Today's date:
Spring 2006

The Freedom of What’s Not Said

Göran Rosenberg, the Swedish broadcaster and author, was the founding editor of Moderna Tider.

Stockholm —At the trial of major German war criminals at Nürnberg, Julius Streicher, the publisher of the anti-Semitic newspaper, Der Stürmer, argued in his defense that he had not killed anybody. He had only published a newspaper. It was a lie, of course. Julius Streicher had killed millions of people. Not with his hands, perhaps (well, perhaps a few that way too), but with his words. It was for his words that Julius Streicher was hanged to his death in Nürnberg on Oct 16, 1946. Some might argue that the words of Julius Streicher would never have had the same deadly consequences in a democracy, since in a democracy there would have been counter-voices and counter-forces and most importantly there would not have been a totalitarian state prepared to put into practice the genocide which the words of Julius Streicher had incited. But Julius Streicher had founded Der Stürmer in 1923, while Germany was still a democracy, and since then “in his speeches and articles, week after week, month after month, [had] infected the German mind with the virus of anti-Semitism, and incited the German People to active persecution,” and it was for this prolonged and persistent use of words only that he was found guilty to “crimes against humanity” and sentenced to death by the court in Nürnberg.

We thus know that words can kill. Anti-Semitic caricatures of the kind that once were published in Der Stürmer are not possible to publish today. If Jyllands-Posten in Denmark had done that very few would have accepted the argument that the paper only wanted to manifest its freedom of expression. Nor would the prime minister of Denmark had failed to distance himself from such a manifestation. Most people would have seen through the real motives behind such a manifestation. Most people would also have understood that everything that is legal to say nevertheless must not be said, and that the freedom of expression has its limits.

Not to say everything and anything is in fact a fundamental provision for human communication. We cannot lie too often since no one would eventually take us seriously. We cannot always say in public what we say in private, since that which we say in private needs only to be understood by those whom we know, but that which we say in public must also be understood by strangers. The risk that what we say in public might be misunderstood is therefore greater.

The risk is also greater that what we say publicly may inadvertently hurt or wound. When we in a daily conversation talk about hurting or wounding somebody, we normally are talking about the effects of words and not about the effects of knives. When we hurt or wound someone in private we are normally aware of what we do, or we can at least understand how what we say might be perceived, and sometimes we regret what has been said and wish it had remained unsaid. When we hurt in public we do not always know what we do since we cannot always know how what we say will be perceived, and we normally don’t care that much either, since we don’t know the people whom we might hurt. This demands that what we say in public can be publicly countered and disputed. An unwritten condition of freedom of expression is thus a public arena where words effectively can be put against words.

Nevertheless we must also, when we say something in public, have some notion about how it will be understood, especially if what we say actually is intended to hurt or wound, which in our tradition of freedom of expression has become a rightful intent in certain public spheres. Someone who does not have any such notion, and therefore does not care whether he will be understood or not, has at best misunderstood the premises of the freedom of expression. When a major Danish daily in a country notorious for its fierce anti-Muslim public rhetoric decides to publish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad with the stated purpose to demonstrate the Danish freedom of expression, it must either not have understood that the purpose would be perceived quite differently by Denmark’s already battered Muslims – or it must have had a different purpose.

Whatever might have been the case, what was demonstrated was not the strength of the Danish freedom of expression—but its weakness.

The written laws that formally constitute the freedom of expression in a democratic society are in fact only the visible tip of a largely hidden iceberg of unwritten social and cultural agreements between the citizens of that society on what they publicly can express in one context or another. When we claim the right to say anything wherever and whenever, we claim a right that cannot be put into practice, because if it were it would undo itself. Those who systematically would use this right with the intent to create misunderstanding and non-understanding would then systematically chip away at the ground of those using it with the intent to be understood. A freedom of expression that can be used for the systematic production of non-understanding will eventually render itself useless.

Thus, another unwritten condition for the existence of freedom of expression is the continuous practice of tuning and adjustment among the actors of the public sphere on how public expressions may be perceived and understood. What may a pastor preach in church? What may a tabloid print on its banners? What may a daily say about Muslims and Islam?

The answers to such questions will in different public arenas depend on different informal understandings and agreements. In the public arena of Denmark it has since long been possible to say things about Muslims and Islam that have not been possible to say in the public arena of Sweden, for example that Muslims and Islam do not belong in Denmark or that Muslim priests are weeds. This does not necessarily mean that Denmark has more freedom of expression than Sweden, only that public Denmark has crossed an unwritten limit that public Sweden still respects. In Denmark this has in practice been done at the cost of excluding its Muslim population from the process of tuning and adjusting the informal rules of public discourse. Muslims have quite simply not been seen as having any right to influence these rules, and even less so having anything to contribute that real Danes would have to take into consideration. The Danish freedom of expression has therefore served to produce conflicts instead of handling them, which in my view is a sign of weakness and not a sign of strength.

This does not mean that the problem is particular to Denmark. The Danes have only handled it particularly badly and thereby made it particularly visible. The general problem is that the informal adjustments and agreements that are a tacit prerequisite for making the freedom expression politically and socially sustainable have become ever harder to establish and maintain. This is in part due to the fact that it is easier to produce, intentionally or not, misunderstanding and non-understanding in societies where the cultural, lingual and religious frames of reference have become numerous and estranged than in societies where they are few and familiar. But it is also due to the fact that communications technology has made it possible for any expression, from any cave or cellar anywhere in the world, produced with any kind of intention, to instantly present itself on the public arena of any society in the world. In societies where anti-Semitism by unwritten agreement is impossible to propagate in the national public sphere, anti-Semitism will nevertheless be propagated in all kinds of new and parallel public spheres where wholly different rules and agreements apply to what can publicly be expressed.

A freedom of expression without common public arenas and common informal agreements will, as in Denmark, produce and sharpen social and cultural conflicts. When citizens are not able to talk to and with each other, or don’t see any need to do it, they will increasingly talk by and against each other, and will thereby increasingly misunderstand and mistrust each other. And thus render the freedom of expression useless for that kind of public discourse which is the breathing air of democracy.

The freedom of expression is today not challenged by external censorship and restrictions. No one can in practice prevent people from saying what they want to anyone anywhere in any context. No, the greatest challenge to the freedom of expression is the lack of informal controls and agreements, which is a result of the rapid division of our societies into separate public spheres that are no longer communicating with each other and therefore cannot work out any informal agreements between them about how public expressions might be understood or not.

The increasing technical possibility to turn our backs to each other, to disconnect ourselves from the unwritten agreements of our societies and connect ourselves to any agreement in any society anywhere, is here to stay. The democratic necessity of a political vision that will compel us not to do that has been instructively demonstrated by the caricatures of Denmark and their aftermath.