Some British Jews feel affronted by alleged anti-Semitism in the UK Labour Party. But how many of the complainants empathize with complaints from West Bank Palestinians?
Throughout history, thinking at variance with the mainstream was always unpopular and risky. However, at various times, it has been tolerated to different degrees. Today, it’s less and less acceptable than in the recent past.
Liberals of all colors like to repeat German socialist Rosa Luxembourg’s critical stab at the Bolsheviks: “Freedom is freedom for those who think differently.”
And, to spice it up, they often like to add Voltaire’s maxim: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
That said, does our recent (and not so recent) experience not show that freedom for those who think differently is now acceptable only within the constraints of the predominant social pact?
We can see this clearly, right now, as the unwritten rule which determines the limits of what is acceptable is breaking apart, and different visions compete to impose themselves as hegemonic. Years ago, Noam Chomsky caused a scandal when he followed Voltaire’s maxim to its extreme: he defended the holocaust denier Robert Faurisson’s right to publish his book, and his argumentation even appeared in Faurisson’s book as an afterword.
Today such a gesture would be immediately identified as anti-Semitic.
Holocaust denial is today not only criminalized, the terms of its criminalization are sometimes even numerically circumscribed.
For example, an idea circulated a decade or so ago that it should be punishable to set the number of holocaust victims at lower than five million. Other mass crimes were then added to the list – such as when France made it illegal to deny the Armenian genocide.
Even if something is not legally criminalized, it can be submitted to de facto criminalization. Typical here is the fate of Martin Heidegger, until recently considered the key philosopher of the 20th century. After his ‘Black Notebooks’ were published, a group of liberal critics made a coordinated campaign to academically criminalize his thought.
The idea was that, due to his direct links with the Nazi ideology, Heidegger doesn’t even deserve to be the topic of a serious philosophical debate – he should be simply dismissed as unworthy of such an approach since, as Emmanuel Faye put it, Heidegger not only supported Nazism, his thought is nothing but the introduction of Nazism into philosophy.
This procedure of extra-legal criminalization reaches its peak in today’s politically correct version of MeToo. Sometimes it looks as if its partisans care more about a couple of affluent women who were shocked when Louis CK showed them his penis than with hundreds of poor girls being brutally raped. In replying to those who insisted on a difference between Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK, MeToo activists claimed that those who say this have no idea about how male violence works and is experienced, and that masturbation in front of women can be experienced as no less violent than physical imposition.
Although there is some truth in both of these claims, one should nonetheless impose a clear limit to the logic that sustains this argumentation: the limits of freedom are set so narrow here that even a modest debate about different grades of abuse is considered unacceptable.
Is freedom (of debate) then not de facto reduced to freedom solely for those who think like us? Not only must we accept the general (PC) consensus and then limit our debate to minor details, even the scope of the details one is allowed to debate is very narrow.
Am I then a diehard liberal who pleads for total openness? No, prohibitions are necessary and limits should be set. I just hate those hypocrites who don’t admit the obvious fact that, in some sense, freedom effectively IS freedom for those who basically think like us.
The partisans of the criminalization of “hate speech” predictably try to concoct a way out of this paradox; their usual line of argumentation is: hate speech deserves criminalization because it effectively deprives its victims of their freedom and humiliates them, so the exclusion of hate speech effectively widens the scope of actual freedom.
This is true, but problems arise with the PC procedure of prohibiting even an open debate about this scope, so that an arbitrary exclusion (like the prohibition of Louis CK) is itself excluded from debate.
The argument evoked against defenders of Louis CK is the same as the one pushed by those who accuse the British Labour Party of tolerating anti-Semitism: who are we to judge if the complaints of the self-proclaimed victims are justified or not?
It is up to the affronted to decide this – if they feel hurt, then this is it. But really?
Let’s take the case of anti-Semitism: so we should take seriously the complaints of those UK Jews, who feel offended. However, are they ready to take seriously the complaints of the West Bank Palestinians, or is this considered a different case of a complaint where the victim’s word is not to be trusted?
If so, it’s proof that the claims of one’s own victimization are never to be taken at their face value but always coldly analyzed.
As the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze put it decades ago, all politics which relies on the unique experience of a limited group is always reactionary.