Scotland creates dangerous precedent for censorship
Artwork by Simin Li
Scottish YouTuber Mark Meechan, known as Count Dankula, was recently found guilty of a hate crime. The reason? Training his girlfriend's dog to make a Nazi salute and posting it on YouTube.
In his now-deleted video titled "M8 yer dugs a Nazi," Meechan begins the video by saying he wanted to turn the pug, Buddha, into the "least cute thing I could think of, which is a Nazi." Buddha was trained to react excitedly upon hearing the phrase "gas the Jews," give a Nazi salute when Meechan calls out "Sieg Heil!," and watch videos of Adolf Hitler's speeches with seemingly great enthusiasm. As someone who does not find shock value to be very humorous, I found this type of humor to be brash at best. There are many adjectives that I would use to describe the video: distasteful, insensitive, provocative, even offensive. However, should it be prison-worthy? No.
Meechan's video was not made to promote white supremacy or anti-Semitism. In fact, if we could build a time machine and show people in Nazi Germany this video, they would more likely be offended than supportive. In the early 1940s, Tor Borg, a man from Finland, trained his dog to respond to Hitler's name by raising his paw. Nazi Germany actually found this to be offensive and patronizing and summoned Borg to the Germany Embassy in Helsinki. Although neither the dog nor Borg were negatively impacted, Borg potentially put his business in jeopardy by provoking the German suppliers that his company relied on. This suggests that this video would more than likely not empower neo-nazis; rather, it would more likely be perceived as a threat to the Nazi identity and make it appear to be a joke.
In the Jewish community, the reception of Meechan's video appears to be mixed. Jewish comedian David Baddiel, who has been vocal about anti-semitism, came to Meechan's defense. He took to Twitter to say that "an actual Nazi would not be teaching his 'pug' to Hitler salute." Rabbi Abraham Cooper took a softer stance. Like Baddiel, Cooper does not find jail time to be an appropriate punishment for the video. Rather, he suggests "[sentencing] the young man to meet with aging Holocaust survivors and U.K. World War II war heroes to learn why the Nazi Seig should never be a laughing matter." However, this is not to say that everyone in the Jewish community is on the same page. Ephraim Borowski, director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, agrees with the ruling. "It is grossly offensive. It stuns me that anyone should think it is a joke...My immediate reaction is that there is a clear distinction to be made between an offhand remark and the amount of effort that is required to train a dog like that." This comes to show that those whom we would believe would be the most directly impacted is diverse in thought and we cannot rely on one voice or project our own voices to speak on someone else's behalf or to speak for a group.
I understand the appeal of wanting to inhibit the spread of potentially harmful messages. When Richard Spencer, the creator of the term "alt-right," announced he would start his college tour at Auburn University, my initial reaction was "why isn't Auburn shutting the event down?" I, like many others, feared that the university was giving him a platform to encourage radical ideas; therefore, shutting down the event felt like the logical reaction. However, looking back at the event a year later, I realized that taking away that platform could have been more detrimental, meaning what started as a noble intent to lessen extremism may actually have the adverse effect. Currently, Spencer's ideology relies on the notion that it is so "dangerous" and incompatible with modern society. By prohibiting him from speaking, we are further confirming one aspect of his ideology, thus potentially solidifying his ideology overall. Instead, allowing him to speak gave him less reason to believe that his ideology is being oppressed. His ideology became less mysterious and intriguing; rather, it showed itself to be illogical and weak. However, this is in a case in which someone had intent on radicalism and, arguably, hate speech; Meechan's was in the context of humor and shock value. If allowing Spencer to speak was the better alternative, we should allow Meechan to continue comedy (albeit tasteless and unhumorous comedy) without imprisonment.
Furthermore, this could set a dangerous precedent to censorship and the end of freedom of speech. Although a party that has the intention of protecting minorities is in power, who is to say that the power might not fall into different hands who would censor content that they deem is harmful or offensive? Even though the intentions now ― discouraging anti-semitism ― are good, allowing censorship and imprisonment now could give moral ground to imprison other actions that are considered "offensive": protests, criticism, or anything showing disapproval of the government could all become "unacceptable." This would shake the core of democracy. Democracy lies within the voice of the people; what would become of it once that is limited?
This is not to say that hate crimes don't exist. However, we cannot conflate hate crime or hate speech with "bad" speech. Of course, this line may become blurry at times; when does derogatory speech become malicious? The FBI currently defines it as "criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity." However, it notes that "hate itself is not a crime — and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties." Thus, the FBI would more than likely consider Meechan's video to fall into the latter category, not a hate crime. The laws in Scotland extend their definition to include "offensive literature such as letters, leaflets, posters" and "verbal abuse or insults including name-calling." This is where the line gets trickier to draw. By this definition, Meechan's video would be considered a hate crime, but again, it sets a dangerous precedent for what could be considered "offensive" or "verbal abuse."
There are obviously potential consequences to any action. Such a video, like Meechan's, might have sparked online outrage at worst, dialogue about the appropriate use of freedom of speech at best. YouTube, a privately owned company, could take whatever action they deemed necessary in regards to the video. However, a prison sentence is a completely different story. Protecting freedom of speech includes protecting speech that you don't agree with, don't like, or even find offensive. By shutting down dialogue, we are chipping away at the fundamental value that comprises democracy.