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.