Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Tintin: racism vs. freedom of speech

Mr. Mbutu Mondondo Bienvenu is not extending his bienvenu to ‘Tintin in Africa’/’Tintin in the Congo’, a strip cartoon story written as a serial in a periodical in 1930 and first published as a book in 1931. He is quoted as saying "I want to put an end to sales of this cartoon book in shops, both for children and for adults. It's racist and it is filled with colonial-era propaganda”. Mr. Bienvenu, a Congolese student from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has launched legal action in Belgium to have ‘Tintin in the Congo’ declared racist and removed from bookstores.

Is the book racist? It shows black Africans as stereotypical 1930s-style black characters and whites as their colonial masters. When I read it as a boy in Belgium in the late 1950s, I had to sneak it past my parents, who disapproved of cartoon books in general (books should have words, not pictures) and to Tintin in Africa in Africa specifically, because they considered it racist (even then!). So yes, the book is racist.

Should it be banned from bookstores because it is racist? Certainly not. Making the expression of racist opinions illegal is an unacceptable infringement of free speech.

Mr. Mondondo would certainly have been within his rights if he had decided to demonstrate peacefully outside bookstores stocking the offending ‘Tintin’ volume. He could have written letters to the editor calling for readers not to buy the book, he could have blogged about it, and could have tried to organise a consumer boycott of the book in any number of legitimate ways. To appeal to the law to have the book banned is both lazy and wrong.

In a world teeming with excuses for infringing on the right to say what you think, when you think it and where you think it, the inalienable right to freedom of expression must be reasserted and defended ceaselessly. Lest someone tries to be cute about this, I will recognise up front the usual exceptions: (1) it should not be legal to shout ‘house’ in a crowded fire; (2) speech directly inciting or encouraging acts of physical violence towards persons or groups, or acts of destruction towards the property of such persons or groups is not protected; (3) libel and slander should be illegal, but with a serious burden of proof on the offended party; (4) deliberately misleading advertising is not protected free speech (but again with a serious burden of proof caveat). However, 'fighting words' are protected free speech. Not being provoked by them is part of being a grown-up.

However, equating verbal insults with physical violence just does not wash. Clearly, children (all those under age) should be legally protected against extreme verbal abuse and verbal assault. As regards communications between independent adults, limits on what is permissible are set by good manners and social norms, not by the law. If the adults are in an inherently unequal relationship (superior-subordinate in an employment relationship, for instance), other constraints on permissible language may of course apply. In private settings, and in societies with elective membership, clubs and associations, people can be expelled or ostracized for having views unacceptable to the group. In the public domain, no such constraints should apply. It is not the responsibility of the state to enforce good manners.

The key distinction is between the private and the public spheres. I reserve the right to boot out of my home anyone making racist comments or indeed any other comments that offend me deeply. But in the public domain - in publications, on soapboxes located on street corners, in the print and electronic media, in blogs and elsewhere - these views have a right to be uttered, repulsive and repugnant as they are. You fight offensive and hurtful views in a variety of ways. Sometimes ignoring them is effective. This is unlikely to be the right approach with racism. Racism must be exposed, criticised, refuted, rejected publicly, made to look like what it is: stupid and/or evil bigotry and prejudice. But do not ban the expression of racist views. It is effective and it is wrong because it restricts that most precious and fragile of freedoms: the freedom to speak your mind, regardless of whether others agree with your views or are horrified and upset by them.

Freedom of speech and of expression must be defended even when the speech that is defended is loathsome and repugnant. We measure our commitment to freedom of speech by the degree to which racist, sexist and ageist statements get the same treatment as Methodist statements.

This defense of people’s right to speak and write the indefensible, extends also to the great taboos of modern history, including the Holocaust.

Holocaust denial is a crime in Austria and Germany and there are proposals afoot for making it a crime across the EU. It is a sick irony that the two democratic successor states of Nazi Germany, the German Federal Republic and Austria, both responded, when confronted with the expression of views they deemed unacceptable, by using the same instrument - criminalisation of the expression of these views - that would have been the reflex choice of the Nazi regime, and indeed of totalitarian regimes throughout history.

I consider anyone who denies the historical reality of the Holocaust to be either insane, terminally ignorant and stupid or deeply evil – or some combination of these three. President Ahmedinejad of Iran is but the latest in a long line of pathetic, twisted and evil souls who choose to use Holocaust denial as a rallying call for the anti-Jewish barbarians all over the world. But the response to an outrageous, ugly, deeply offensive and horribly hurtful view or opinion, including Holocaust denial, is not to make the expression of that view or opinion a crime. It is to stand up and shout out a refutation of these views. The notion that history can be legislated and that the correct version of history can be enforced in a court of law would have come naturally to the Nazis and to Stalin or Mao. It has no place in a free society.

There is no fundamental human right not to be offended. Those countries that have criminalised the expression of certain views and opinions merely because they are deemed incorrect, deeply offensive and hurtful should rethink this unacceptable encroachment on freedom of expression.


tadhgin said...

Although I agree with your views, I have a quibble.

Holocaust denial laws were put in place in Austria and Germany after the war when there good reasons to doubt that a liberal approach would be effective in dealing with the reality of what had happened. They were also designed to prevent a resurgence of the NAZIs, which in the late 40s there was plenty of reason to fear.

Ideally the laws should have been time bound - they only really needed to apply to the generation that had been, arguably, complicit in those very crimes.

Today they are an anachronism.

random african said...

what is interesting is the popularity and the sales of the book.. and the energy used to defend it by its readers.

apparently in the list of offensive behavior, Colonial Racism ranks quite low compared to other activities.

does it say something about the market or does it say something about those consumers ?

Anonymous said...

"(1) it should not be legal to shout ‘house’ in a crowded fire"

I guess it was a typo? should be "(1) it should not be legal to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded house" instead?

Willem H. Buiter said...

Even in the late 1940s, making Holocaust denial a crime was not an effective way of dealing with neo-Nazis, just as it is ineffective today in dealing with new Nazis. The expression of views and opinions by individuals, which should not be illegal, is a quite different matter from allowing political movements a chance to gain power, when these political movements don't play by the rules of open, pluralistic and tolerant socienties. I would have banned neo-Nazi movements and parties, but allowed individiduals to express (neo-)Nazi views.