Music and The Criminalization of Speech

I take a great deal of pride on the fact that when Varg Vikernes was arrested in France, under their totalitarian anti-terrorist legislation, ours was the only established publication openly criticizing his arrest. Not “one of the few”, but the only publication calling for his release.

I would love to be able to say, for dramatic effect, that I was shocked to see that nobody else was complaining, but I’d be lying. When I wrote that article I knew that nobody would criticize what was happening; after all, to his usual labels of “murderer” and “racist” they had seen fit to add “fascist”, “neo Nazi” and “terrorist”, all of which are the kind of epithets that make a person untouchable. Nobody wants to be seen as a “terrorist by proxy”, or an apologist for neo Nazis, so people either tried to report the news as if nothing special was happening, or downright gloated at the fact that Varg was going to jail.

Even after his release, when it became obvious that his arrest had been politically motivated and that there were no grounds for those “terrorism” charges, people were still OK with the fact that he’d be prosecuted for hate speech. Nobody thought that there was anything wrong with that, nor did they criticize his conviction on those charges.

For quite some time Varg Vikernes has been a bit of a leper, in the sense that nobody wants to be associated with him, lest they are also given the evil label du jour, be it “terrorist”, “racist”, “Nazi” or whatever is fashionable to hate that day. Because of this, to have a special operations team open fire against his house, where his children slept, violently arrest him and his wife, and hold them without charges for days was seen as acceptable.

Varg Vikernes

If you were to ask people about how important they consider free speech to be, you would be hard pressed to find anyone (outside of government) who would question its importance and its position as one of the core values of western society. If you were to push them a little bit, however, you would probably find that their belief in freedom of speech is actually quite limited, arguing for different types of limitations, using the old (and idiotic) adage of I’m only intolerant of intolerance.

In a nutshell, the idea behind the “intolerant to intolerance” is that although we must protect freedom of speech, we should use the same zeal in attacking and eliminating those opinions, views and expressions that go against our fundamental core values, be it racism, anti-democracy, homophobia, religious bigotry or terrorism.

At first glance, the idea of going against intolerance seems like a no-brainer; why would we waste our energies in defending those who hate others or who promote evil things? Why should we defend the views of those who go against the values of our society?

The problem about speech is that things aren’t so easy. When a state is acquiring power, what it does is not to attack those with whom we agree, but rather to attack those with whom we disagree. For most people it is really hard to defend those they find hateful, and so the state has an easy time depriving them of their rights. The often quoted “first they came for the Socialists…” poem by Martin Niemöller is, as ironic as it might sound, very applicable here, because, just like in that poem, eventually they will also come for you.

It was recently reported that a group of Russian Orthodox Christians are seeking to have the American band Cannibal Corpse banned from playing in Russia, arguing that they are in violation of their anti-blasphemy laws. They might be right.

According to article 148 of the Russian Criminal Code, “public acts expressing manifest disrespect for society and carried out with the goal of insulting the feelings of religious believers” are punishable with fines and up to 1 year in prison. Although a case can be made that the lyrics of Cannibal Corpse do not have “the goal” of insulting anybody’s religious beliefs, the truth is that this is not the kind of discussion that you want to have in a Russian court. You don’t want to be the one explaining why the cover of The Wretched Spawn or Tomb of the Mutilated are not blasphemous, or how the songs “Priest of Sodom” or “Raped by the Beast” are not offensive to Christians.

Considering the case of Pussy Riot, the problems faced by Behemoth when they tried to tour there, and now Cannibal Corpse, it is easy to think that this limitation of speech is something done by “them”, the governments of other countries. The problem, as uncomfortable as it might seem, is that this is not true. Russia is not alone in its laws abrogating freedom of speech, and it’s actually just one more example of an already wide Western tendency to criminalize offensive ideas. Despite what you may think, censorship and prohibitions of blasphemy are not limited to Russia, Saudi Arabia and other autocratic nations, since the so-called free democracies of the west are not only plagued with such rules, but are also happy to enforce them.

In Germany, for example, Art. 166 of the Criminal Code, punishes anybody who “defames the religion or ideology of others in a manner that is capable of disturbing the public peace” or “defames a church or other religious or ideological association within Germany, or their institutions or customs in a manner that is capable of disturbing the public peace”. A similar provision appears in Canada in Art. 319 of the Criminal Code, and which punishes anyone who “by communicating statements, other than in private conversation, wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group“. The same kind of totalitarian legislation exists in countries like Norway, New Zealand, Austria, Greece, Spain and others. This, of course, without mentioning their ever increasing hate-speech laws, and which in the end criminalize those who offend others. A case can even be made that the “wrong” kind of speech is enough to get you killed, even if you are a citizen of a country that established an almost absolute freedom of speech in its Constitution.

Tackling the situation with Cannibal Corpse in Russia as something that only happens there, is a mistake. The ban is only a sign of an increasing ability of the State to limit the ideas, thoughts and expressions of its citizens. If we oppose their ban in Russia, then we should also be mature enough to oppose the kind of regulations that, in the west, continue to suggest that someone out there, hiding in some dusty basement, is able to decide what you and I are able to say, think, or listen.

It’s not just that art, and I consider heavy metal to be art, requires freedom of expression to exist, but also that we as people need and deserve this freedom. The only speech is that is worth protecting is that which offends someone, and part of our maturity as a society means that sometimes we have to accept that we will be the ones being offended.

  • The point on speech is interesting. I don’t consider myself to be “intolerant of intolerance” and I, of course, believe in the freedom of expression and in free speech. I have traditionally had a “marketplace of ideas” attitude towards people who spout racist propaganda and anti-democratic sentiments. The problem is when that speech is aimed at undermining the very fundamental things that maintain a democratic state in the first place: specifically, the equality and rights of all individuals to be equal before the law, and to have opportunities for success in a society. Varg and others like him are fundamentally antidemocratic in that they do not believe that all humans are equal and therefore do not accept the right of all individuals to equal protection before the law. Instead, they draw boundaries that place people into groups (based, no less, on bad science), and then we “free speech absolutists” defend their right to undermine the rights of their fellow citizens (and humans) because we think expression is more important than other rights.

    The question for me, then, is: to what extent is it our job as democrats to protect the speech from groups that do not accept the fundamental basis of democracy at all? And given that hate speech—the induction to violent action or discrimination—stands in the way of the fundamental rights of other citizens, do we not have duty to protect those fundamental rights? Your “right” to throw a punch ends where my nose begins. You can throw as many punches as you want, but when you start hitting people you’ve crossed the line. A hate speech principle works in a similar way. You can hate anyone you want in the comfort of your own home, but when you begin trying to induce those actions in others, you’ve got a problem. Protecting minorities and immigrants, who are already often in a bad way in western Europe (and frankly, the world over), comes before the rights of a fascist to tell the world about how great “white culture” is and how we need separation of the races—which can have deleterious effects on other people.

    Was Varg poorly treated by the state in France? Yes. If what you say is true—that is, that the charges were completely unfounded and that he was simply being harassed by the state—then that is obviously a problem and he should have legal recourse (see: equal in the eyes of the law). But I find myself having a difficult time defending Varg’s right to be a fuck, when the consequences of his actions can be meaningfully harmful to others who do not deserve and did not ask for the treatment he is giving them.

    My broader point is that the case of Varg being harassed by the state in France, then, is not the same as religious panic banning music it finds offensive. To group Cannibal Corpse’s being banned in Russia with Varg being arrested is to have an extremely simple and reductionistic understanding of “expression” and “speech” and what it is that needs to be protected in those situations. And frankly: what’s happening in Russia is tragic, and not just ’cause Western bands are getting shit for their lyrics. The country is in an downward spiral and I’m not sure how that ends well for anyone. Certainly their successful economy and totalarian state helps to question of the hegemony of liberal democracy and, as always, at the cost of citizens.

    Finally a note on the state: For all the repressive capabilities of the state, the state in the hands of the right people can also have a ‘freeing’ capability, in that it can help to ease the oppression of oppressed groups and give them representation and a voice. Western Europe, the USA, Canada and Australia have all used the state to improve the lives of their citizens in meaningful ways. That is: the state is a neutral institution that is invested with a lot of power. In some cases that power can be used positively—and it often has been used positively in the countries we look to as examples of this model—and sometimes it can be used oppressively. It has a neutral character. Trust or distrust in the state often says more about the people in power and how they get there, not the inherent character of states.

    • J_MetalBlast

      Hi there,
      I’m happy that you read the article. I don’t mean to sound rude by responding with bullet points, but I think it’s easier to divide issues like that:

      1. Varg: The fact that Varg’s prosecution for terrorism was completely unfounded seems to be beyond debate. If nothing else, we can just see what French authorities said on the topic, such as the French Interior Minister saying that there was “no target” and “no identified project”, but that it was important to act “before and not after” ( In other words, the French gave themselves the ability to do some Minority Report LARPing.

      2. Varg and Cannibal Corpse: Varg’s prosecution was, literally, based on things he said or wrote. As I documented extensively in the article I wrote on the topic (linked at the top here), the core of the accusation was that Varg sounded like a bad enough person to commits acts of terror, and they used the fact that his wife legally bought some guns as an excuse to go full SWAT on them. This has not been disputed by the French government, and it’s actually their official stance on the topic.

      I used Varg’s case to highlight what happens when we take speech laws to the extreme, and actually use them to justify downright totalitarian measures. After all, the same people who are complaining about what might happen to CC in Russia were not raising their voices when Varg was deprived of his freedom over this. The point is not to defend Varg as a person, let alone his views, but rather to show that speech laws exist in other parts of the globe, including in our democratic societies, and that we should always be aware of how terrible they are, because from time to time they will target people we like (everyone seems to be happy censoring people they dislike).

      3. Tolerating the Intolerants: It is true that Varg’s views are racist; I don’t think anybody can be foolish enough to pretend otherwise. Yet it is foolish to believe that making it illegal to say those things will make it go away; furthermore, from a merely pragmatic point of view, I have a hard time believing that there is a person you, or anybody else for that matter, would give the right to decide what knowledge you might acquire, regardless of how wicked it might be.
      Making speech illegal is, always, a downward spiral, and once you accept some limitations it becomes much harder to have the moral authority to reject others. If you say, for example, that we should punish those who spout hatred, racism and misogyny, then by definition we should punish every christian, jew and muslim, and burn all Torahs, Bibles and Qurans. We should also burn the Divine Comedy, the works of Martin Luther, Goethe, Nietzsche, and even Karl Marx. When you see laws as broad as those I quoted from Germany and Canada, or when you consider that hateful speech (literally, speeches) was used as the prime reason to execute Anwar Al-Awlaki, it should be obvious that limitations on speech cannot be accepted, since they are bound to end up working against us.
      The fact that Varg’s views (or those of Al-Awlaki) might be sickening is exactly the reason why we should protect them. In the words of Chomsky, “it has been a truism for years, indeed centuries, that it is precisely in the case of horrendous ideas that the right of free expression must be most vigorously defended; it is easy enough to defend free expression for those who require no such defense.”
      Furthermore (and since this tends to the excuse given) the idea that censoring speech is necessary because that way we prevent violent people from acting based on those ideas, I think that Manson’s views on “Helter Skelter”, John Hinckley Jr.’s views on “Taxi Driver”, and Berkowitz’ extensive conversations with his dog should be enough to show you that there will always be people getting “inspired” by something to do something horrible.

      4. Russia: No questions about it; Russia is growing into a more autocratic state that it was before, with a horrible track record in Human Rights. Not surprisingly, having an ex-KGB in charge of a country is not a good idea.

      5. The State: I believe that the state is necessary, but I don’t see governments as a Big Brother who’s supposed to guide me. There never has been, nor there ever will be, a state that deserves the right to decide what knowledge you and I can acquire, or what we can or cannot say. To believe otherwise is to simply give away our most basic freedom: the right to say what we believe.

  • marious

    I’d have to go with J on this, but more bullet points because I don’t want these two points confused.

    1. It doesn’t matter what Varg says or what his views (I would argue they are not exactly racist – but that could be a book unto itself). The fact of the matter remains that his home was damaged, his children put in danger, and his time wasted by a military style police action that had no real grounds to be conducted.

    2. Equating a right to speak and a right to throw punches is an apples and oranges comparison. Let all the hate speech in the world be heard loud and clear. The more people are allowed to speak their minds the more discourse and dialogue can occur. The more discussion, the more people can change their world views based exposure to new ideas. You want to stop hate speech? Go have a talk with the haters, don’t arrest them.