Remember ‘Je suis Charlie’?
At the very beginning of the year the world, or at least the Western world, was transfixed by the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. This attack by some rather disturbed individuals was, I think it’s fair to say, a reaction to the Islamophobic imagery and rhetoric produced by this magazine, imagery that was deliberately provocative and daring a response.
While the vast majority of those offended by these provocations chose to either ignore it or to combat it equally with the pen, these two disturbed individuals sought to combat it literally with a hail of bullets.
Almost immediately the Western world, Bermuda included, was swamped with ‘Je suis Charlie’ demonstrations, strongly defending that freedom of speech included the right to offend. Our politicians spoke eloquently along these lines too. The basic argument was that people are free to speak and free to oppose the speech of others, but such speech should not be censored or otherwise stifled.
Today, a mere nine months on, many of those who spoke so eloquently in defence of free speech in January, today seem happy to enforce censorship and champion the use of our stop list to ban an individual for voicing provocative and offensive views.
***For overseas readers, the ‘stop-list’ is a way of barring entry to Bermuda of those the Government decides to be undesirables. Should they get to the airport or dock, they’re refused entry and put back on the next vessel leaving the island.***
Free Speech or Hate Speech?
There is of course a large body of discourse around the issue of freedom of speech and hate speech:
- What is the fine line between the two?
- How should the latter be handled without impinging on free speech?
To be clear, I personally find Mr Kimathi’s views abhorrent, and I do indeed think they stray into the category of hate speech – as regards Whites and those who stray from a fictional heterosexual dichotomy of sexual orientation, gender or gender codes. And I do believe Mr Kimanthi, has advocated (although it’s not clear how explicitly he did in Bermuda) violence towards these segments of our society.
Now, incitement to violence is a crime, and if Mr Kimathi did this, then he should indeed be charged and face trial accordingly. Espousing ridiculous opinions without any basis in science, that may be a crime against oneself, general decency and logic, however it is not a crime in the sense of being subject to arrest and trial.
Making a Martyr?
The problem with banning Mr Kimathi like this – without a police investigation and trial, and even before the Human Rights Commission has been able to investigate the matter properly – is that it risks making him, and his ideology, almost a martyr, in the sense of not being accorded due process or proper scrutiny. It actually benefits Mr Kimathi as he can now appeal to his followers about an injustice, and use it to fuel his ravings. It’s easy to spin – the reason I was banned was because I spoke the truth and threatened the White elite who rule Bermuda! Easily done.
A far better approach would be to allow Mr Kimathi’s ideology to be fully scrutinised by the people, to be refuted ideologically, to be confronted with peaceful demonstration to say that his ideology, what he represents, is not supported by the majority of our people. Those who are partial to his ideology could exchange arguments and, potentially, be convinced otherwise. That’s how to defeat Mr Kimanthi’s ideology and appeal.
Instead, now he can wear his ban as a badge of honour, as the mark of a martyr.
And those on island who support his hateful ideology may well go underground, where the ideology cannot be challenged, where it can only harden and find itself – potentially – in violent expression. This form of authoritatian reaction is a perfect incubator for extremism; it is a recipe for it finding fertile ground in those in our society who feel lost, alienated and resentful.
Setback for Race Relations?
One particular victim of Mr Kimathi and Minister Fahy’s reaction is that it has very much set back what was left of reasonable discussion concerning structural racism in Bermuda.
The topic that Mr Kimathi’s speech was advertised about, of the need for better education and understanding of African history and contribution to our society, is one that we need. The Ashay programme, now aborted, was an attempt to provide just this, as a complement to the dominant European narrative in our society.
However due to Mr Kimathi’s hateful ideology, one that I think can only be characterised as a particularly perverse form of Black supremacism (as opposed to Black Power), all talk of such an initiative is derailed. Heck, any talk of really confronting structural racism in Bermuda as a whole is likely derailed, at least set back. It will be all too easy for those opposed (for whatever reason) to such a frank discussion to frame it in terms of Mr Kimathi’s arguments, and use this as an excuse not to engage.
Incitement to Violence
To me, the only limit that should be placed on free speech is that of incitement to violence.
Anything else, as abhorrent as they may be, deserves simply to be derided and challenged with alternative argument, or met by peaceful demonstration (or both). Or even simply ignored and let to peter out as an absurdity clear to all.
The use of a stop list is a slippery slope and one that I think we all need to be concerned about.
I am not convinced – at all – that it was an appropriate reaction. At the very least, the decision should only have followed the Human Rights Commission report on Mr Kimathi’s actions on island.
A stop list is open to abuse, to stifling debate and reducing the diversity of thought that should be the oxygen of any democracy.
My thinking is that an ideologue should only be subject to a stop list if – and only if – they have been convicted of inciting violence. After being convicted of this, and paying either the fine or serving time in prison, or some sort of restorative justice, they can be denied further entry on this basis. And that basis alone, regardless of how disgusting I find the individuals ideology.
Return to Reasoned Conversation Needed
What we do need, and desperately, is a return to a frank conversation about structural racism in Bermuda – its causes, its consequences, possible steps to end it (of which a frank conversation is but an important first step). A better appreciation of the role of African history and culture in our collective history has a key role to play here too.
Quite frankly, we either do this properly or we leave a vacuum to be filled by pseudo-scientific and hate-filled ravings like those peddled by Mr Kimanthi.
***For avoidance of doubt, I don’t think this action was taken lightly by the Government, and I don’t think there was any conspiracy about it, although I can understand why some on social media are articulating it as such. I think the Government has acted in good faith here, trying to do the right thing. The issue of free speech and hate speech is a very complex and difficult one, one that is emotive and I don’t think there’s any one right answer. I just think that the litmus test should be incitement to violence, where the alleged incitee is provided with due process. That’s my belief, and I think it’s a reasonable one, although I certainly understand the passions that Mr Kimathi’s speech (and history) have riled. To me, a strong democracy must take great care on matters of freedom of speech, and dealing with our structural race problems are key to the long-term sustainability of our society and democracy.***