racial nature.” While many in France are calling for his resignation, Hortefeux says he will appeal the decision. The New York Times recaps the incident which led to the fine:
The verdict comes nine months after Mr. Hortefeux was recorded on camera at an event in southwestern France on Sept. 5 making what to many sounded like anti-Arab remarks. The video, which was first posted on the Web site of Le Monde, shows the minister posing for a photo with a young party member of Arab origin when a woman in the crowd can be heard saying:
“Amine is a Catholic. He eats pork and drinks beer.”
“Ah, but that doesn’t work at all, then he does not fit the prototype at all,” Mr. Hortefeux is heard replying to general laughter.
Another female voice shouts: “He’s our little Arab.”
Mr. Hortefeux answers: “All the better. There always has to be one. When there’s one, it’s O.K. It’s when there are a lot of them that there are problems.”
Seriously? Remember, this man is the Minister of Immigration. For French speakers, you can watch the video here.
I think it’s a real stretch to say freedom of expression is endangered in France, even though some members of the press who have clashed with Sarkozy and his administration might beg to differ. I see these laws, which protect individuals and groups from libel and discrimination, as necessary tools to fight against intolerance. When I read stories like the one about the Arizona school mural, I find it hard to believe that Americans continue to defend unbridled “freedom” of expression…