Switzerland must reject these new hate-speech laws

Criminalising homophobia will only make challenging homophobia more difficult.

Andrea Seaman

Topics Free Speech Politics World

Switzerland will vote on 9 February in a national referendum on whether the law should be amended to include homosexuals and bisexuals in the category of groups protected from hate speech and discrimination. Religion and ethnic origin are already protected in this way.

In the official brochure, which was sent to all households before the referendum, our parliament and the federal council supported the amendment, arguing that discrimination in the form of hate speech ‘has no place in a free and tolerant society’. Opponents of this proposed law, who tend to be those on the right, rightly describe it as an attempt at censorship. The left-wingers who back this law change, meanwhile, describe it as an expression of tolerance towards gays and lesbians.

The sort of ‘hate speech’ that the law would prohibit is broadly defined: it could include any kind of explicit verbal denigration of sexual orientation that apparently constitutes an affront to the human dignity of a person. The main aim of the law is to ban discriminatory statements or ‘the systematic belittling and slandering of lesbians, gays and bisexuals’.

Instead of admitting that they want to restrict freedom of speech, the supporters of this law have invented a cunning sleight of hand. The German language does not only contain the concept of ‘Redefreiheit’ (free speech), but also ‘Meinungsfreiheit’, which means ‘freedom of opinion’. Fixating on the latter term and its reference to ‘opinion’, censorious campaigners have simply concluded that hate is ‘not an opinion’. Hence, in their view, banning expressions of hate does not constitute an infringement of the right to express opinions. But even if hate is not an opinion, it is an emotion – and giving the state the power to police emotions is not much better.

Proponents argue that the law is not just about speech, but that it will also protect against homophobic violence. The president of the Swiss Social Democratic Party (SP), Christian Levrat, says ‘it should not be allowed to publicly incite hatred and smear, because words are followed by deeds’. Levrat believes that the cause of hate crimes lies in hate speech. Consequently, he says we must ‘get to the root of the problem’ and prohibit all expressions of hatred towards gays. Sibylle Berg, a German-Swiss author who backs the law, says that ‘words precede deeds!’.

This is chilling. It is a form of what Philip K Dick’s ‘The Minority Report’ called ‘precime’ – in this case, ‘hate crimes’ that have not happened yet.

While proponents of this law often appeal to tolerance, its implementation would be an attack on true tolerance. Because tolerating an opinion or emotion often means disliking it but still allowing it to exist and be expressed. A fundamentalist Christian, for example, may take what the Bible says about homosexuals literally, and even hate homosexuals, but still tolerate them anyway.

In turn, those of us who loathe homophobia should tolerate those with homophobic views, so that we can challenge them in the open. The wonderful thing about tolerance is that it presumes that people have the capacity to change. Tolerance is not about being complacent about the existence of ugly views in society. It is our job to tolerate homophobes, to argue against them in order to convince them of our views. We should trust that truth will prevail.

What’s more, this proposed law would only make defeating homophobia more difficult. The censorship of hate speech puts a lid on passions and beliefs, bringing them to boiling point. It removes the restraining, calming, healthy influence of dialogue with fellow citizens.

As Jodie Ginsberg from Index on Censorship reminds us, anti-Semitic speech was criminalised in the Weimar Republic. Far from forcing the Nazis to rethink and to renounce their prejudices, these laws cemented their prejudices and gave them the mantle of martyrs. Ginsberg rightly rebukes ‘the narrative that suggests publicising the views of the far-right leads directly to much wider violence’.

There is nothing left-wing about censorship. By calling for censorship, the Swiss left has completely abandoned the traditional principles of left-wing politics and adopted ideas originally championed by the right. As Thomas Paine put it in Rights of Man, freedom is jeopardised when the state tries to impose ‘tolerance’ through official policy, law or decree. Enforced tolerance isn’t tolerance at all. A ‘tolerant’ state, Paine wrote, was akin to ‘the pope selling or granting indulgences’. What the state tolerates and grants, it can stifle and take away just as easily.

In total defiance of that original left-wing insight, the Swiss ‘left’ wants to enforce tolerance towards gays through law. But true freedom and tolerance can never be attained, given or guaranteed by the state. When the state offers you tolerance, it is always intolerance in disguise. We Swiss should reject this law, and abolish all the other hate-speech laws in Switzerland. This is the only way we can create a space for tolerance, debate and genuine democracy.

Andrea Seaman is a writer based in Switzerland.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Free Speech Politics World


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