Swastikas and symbolism in discussions on free speech

Emmet Feerick discusses the possible justifications for restrictions on iconography in the use of free speech.

Most people aren’t fond of the swastika. The sight of it conjures up images of Nazi Party rallies, death trains and death camps; the moral low point of human history. Perhaps you were taken aback somewhat by the appearance of this symbol on the poster for the Musical Society’s Cabaret production last month. It’s quite startling to see that symbol on a college campus. Some groups, such as Jewish people, gay people, or black people, may find it more objectionable than the average student, given the ideology it represents. But of course, this symbol was on a poster for a musical set in 1930s Berlin. It was not scrawled across a wall on the Newman building, nor printed on Neo-Nazi recruitment leaflets in the student centre. It was part of the costume design for a musical based in a time characterised by all that that symbol represented.

The inclusion of this symbol on a piece of promotional material for a musical was quite plainly not an affront to anybody who might take offense at the symbol; a point lost on whomever lodged a complaint against it with UCD Estate Service. Frivolous though this complaint was, the fact that it was made raises the question of when it might genuinely be appropriate to oppose offensive speech or imagery.

Suppose you’re like any decent person, and you go out of your way to avoid hurting others. Let’s say you work for some magazine as a cartoonist. Nice innocent job. How could you have known that a cartoon you published could get you and your co-workers gunned down in your office by a pair of religious zealots? As you no doubt remember, this is exactly what happened to the workers for the satirical French weekly, Charlie Hebdo, in 2015. You might also recall that shortly after this atrocity, Muslim leaders in Ireland, including the disgraced Dr Ali Selim of pro-Female Genital Mutilation fame (since retracted), called for the Irish media not to publish images of the new issue of Charlie Hebdo. Their reason? According to Selim, who threatened legal action against any journalist who would publish the cartoons, “It doesn’t help for peaceful coexistence”. Bit of a sinister ring to that. However, it had to be conceded, he was right. The Charlie Hebdo shootings had indeed just shown that penning a cartoon could get you killed.

Looming in the background of all discussions on this topic is the fact that offence takers never stop at mere resignation to differences in preference. We never “agree to disagree” on matters of offensive speech or imagery. It is always the case that one side attempts to enforce their point of view through the law, or by other means of authority, or violence. If you give in to calls for censorship, you pave the way for the most malicious and power-hungry people to take advantage of your amenability. The laws you create to spare the hurt feelings of persecuted minorities will be the very laws used by the powerful to forbid criticism of their power.

At one point in Robert Bolt’s 1960 play A Man for All Seasons, the English statesman and avowed Christian, Sir Thomas More, is arguing with an ambitious young man, Richard Rich, a prosecutor and servant of the king. Rich, naturally an advocate of the primacy of the law, and sensing the fervency of More’s religious faith, asks if he would break the law to punish the devil. More responded that he would cut down every law in England to do so. “Oh?”, the prosecutor rejoins, “and when the last law was down, and the devil turned around on you, where would you hide, with all the laws being flat?”

This point is of central significance in the debate about free speech. The next time you propose to violate the free speech rights of someone else; it may not be long before it is you who needs those same rights. The people who most ardently claim the right to censor, are the same people who will use that right to forbid criticism of themselves when they gain power.

But what about expression that seems self-evidently offensive? What about speech whose intention is to cause maximum ‘menticide’, or emotional harm? Aryeh Neier, in Defending My Enemy, talks about the decision of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to take the case of the American Nazi Party in their right to parade Swastikas through the town of Skokie, Illinois, a favourite retirement town for Holocaust survivors. If there was ever a case of gratuitous abuse of the right to freedom of speech, this was surely it. Legal attempts to prevent this march were found to be unconstitutional, however, on the basis that it violated First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. What a disaster, no? Nazis are free to march again, and this time in retirement communities full of holocaust survivors. What was the outcome of this terrible mistake? Neier, head of the ACLU at the time, said that “the best consequences of the Nazis’ proposal to march in Skokie is that it produced more speech, a great deal more -- it stimulated more discussion of the evils of Nazism and of the Holocaust than any event since the Israelis captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960.”This is exactly the point. When you drive objectionable views out of the public arena, they don’t disappear. They merely fester underground, and rise up again with renewed vigour when they sense the opportunity. Calls to censor are always short-sighted, ahistorical, and bound to be used against the very people they ostensibly hope to protect.

The complaint against the swastika on the Cabaret poster in UCD was clearly misguided. But what if, rather than being on a piece of promotional material for a musical set in that era, the swastika was on a recruitment leaflet for campus neo-Nazis? What do you know about Nazism, and how can you back up your objections to it? How important is it to you that your opinions on the evil of that philosophy are discussed in open society? Would you prefer if those people creating the leaflets were banned from doing so, and saved from the fighting words of anti-fascists? The reasons for opposing Nazism are always something worth keeping fresh in mind. When you forbid free speech, you close the door to the very discussion which is most harmful to offensive ideas. In the words of Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Louis Dembitz Brandeis: “sunlight is the best disinfectant”.