This will be my fifteenth year living in Europe. For many years, I was consistently shocked by the way Europeans could get away with all sorts of blatantly racist, anti-Semitic and otherwise offensive speech that we in America would consider either “politically incorrect”, socially unacceptable (though never illegal), or downright putting your job or personal safety on the line. For example, I simply couldn’t understand how the Spanish national basketball team could get away with something like this, how no one got fired over discussing Barack Obama like this (I actually sent numerous letters of complaint to Telecinco, with no response) (or like this), and generally how all things foreign are infantilized and treated as caricatures. In soccer stadiums, players and fans alike are constantly getting away with spewing racist insults at Black players. I recall a guy in Germany who I had just met telling me anti-Semitic jokes, and I had to do everything in my power not to clock him (and I am not even Jewish).
And of course, these types of behaviors are always shrugged or laughed off and thus become acceptable.
When Zinedine Zidane was sent off in the 2006 World Cup Finals for headbutting an opponent and the press was still speculating as to whether his aggression was in response to a racist insult, the mainstream reaction was that his duty was to be above provocation. That’s when it all hit me. In Europe, because there are so few minorities, there is no real danger in being a racist or saying racist shit. Could you imagine if Larry Bird had called Jordan the “N” word in an NBA playoff game? Not only would he be at risk of being hit by Jordan, but he would be at risk of being attacked by his own Black teammates and Black people across the country. Walking down the street in America would no longer be safe.
Just as you aren’t going to call the neighbor’s wife a whore without putting yourself at risk, in the U.S., you know that there are certain fighting words: things you don’t do or say, because you are asking for trouble. And I have talked ad nauseaum about this with my European friends and co-workers and am almost always faced with the “oh, you hypocritical Americans with your hypocritical political correctness. People need to learn not to be offended, bla bla bla”. Just wait, I say. One day the straw will break.
Now I am in no way justifying, supporting or apologizing for the horrendous, barbaric attacks that took place in Paris yesterday. It is a tragedy and crime that must be punished with the full severity of the law. Lives and families have been destroyed. Citizens must stand up for the rights of freedom of speech in all forms, even the uglier and less pleasant forms.
The U.S. has its long history — which continues very active today — of religious groups trying to suppress speech they find offensive (everything from book burnings to boycotting movies (remember The Last Temptation of Christ), crucifixes in urine, protesting operas as anti-Semitic, and the building of Mosques). And when Black people moved into white neighborhoods, the white people burned down those neighborhoods, or when schools and buses were desegregated. I am pretty confident that President Obama receives threats daily from right wing extremist groups. Just two days ago a terrorist bomb went off at the NAACP Colorado Springs offices.
In Spain in 2007, editors of the cartoon magazine Jueves faced criminal charges and prison time for having published an issue that mocked the then Prince of Spain. Today in Spain and other places in Europe there are laws on the books that prohibit different forms of hate speech, such as “apology of terrorism” or Holocaust denial. So there is still work to be done to protect freedom of speech.
But what has been very clear to me in my experience as a foreigner (and an overly sensitive American), is that as long as there are not enough Blacks, Asians, Jews, Muslims, and other minorities in Europe to be offended, then Europeans will continue to be insensitive to the ways in which they depict, describe and belittle others.
This week we have perhaps seen that balance tip, especially in a country like France – one of the only ones in Europe that has all of these minorities. Saying racist shit or being politically incorrect may not be so safe anymore. It’s a tragedy because we can have an open society where we celebrate the freedom of speech, but are actively free to publicly shame the content of offensive speech without resorting to heinous acts of violence and murder.