The short answer to my question is, “No,” although nearly everyone in the West, especially governments, would say, “Yes.” “Of course, there is free speech,” countless officials would say, “but…” What comes after the “but” would vary; the meanings nevertheless would be distressingly similar. Free speech must be regulated in the interests of the state or society. The meaning of free speech has of course been controversial, even in the US where it has been enshrined in it founding document, the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech… ” Naturally, various American administrations have tried to limit these words, often conflicting with the Supreme Court. Generally speaking, as I, an admitted natural rights advocate, would have it, free speech means that unless words can be tied to inevitable action, they cannot be restrained or punished by government. In brief, this means unless words provoke an immediate act, like a riot or a panic, that is, unless words become in effect acts, they cannot be restricted. Even when speech is alleged to have provoked unavoidable acts, this charge must be made in a court of law and subjected to the provisions of due process. The Roman Catholic Inquisition was not bound by such niceties. So Galileo’s opinion, backed up with scientific evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, ran afoul of the authorities. Galileo was convicted of heresy and confined to house arrest for 12 years until his death in 1642, a long time ago, as the Roman Church is at pains to point out. Yet the war on free speech continues, as anyone who works in a politically correct American university can attest. One can be fired for expressing opinions, even if true, which might cause offense to a protected minority, even by state universities that can be considered extensions of government. In my view political correctness when backed up by the coercive authority of the state is unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court does not agree with me.
What has all this to do with the French law that makes it a crime to deny the Armenian Genocide. First of all, let me make clear that the French state can make any law it likes so long as it does not violate its constitution. It does not matter how stupid or foolish it is or how much it insults the people of another nation. This is not the question. The issue is rather one of hypocrisy or pandering to political correctness French style. How many times have the French and other Europeans criticized others for not living up to the UN Charter or the European Convention on Human Rights. How many times have the Turks been the principal target? There is no question that Turkish history has not been unblemished. There have been, as in nearly every other country, violations of human rights. This record has been decried, not denied, by the current government, as some of its leading members have been jailed for their views. I refer the reader to the remarks of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, as reported in Today’s Zaman of Dec. 21, 2011.
Free and open debate
Let me be precise. My point deals with free speech, not what happened to thousands of Armenians during World War I. Let me be personal, as I have confronted this issue head on in front of a Turkish audience. On my first visit to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC), as a keynote speaker, itself controversial among the Greek-American community, I confronted a Turkish-Canadian professor who essentially denied that anything happened to the Armenians. He received a standing ovation from the Turkish audience. As a group of international scholars sat stunned, I angrily asked if he thought thousands of Armenians went away for the weekend and never came back? Now everyone was angry, and the conference had to adjourn. I do not know what happened to the Armenians during a war that was filled with atrocities and millions of civilian casualties. And it is often forgotten by the West that the majority of Armenians, Ottoman citizenship notwithstanding, supported the Russians against the Turks. The truth may never be known to the degree that it will satisfy ordinary Turks and Armenians, to say nothing of their ideological extremists. Certainly, it is premature to assign the label “genocide” to those tragic events. Conflicting opinions on this, as on all emotionally charged issues, will persist even if the facts ever become established. Nevertheless, free and open debate and free and open inquiry remain the indispensable tools with which to build the truth or at least as much of it as can ever be ascertained. Unfortunately, most political leaders are not interested in free inquiry or the truth. There are, however, a few precious exceptions.
That evening, at an official dinner, I was introduced to then-President Rauf Denktaş. I fully expected to be excoriated. Without recanting my words, I told him that I apologized to my colleague for my tone. Denktaş said, in that case, “What’s the problem?” No problem indeed, if free speech is respected. Of course, Denktaş is a great man and Sarkozy is a Lilliputian, but more is at stake than an assessment of politicians. Without free expression there is no possibility of democratic government. Of course this means a lot of nonsense will have to be tolerated. Don’t people tolerate a lot of nonsense from politicians? A second point needs to be made. How can the deep cleavages of the world be healed, how can pressing global economic crises be confronted, how can political hatreds be assuaged if the leaders of the world’s most important nation-states pander to the worst prejudices of their most ill-informed people? Free speech is absolutely critical to dealing honestly and frankly with the world’s problems. Let me quote Foreign Minister Davutoğlu: “In the Europe of the 21st century, expression of ideas that do not incite violence should not be criminalized simply because they are not liked.” And further: “Freedom of expression does not obliterate the memories of the past but allows the establishment of historical truth.” Thomas Jefferson could not have said it better.
*Christopher Vasillopulos, Ph.D., is a professor of international relations at Eastern Connecticut State University.