Free speech, once an inviolate principle of Western Democracy, is increasingly under attack. Specifically, speech deemed ‘offensive’ to other people is increasingly categorized as ‘hateful’ or ‘hurtful’ and banned in European countries and American college campuses. The recent dust-up over the semi-Sieg Heil known as the ‘Quenelle’ is a famous case in point. Now the Israeli government is proposing to take legal action against anyone who makes a Nazi insult, thus adding fuel to the fire.
Let us first dispense with the silly argument connecting horrible slurs with actual violence. Rare high-profile cases such as Rabin notwithstanding, political violence and assassination in Israel remains extremely infrequent. A quick search of any Israeli newspaper database will yield numerous attacks of “Fascist”, “Nazi”, “Murderer”, “Butcher” and the like from both sides of the political aisle, yet the number of serious violent acts – be they aggravated assault or murder-related – remains miniscule.
The only remaining argument is that the ‘Nazi’ epithet is so egregiously offensive that it must be banned. This will not do. Personal offense is subjective: everyone has their ‘Nazi’ insult which for them is so egregiously offensive that it must be banned. If we were truly to follow this line of argument, we must then concede that the point of all such laws is to force people to act nicely at the point of a gun. It is not enough to publicly condemn people who act like assholes or shun them – they must be fined or put in prison, too.
Criminal law is a blunt instrument, meant in a democracy as a last resort in case all other social sanctions fail. Israel has survived over sixty years of general social and political peace even when the most vile epithets were thrown about like so many spitballs. People who used those insults were usually either condemned, ignored or laughed at with no need to involve the police or the courts. I see no reason we cannot continue to do so.