Some Thoughts on Thought Crimes

I am an anarchist.  I oppose all governments and all laws.  I believe that people can find better, more humane ways to regulate their affairs and protect themselves from aggression than laws, cops, courts, and prisons.

But I live in a world where few people share this outlook, so my life, as well as that of others, is constantly hemmed in by rules and regulations designed and enforced by people  who have arrogated to themselves the right to dictate to others how they should behave.  Some of the activities that governments and their agents purport to prevent and/or punish through the legal system, like killing, beating, or robbing other people are things that anarchists would also seek to avert or control, albeit through more libertarian arrangements.  But often the activities prohibited by law are non-violent ones that people should be free to engage in both now and in any future society.  It is problematic enough when the state seeks to punish people for using unapproved drugs or engaging in banned sexual acts, but is particularly scary when the politicians and judges seek to criminalize and control thought and its expression, which they increasingly do, as illustrated below.

The Assault on Free Speech

 On February 2, in Leeds, two members of the nationalist and anti-immigrant british national party were cleared of some charges of attempting to stir up racial hatred using words or behavior, but the jury was hung on some other, similar charges.  Instead of dropping the charges on which the jurors could not reach a decision, the prosecution decided on a retrial.

Several days later, Abu Hamza al-Masri was convicted in London of a number of charges including soliciting to murder, “stirring up racial hatred,” possessing “threatening, abusive or insulting recordings,” and owning a “terrorist encyclopedia.”  Although no evidence was presented of al-Masri’s involvement in any specific acts of violence, the judge who sentenced him to seven years in jail said he had “created an atmosphere” promoting violence and murder.

Less than two weeks afterwards, David Irving was found guilty in Vienna of denying the holocaust and sentenced to three years in prison.  Irving pled guilty to the charge, but even his contention that he has since changed his opinion and now believes that the nazis did kill millions of jewish people did not keep the judge from sending him to prison for expressing his earlier ideas.

Within a few days of that court decision, an adjudication panel decreed that Ken Livingstone was to be suspended from office as mayor of London for four weeks for being “unnecessarily insensitive” in an exchange with a reporter.  Livingstone said to the reporter, who is jewish, “you are just like a concentration camp guard, you are just doing it because you are paid to.”

Then, on March 10, at the conclusion of the Hofstad group trial in the Hague, a number of people were convicted of spreading hateful propaganda, including some who had no involvement in any violent acts, but simply may have discussed and written about them.  The judge contended that “Anyone who preaches hate and violence lays the basis for committing crimes.”  But a defense attorney pointed out the true nature of these convictions: “You can be imprisoned for many years simply for having papers that the authorities say you shouldn’t have.”

The Creation of Thought Crimes

 There is clearly a trend here.  In all these cases, governments are criminalizing and/or punishing people simply for their distasteful opinions and speech.  And, as demonstrated in the cases of al-Masri and the Hofstad group, possession of banned books and recordings can now land you in jail, as well. It is of interest that all this is taking place in democratic countries whose rulers consider themselves advocates and defenders of free thought and free speech.  This tendency on the part of the state to further circumscribe people’s freedom to peacefully advocate unpleasant or “incorrect” ideas should be alarming to any freedom lover.  Such laws and regulations create a category of offense that could rightly be called thought crime.

In addition to these rather obvious efforts on the part of governments to punish mere speech and expression, there are other means by which politicians and courts seek to punish people’s ideas.  These are hate crime laws of the type becoming increasingly popular in the united states.  Such laws take different forms, from allowing the feds to intervene in investigations that would otherwise be outside their jurisdiction if bigotry is suspected as the motivation for a crime, to mandating more severe punishment for those whose who are convicted of offenses which were committed because of dislike of someone’s skin color, sexual practices, ethnicity, or religion.

While these kinds of laws purport to deal with violent or destructive actions, they are actually directed at the motives of the perpetrators, not their deeds.  In other words, thought crimes again.  In this way they are not very different from the kinds of laws which were used in the european cases cited above.

The Freedom to Offend

There are problems with these rules and laws on several levels.  Most obvious, and most important, is that they interfere with something all people should be free to engage in at all times without restriction: the formation and communication of ideas and opinions.  This is fundamental.  Unless people are free to talk, discuss, debate they can never be free to figure out how to act and live their lives as they see fit.

Freedom of expression includes the freedom to lie, whether about what happened to oneself last week, or about what happened during the 1940s in nazi concentration camps.  And it includes the freedom to insult, to offend, to ridicule, to piss other people off.  While it is common to hear people talk about such things as verbal abuse or assault, there really can be no such thing.  Words may “hurt” someone in a metaphorical sense, but equating emotional upset with physical pain confuses two quite distinct things.  In a free society people need to have thick skins and deal peacefully with words they don’t like, while they must be absolutely free to defend themselves with force against physical violence.  There is no valid comparison between the two.

Even in the case of real physical violence motivated by bigoted feelings, hate crime laws penalize the thoughts of the attacker, not the actions.  Laws banning battery and murder already deal with the physical abuse.  Adding an additional penalty based on the mindset of the abuser punishes them for thinking “bad” thoughts.

Individual Accountability

 Besides criminalizing thought, some of these laws also punish individuals for the actions of others.  The presumption in the charges against the nationalists in Leeds and the islamists in the Hague is that they might drive others to commit some bigoted violent act against someone.  And Al-Masri was jailed, in part, for “creat[ing] an atmosphere” where others were led to believe killing was acceptable, even though he was never charged with any acts of violence.  Because some members of his congregation have been accused of direct involvement in violent acts, he is being blamed, just as the four anarchists killed by the government in Chicago in 1887 were held responsible for the bomb thrown by someone else at a police riot in 1886.

There has been less outrage, however, at the al-Masri and Leeds decisions among progressives and radicals than was evident at the time of the Haymarket events.  This is in part because al-Masri and the nationalists are rightly viewed as intolerant bigots for whom those on the left have little sympathy.  But it is also because the left have bought into the idea, when it suits their arguments, that individuals are not responsible for their actions.  Thus, at anti-war rallies and on liberal talk shows in the united states, one hears opponents of the war talk of supporting the troops and honoring “our” brave soldiers.  Just as al-Masri is being held liable for the actions of others, Bush, Cheney and their associates in government are seen as solely responsible for the outrages committed by the american military in iraq.  The volunteer american troops who kill and torture are, apparently, just as much victims as those they abuse.  This blaming of others for the conduct of individuals is, unfortunately, an all too common feature of contemporary society, making opposition to laws banning hateful speech much less likely.

Identity and Victimhood

Besides going against basic libertarian concepts like freedom of speech and individual responsibility, many of the attempts to punish expression should be unacceptable to anarchists for another reason.  Hate crime laws, whether they involve bigotry-driven physical attacks or simply offensive words, do not punish people for causing offense to some individual, they penalize people for harming or giving offense to a member of a group.  And although Livingstone was not charged with a criminal offense, he is being disciplined because the reporter he offended interpreted his remark as anti-jewish, not because he was just being insulting to a journalist.  While it remains generally permissible to cause affront to others, if the offensive speech or writing is based on the “victim’s” skin color, ethnicity, religion, sexual tastes or some other characteristic which place them in a protected class, rudeness can become an infraction of the law or some other regulation.  This kind of thinking values people more as representatives of a larger group, than as worthwhile individuals in their own right.

Laws against holocaust denial share a similar concern with groups over individuals.  Because the nazis focused much of their killing machine on certain groups or kinds of people, they are seen as somehow worse than other movements and governments which have caused many more deaths.  Even though the number of people killed by the soviet government was greater than the total killed by the nazi/fascist movements, there are no laws against claiming that the campaign of murder under Stalin’s rule has been exaggerated by the capitalists in the west.  But people can be put in jail for arguing that there were no gas chambers in the nazi death camps.  This is despite the fact that supporters of soviet-style socialism have been far more prevalent and influential in europe since 1945, and therefore more of a “threat,” than have been nazis and fascists.

A similar bias favoring identity groups motivates supporters of laws that punish those who use physical violence against others more severely if they are ethnic or religious bigots.  If someone is beaten severely, the motivation of the attacker need not factor into the response to the crime.  That is, unless some victims are of more value because they are seen to represent some group in the eyes of both their attackers and the law.  If killing someone out of ethnic aversion is a hate crime, does that make other killings love crimes? The result in both cases is the same, a dead person-there is no reason for the penalties to differ.  And those who make and enforce the laws really don’t care about the dead individual in either case, it’s just that the “hate crime” victim serves as a proxy for a group that is supposedly protected by such laws.  The person is still dead but the group feels avenged by the more severe punishment of the killer.  It’s all about political symbolism, not individual safety and security.

Supporters of hate crime legislation might argue that increased penalties will deter violence motivated by bigotry, but if the existing penalties for murder and battery don’t already stop such brutality, why should one believe that steeper ones would?  However, even if such laws might cause some small number of people to reconsider committing a violent act, the idea of criminalizing thought should still make them unacceptable.

Force vs Freedom

 Institutions of government in the west which arrest, imprison, or otherwise punish people for thoughts, speech, or writings of people who have been burning buildings in other parts of the world to protest cartoons to which they took offense.  They are all bullies who would rather use force to suppress ideas and expression they dislike than take the time and effort to actually discuss and debate with those with whom they disagree.  It’s just that the censorious mobs in europe and america are called judges, police, and prison guards.

Force is, of course, the basic principle of government, so its coercive approach to dealing with unpleasant ideas and speech comes as no surprise. However, the fact that these government actions are cloaked in the garb of ensuring public safety, or protecting some “oppressed” group from attack, has made them less open to criticism from many  people who would otherwise howl about attacks on free speech and free expression.  Protecting “the public” or some other group often results in the sacrifice of more of the dwindling freedoms of real, individual people.

Anarchists, though, are not concerned with majorities and minorities.  Groups have no more worth than individuals, and are entitled to no special status.  The fact that people exist as individuals is adequate justification to defend their freedom to be left alone and alive.  This is the basis of all libertarian thought.

People should be free to say or otherwise communicate whatever they like, whenever they want, without risking arrest, imprisonment, or some other punishment from the state.  This includes speech or writings glorifying terrorism, opposing war, denying the holocaust, ridiculing religious belief, calling people nasty names, advocating an anarchist society, or making and exchanging images of sadomasochistic sexual acts.  Of course, people are also free to disagree with and debate the ideas and expression of others, but only peaceful exchanges are acceptable to anarchists.

Just as it is wrong to restrict ideas and speech, it is wrong to kill, beat, or rob anyone who has not initiated force against someone else.  Therefore, anarchists oppose murder, war, rape, and all other forms of coercive violence.  There is no need to appeal to some higher authority, as it were, such as genocide or crimes against women or hate crimes or crimes against humanity, in order to organize or campaign against brutality against people.  One’s individual personhood is enough.

Anarchists believe in individual accountability as strongly as we uphold the principle of individual freedom.  People are responsible for their actions, whoever else, by speaking or writing, may have influenced the ideas and attitudes that led them to act in the way they do.  Without such personal responsibility, people will be unable to trust and work with one another as free individuals.

Individual liberty.  Freedom of thought and expression.  Freedom from coercion.  Individual responsibility.  These principles guide the libertarian critique of the world of politics.  Therefore the only acceptable approaches to hateful or unpleasant speech, writing, and other expression are peaceful ones. And such methods range from ignoring loathsome ideas to engaging those with whom we disagree in discussion or debate.  If our approach and our views are the right ones, we should be able to prevail in the marketplace of ideas.

Laws will not prevent another holocaust, stop crimes of violence motivated by ethnic bigotry, put an end to rape, or abolish wars.  Only discussion and debate which challenges the accepted wisdom that leads people to form bigoted ideas about others and support or accept government and other forms of violence will bring about changes in people’s ideas and encourage tolerance and respect for others’ individuality and freedom.  And since support for such an approach seems minimal at present, it is essential that anarchists try to revive moribund ideas like freedom of speech and freedom of expression before they die out completely.

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