Politicians and civil society have much less of a free speech culture in France than what exists in the US. Recently, there has been a bunch of offensive trending hashtags in France that have been quite widely publicized. France has reacted officially by whining, through the voices of its press secretary first, and now through its minister in charge of the digital economy, who is saying it would be in Twitter’s best interest to adapt to French law [FR]. Prominent associations have also sued Twitter, which answered in court by essentially giving them the finger [FR].
#UnBonJuif (a good jew) & #SiMonFilsEstGay (if my son is gay)
Let’s take two examples of very dumb hashtags finding their very dumb public over the past few months here in France. #UnBonJuif stirred the bottom of the far-right barrel, with thinly-veiled racist comments, and even openly antisemitic insults being twitted.This triggered outrage at the sheer offensiveness and stupidity of what was being tweeted, users answered the offenders and told them to go stuff themselves in no uncertain terms. Newspapers also publicly said just how stupid they thought the people uttering such base racism were. But then, a few associations sued Twitter to get the identities of people tweeting offensive stuff.
The same kind of action-reaction occurred with #SiMonFilsEstGay, with some very vile and twisted things being twitted. As could be expected, the “jokers” displaying their depth and knowledge where mostly uneducated younger males who thought insulting the gay community somehow made them more manly, and also some right-wing extremists, up in arms against gay marriage, which is a law set to be enacted soon in France. The reaction by other Twitter users called out these idiots for what they were, and the extremists too. But then, French Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem felt the need to call on Twitter to respect the values of the republic [FR].
Silencing an argument != winning it
Everyone knows full well the difference between making a case to win an argument and simply silencing the opposing side. Yet, public figures, from a minister to fairly well known anti-racism associations, act like they don’t see the difference. This could be shameless yet harmless self-promotion, if it wasn’t done at the expense of the freedom of expression. Twitter is now THE online open forum, where all speak to all, where the world debates through links and short sentences, and where legitimate civil society movements have found their momentum in many a not-so-free country.
That a government or any responsible member of democratic society would call on Twitter to attack freedom of expression based on concepts as stretchable as the “values of the republic” is downright shocking. Twitter hasn’t responded to the minister, who admitted a few days later that the meeting with Twitter would not happen any time soon. Twitter is also right to refuse to yield to the suit initiated around the #UnBonJuif insults. As citizens with freedom of speech, we don’t need the justice system to say who can say what idiotic thing, we’re all able adults able to answer directly through our own words. As a democratic society, we especially don’t want an open forum like Twitter to become trapped in the local law of every country it operates. Just think of delicious holiday destinations like Syria or Iran for a second, and the reason why this is a terrible idea should be crystal clear. As written by Glenn Greenwald in his Guardian blog post on the topic: ” Few ideas have done as much damage throughout history as empowering the government to criminalize opinions it dislikes”.
Freedom of expression must be defended
As citizens, we should all continuously defend our freedom of expression. This doesn’t mean absolute free expression, as specific cases such as calling for murder should remain punishable by law, but these cases should remain highly specific to avoid mission creep, and we should particularly wary of legislation confusing a hateful word or idea with actual incitement to commit a crime.
On Twitter, just like on any street of a democratic country, a person should be allowed to say whatever they want. If it hurts the feelings of people around, so be it, but the people around will have the ability to answer just as freely. The real issue is having an educated and informed citizenry that is able to fight off homophobic or racist discourses, just the way it mocks most of the promises made by politicians at election time.
I fully support Twitter in protecting the identities of its users, and it doesn’t matter that I think this particular group of people are scum. Allowing dissenting voices, however stupid and maddening we might find them, is what free expression is about.