Big scandal in Germany: a comedian named Jan Boehmermann makes up some nasty rhymes about President Erdogan of Turkey who predictably blows his top. He insists that the Germans punish this guy and Angela Merkel agrees to hold him accountable. German law forbids insulting heads of state, so Mr. Boehmermann is headed for trial and possibly 5 years in the slammer. Germans are outraged. “Does Turkey own us or what?” they shout. “What about freedom of speech?” “Where are we, in the 15th century?”
Shades of Charlie Hebdo! Should a comedian be able to do this kind of thing with impunity? Who’s right here?
Let’s break this down into parts.
First of all, the idea of “insulting a head of state,” formerly called the crime of lèse-majesté. This comes down to us from the Romans and not so long ago was a treasonous act that could get you executed. Today it would seem to be obvious that in a free country, no head of state should be immune from criticism or satire. Certainly the idea of a leader of a country outside your own dictating the terms of punishment is hard to swallow. So German law in this area is out of date and should be changed.
But there’s more to be said. Germany also has a law that forbids Volksverhetzung (incitement to hatred). So if anyone
“assaults the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously maligning, or slandering a [national, racial, religious, ethnic group],…or individuals because of their belonging to one of the aforementioned groups…” they can go to prison.
This law is directed at those who try to stir up hatred against groups like Jews, Blacks, or Muslims and does not seem to cover the Boehmermann case, because the President of Turkey was not being insulted as a member of an ethnic or national group, he was targetted as an individual leader.
But hang on….
Let’s come back to the idea of “assaulting human dignity” and bring it beyond the current scope of the German law. Isn’t “human dignity” worthy of protection? For a society based on the Enlightenment ideal of humanism it’s essential. You shouldn’t be able to cover people with slime and dreck in the name of freedom of speech. Do you realize what was actually in this doggeral that Boehmermann dreamed up? He calls Erdogan a rapist, a homosexual, a devotee of beastiality, and on and on in the time-honored tradition of a 7th grader who has just learned some dirty words and thinks he’s smart.
Whatever you think of Erdogan as a leader or individual, neither he or anyone else should be subject to mockery of this kind, and there should be laws that protect us all from it. This is exactly what the Charlie Hebdo case was about. Freedom to criticize should be absolute. Freedom to dehumanize should not.
Further reading: “Sam Harris and Free Speech“