The Speech Police Strikes Again

There are a number of people that I find despicable. On a personal level, I would not mind seeing certain categories of people, like rapists, child molesters and terrorists, hanging from the gallows; while there are many people who, like me, hold this view, we have come to accept that, as a society, we create laws that are supposed to be free of these visceral considerations. The law is supposed to represent justice and reason, free from our personal passions and thirst for revenge; so while I would personally like to see sexual predators and terrorists hanging from their necks, I understand that it would not be a good idea to give the state (let alone a lynch mob) the power to decide who gets to live or die.

Something similar happens with speech; there are certain ideologies and ideas that I find so sickening and damaging that I think they have no place in public discourse. As much as I hate some ideas, thoughts and expressions, however, I also realize that silencing people, regardless of what they want to express, would not serve any useful purpose and, perhaps most importantly, would actually hurt the civil liberties of the people.

As I mentioned in a previous article, Cannibal Corpse were facing some complications on their then-upcoming Russian tour, since there had been some demands for the cancellation of the tour, arguing that they were indecent and blasphemous. As it was to be expected, the tour did indeed experience some “problems”,  and three of the shows were cancelled, while others suffered some issues like interruptions and visit by the police. The excuses put forward by the authorities, related to how the band lacked the necessary visas, are already familiar to those with an interest in metal and censorship, as they are the same that were used to detain and deport Behemoth when they visited the country earlier this year (interestingly, the Russian authorities only demanded different visas for some of the shows, since Cannibal Corpse were still able to perform in some cities).

The Russian police ready to save the audience from blasphemy.
The Russian police ready to save the audience from blasphemy.

Several of the problems that are happening in Russia, courtesy of a government lead by an ex-KGB sociopath, deal with the consequences of a country in which speech codes are created and enforced (either legally or just in practice) by a “moral majority” whose beliefs are deeply-rooted in Orthodox Christianity, seasoned with the authoritarian and tyrannical legacy of communism. This is why laws have been enacted against “gay propaganda” and blasphemy in this country where, according to Human Rights Watch, the government is determined to “control the media and limit speech to those opinions it finds convenient”, having enacted laws that “are clearly aimed at limiting and controlling what Russians can hear and from whom.”

In its attempts to extend its control of the public discourse, Russia uses the classical justification of “protecting children” and “fighting terrorism”; for example, when the Russian Parliament approved the Internet Restriction bill, effectively legalizing censorship of the internet, it was made to remove or block materials deemed harmful by the government, “protecting children from objectionable information”, by means of blocking the access to “websites containing pornography, drug ads and promoting suicide or extremist ideas“.

Here’s a piece of advice; whenever you hear the government talking about protecting children from dangerous ideas, or talking about new powers being needed to crack down on “extremism”, pay close attention. As the recent terrible events in Canada clearly show, governments are always eager to use any excuse to expand their powers, and are happy to exploit a tragedy to those ends, and you never know where they will end.

The use of “children” and “extremism” as a way to justify curtailing civil liberties is fairly easy to explain; few politicians, particularly if they’re seeking re-election, will want to go down in history as “pro extremist” or “anti children”, and so will not voice their concerns when it comes to debating any of these measures. Unless you want to have your face plastered in an attack ad that says how much you support child molesters, or how your vote has helped fund ISIS (or whatever the terrorist du jour is that day), you’ll sit down and shut up.

Well, recently in the UK there was a really incredible case, dealing with free speech, that I guess few people want to address, because it deals with children. Well, kind of. Robul Hoque was convicted of a sex crime for owning cartoon images depicting minors involved in sexual acts; not photographs, mind you, but drawings, depicting “young girls, some in school uniforms, some exposing themselves or taking part in sexual activity.”

Now, I’m not into anime, children or even Star Trek, so in principle I don’t have a dog in this fight. Based on what he owned, the defendant seems to have been a very unlikeable person, of the kind I wouldn’t like to have anything to do with, let alone trust my (as of yet non-existent) children to. And yet, I still think that his conviction is absolutely nonsensical, and that it represents a dangerous precedent in terms of freedom of speech.

Apparently this is a thing.
Apparently this is a thing… a very British thing.

First of all, let’s remember what the court (and the law) is saying: You have the power to grab a piece of paper, draw something and, as a result, become guilty of a crime. According to the law, there is a point between stick figure and photo-realistic drawings where a threshold is crossed and a drawing becomes a crime. This is a gigantic problem, because it takes it upon the state to decide what forms of expression can be considered illegal, simply because that’s the way to “protect the children”.

As sickening as we might find the idea of someone getting any kind of pleasure from depictions of children (in cartoon form or otherwise), it is not a good idea to give the state the power to decide what sort of expression can be criminalized. Once we agree with the idea that cartoons can be outlawed, there is no rational reason why books and music depicting this type of material, as morally reprehensible as it is, shouldn’t be banned as well. If a drawing of a naked child is illegal, why shouldn’t we ban (or criminalize) the cover of Cannibal Corpse’s The Wretched Spawn, or any of the incredibly and utterly messed up pornogrind covers (seriously, do not click this link, let alone this one), not to mention the atrocious things they say in their lyrics. Furthermore, once we accept that fictionalized depictions of a crime deserve to be punished, then the sky will certainly be the limit, and we’ll risk living in a Minority Report-like society where thinking about a crime equals its commission. As absurd as it sounds, let’s not forget Varg Vikernes‘ arrest for “being the kind of person” who might, maybe, one day, commit an act of terrorism.

Are there forms of media that are reprehensible? Absolutely, and it is our right to choose not to buy them or to finance them in any way. I’m fairly sure that I wouldn’t like to be friends with someone who collects anime figurines of naked children, or who holds the misogynistic views that, as tongue-in-cheek as they might be, make up the “genre” of pornogrind; but I don’t think that it’s a good idea to legally punish them. Once we give the state the power to tell us what kind of information we can create or receive, there is no turning back. If we police the morals of one type of information, there is no logical reason why we shouldn’t police the morals of others and, as history so clearly teaches us, from there to stifling dissent there’s only one step.

There are those, I’m sure, who will say “I don’t hold any extremist or inappropriate views, so this doesn’t bother me; in fact, I think it’s good that we police speech”. But let’s be clear on what these words mean; they mean “I have consciously decided to be so compliant, so obedient, so absolutely non-threatening to any authority, that there is absolutely nothing in my speech or in my interests that could ever represent a threat. I have just become a cog in the machine.”

Someone in the UK government actually thought that this was a totally not creepy poster to promote security. I'm not even kidding.
Someone thought that this was a totally not creepy poster to promote security. Yes, this is real.