German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to the Bundestag, or German parliament, recently and warned of the dangers of “extreme speech,” which she described as speech that violates human dignity.
According to Merkel, expression has limits. “Those limits begin where hatred is spread. They begin where the dignity of other people is violated. This house will and must oppose extreme speech. Otherwise, our society will no longer be the free society that it was.”
In the chancellor’s mind, it would appear that free speech and a free society are inversely related. That is, the freedom to speak one’s thoughts and opinions must be limited so that all can enjoy the benefits of a free society. I am not quite sure how a society is free if it does not enjoy free speech, freedom of speech being a key ingredient of modern democracy, but Merkel gets around this by calling free speech “extreme speech.” She is not alone in this, of course.
But this is more marketing than clear thinking. After all, “extreme” anything doesn’t sound very appealing, but anyone who takes time to look up from their cellphone eventually must ask who decides what constitutes extreme speech and what is the process by which limits are applied.
The Bundestag already has enacted legislation restricting “hateful speech,” but its authority is limited by the European Union. The EU relies on elected officials and bureaucrats from member states to make decisions affecting local populations, which exercise less and less control over their own jurisdictions.
Merkel’s advice to those who oppose this loss of autonomy and free speech verges on the dictatorial. “For all those who claim that they can no longer express their opinion, I say to them: If you express a pronounced opinion, you must live with the fact that you will be contradicted. Expressing an opinion does not come at zero cost.”
Indeed. It is probably unfair to point out that millions died fighting another German chancellor with a similar message, but that message is no less chilling today because it comes from the socialist Left rather than the socialist Right. The massive effort undertaken by the Allies during World War Two derived part of its legitimacy from the belief, naive though it may seem today, that everyone has the right to speak their mind. If somebody makes a fool of himself, so be it. Let the market decide, not a police state.
But Merkel and many progressives aren’t concerned with freedom, whether of speech or society. Rather, they have created a new set of virtues à la Robespierre that includes acceptance, tolerance, and conformity to a new order whose ultimate aim is the dissolution of nation states and the development of global institutions in conjunction with commercial interests from high tech to high finance. These virtues weaken individual responsibility.
How so? Freedom of speech depends on choice. One must have the freedom to choose what to say, when to say it, and to whom to say it even if it makes others uncomfortable. This requires individual responsibility beyond the social control demanded by Merkel. Put simply, freedom of speech cannot exist if choice is restricted to predetermined forms and venues dictated by the state. That isn’t freedom but oppression of Orwellian magnitude.
Oddly enough, I am reminded of two seemingly unrelated but significant texts. The first is from Jeremiah in the Hebrew bible: “Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death” (21:8).
This simple verse encapsulates God’s relationship to humanity and our relationship to each other. This relationship is based on choice. We have the responsibility to choose the good but the very real alternative to choose evil. We can turn toward God or away from him, but God never takes away the choice. Such choice forms the basis of life, death, suffering, and our entire human existence. Without the ability to choose, we would not be human.
The second text comes from the sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). In it, the main character, a space alien named Klaatu, tells a representative group of humans that they do not have a choice if they want the Earth and its inhabitants to survive. He tells them that he is merely taking away their freedom to act irresponsibly through nuclear war. What he does not tell them is that freedom must include the ability to act irresponsibly or it is not freedom at all.
“This does not mean giving up any freedom except the freedom to act irresponsibly,” Klaatu insists. He then threatens to destroy the Earth if humans do not concede to his demands.
“We created a race of robots whose function it is to patrol the planets in spaceships and preserve the peace. At the first sign of treachery they will act automatically. Nothing you have here on Earth can stop them. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. Your choice is simple. Live in peace or perish in violence. We shall be waiting for your answer.”
This is not true choice but extortion, even if the intent constitutes a noble goal. But we ought to be concerned with the road taken to arrive at peace as much as the end result. Otherwise, any act of barbarism may be justified to achieve certain ends. And it may be the ultimate hypocrisy for Klaatu to threaten destruction in order to prevent destruction. Is right determined by the side with the more lethal technology?
If the ends justifying the means sounds familiar, consider what the future may look like if Merkel and her like-minded cronies like Emmanuel Macron prevail.
One can only thank God that she’s still got the freedom to spew nonsense.
Angela Merkel by Ajale from Pixabay. Middle Flickr photo of The Day the Earth Stood Still(1951) by Benjamin Pearce. Bottom photo of Patricia Neal, Billy Gray, Michael Rennie, and Hugh Marlowe in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) by Classic Film. Both used under Creative Commons.