“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
– Salman Rushdie
I talked about being offended by words and ideas in a previous post, and although I will now continue along the same topic I hope to avoid being too repetitive. A few weeks ago I came across a lengthy Facebook status by Sebastian Tynkkynen, a Finnish far-right politician, indeed the president of the True Finns youth party, which I mentioned in my recent discussion on gender. The story is in Finnish so I will briefly paraphrase what’s going on.
Following the Brussels terrorist attacks The Finnish Resistance Movement (part of an overarching Nordic National Socialist movement) organised a small-scale rally in central Helsinki to promote their anti-immigration views. Mr Tynkkynen was invited to the event as a speaker, and as he got up on the stage a bystander started yelling “Tynkkynen is racist, Tynkkynen is racist”.
“Public discussion has become taxing and those with critical views on immigration are being silenced by equating them with an ideology represented by the nazis who practised racial segregation: racism.“
Giving this premise Tynkkynen is now raising charges against his defier for slander, thereby trying to bring justice to the many immigration critics who are constantly being accused of racism. He is seeking to make his case a precedent in the public discussion of immigration; to eliminate “the racist card” because “the game has become too cruel”. Tynkkynen goes on to elaborating his reasoning for taking this to court. According to him a culture that allows indefinite slander of a person “if one knows how to do it right” – whatever that means – is growing stronger in Finland.
“It generates endless bullying and contempt which effect both mentally, socially and on one’s employability. I often get these messages from citizens and I now want to intervene. I’m not aware of a case where defamation of a citizen by the racist card has lead to a conviction – -“
“If this goes through, the ruling will have wider implications on the societal conversation at large. It follows that a citizen charging their adversary with racism would in practice automatically be convicted.”
Needless to say that I think this is ridiculous and bordering on offending free speech.
I agree with Sebastian on one point, and that is that the haphazard use of the word ‘racist’ in public discourse is 99% of the time unhelpful. The term has become so overused that it has lost its meaning, and nowadays those holding racist views tend to hide behind some version of ‘immigration criticism’. But even when calling someone a racist might be an accurate denomination based on their opinions it just doesn’t bring anything of value to the conversation. It’s a shortcut used in the place of actual fact-based arguments, and does not serve defenders of human rights one bit.
- the action of damaging the good reputation of someone; slander or libel
- a false accusation of an offence or a malicious misrepresentation of someone’s words or actions http://www.thefreedictionary.com/defamation
- a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another
- a person with a prejudiced belief that one race is superior to others
Is it slander to call someone, who has publicly leant their voice for a known far-right group with glaringly bigoted views, a racist? Is it a false accusation to make the connection between his views and those of the openly racist organisation that he has for the moment sided with? Moreover, is pointing out this apparent connection harmful for the accused racist’s reputation?
Like I said, I don’t think it’s helpful or necessary to yell insults on either side but I also don’t think that being called out on prejudiced views, or affiliations with advocates of prejudiced views is particularly harmful to one’s good reputation. Perhaps Sebastian, and others in similar positions, don’t realise that by agreeing to dignify these kinds of groups with their presence as a public figure, one is making a statement. And should they indeed be so worried about being labelled a racist then perhaps they should reconsider what kind of events they want to appear at in the first place. If Mr Tynkkynen was being honest, we would admit that even his own party’s stance on immigration is somewhat radical and in itself grants him a role – whether wanted or not, in the debate of what is and isn’t racist. When one decides to be in the public eye one must grow a thicker skin and be prepared to defend oneself in the crossfire of comments and offences.
I’m not interested in personally attacking Sebastian Tynkkynen. In truth, I know hardly anything about him. This case merely beautifully illustrates the self-victimisation phenomenon in social media. I see it as yet another way of misunderstanding the essence of freedom of speech, and misusing the concept of it as a justification for holding intolerant views. I have said it before and I will say it again: yes, you are absolutely allowed to have your opinions and express them. But when you face resistance it does not mean that your freedom of expression has been infringed upon. Being offended does not automatically mean that you are right. This is something that many Finnish immigration critics, especially members and supporters of the True Finns party do not seem to grasp. The same can be said about the opponents of the equal marriage law who pretend that allowing same sex couples the same judicial standing as heterosexual couples somehow offends or limits their freedom to practice religion. I have no idea how this could be true unless it forced gay marriage on everyone – which it doesn’t by the way.
And let’s not forget that these champions of freedom of expression have come up with their own slander term for those who call them racist: “suvakki” or better yet, “suvakkihuora”. The first one is derived from the word “suvaitsevainen” meaning “tolerant” and in the second one the lovely word “huora”, “whore” has been added to the mix. Should all immigration liberals now start taking people to court for calling them tolerant whores? What a time to be alive.
But on a more serious note, the thought of a word being practically criminalised is rather chilling. There are obviously more eloquent ways of criticising people’s views than yelling “RACIST” but as Tynkkynen himself points out, the author of this insult was calmed down by a couple of police officers who were present at the event. No damage was done, no one’s freedom of expression was denied, no one was physically or mentally traumatised.
Understandably it is annoying and frustrating when our comments are dismissed as racist or otherwise irrelevant but instead of immediately seeking to deny the use of certain words wouldn’t it be more effective to take the time to explain why our opinions are actually relevant, to defend ourselves with intelligence rather than seeking to make resisting us a criminal offence. Criminalising certain kind of societal critique is a feature of totalitarianism which we should always fight against, in every way possible. That is, if we really want to preserve free society and liberal values, and that precious freedom of speech.
The use of force, physical or otherwise instead of intelligence only confirms the narrative of a bigoted caveman afraid of the unknown, which the word ‘racist’ is used to bring attention to. When the insult seems to do real harm to our career or image then it should be treated as a false accusation and proved wrong. When it is a random person at an outdoor event after a recent terrorist attack, who is in the end only manifesting his own shortage of temper and lack of elegant articulation, it ought to be ignored -in my humble opinion at least. By treating this incident as a valid commentary on one’s character you are only presenting yourself as a victim, lethally wounded by a word. You are saying that this slur has caused so much damage to your person that it is only right that the offender should be punished in the court of law, and that also everyone else who holds this view of you and your opinions should not have the right to call you out. How exactly does this advance our public discourse on the real issues of the immigration crisis in Europe? News flash: it doesn’t. I am no expert in this particular topic but I claim to know something about effective advocacy and communication.
Finishing with “I left with my dark-skinned friend” is also not the most convincing argument and doesn’t negate the connotations of being affiliated with a group notorious for using violence to propagate its antisemitic, anti-gay and racist agenda. If in your heart of hearts you know that you are not a racist then why would you publicly seem to support a group of known racists? More importantly, why would you care if a random bystander calls you a racist? Is it perhaps because they hit a nerve? I don’t know.
What I do know is that there are many and more people whom I disagree with on different topics but whom I still respect because of their ability and will to articulate well and think critically. Anyone who is not willing to have a proper conversation but instead just dismiss me as a feminazi or a privileged white girl or whatever else, I’m not going to bother with – let alone sue them. But maybe that’s just me.