Dieudonné is a bigoted man who deserved to be arrested for his extreme views. We can all agree on that. Actually, we can't otherwise there wouldn't be much to write about. But this does appear to be the view of the French authorities who ordered the arrest of the French comedian two days ago. The reason? A post on his Facebook page, in which he appears to show support for both the Je Suis Charlie movement and the recent shooting of a Jewish man in a kosher shop in Paris.
In an irony that much of the media has picked up on, arresting a man for expressing his views whilst at the same time defending a publication which did the same is problematic, to say the least. This is hardly new to Dieudonné, who in the past has faced investigation, and even show cancellations for his performances in which he sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly criticises Jewish people, amongst others. Yet he is smart enough to know just how far he can go in this pursuit; he exists right on the fine line between freedom of speech and hate speech. His rhetoric is vile, his tactics are slimy, and his actions, including the attempted popularisation of 'not a reverse Nazi salute' is threateningly sinister. Here's the thing though: he has the right to do these things, to express himself in this manner. He has the right to do it in the same way that Charlie Hebdo had the right to publish those cartoons.
It was eye-opening for me to hear some of my students (I teach English in an overseas department of France), not only criticise Charlie Hebdo for their actions, but sympathise with their attackers. One student shrugged and said, "If you ask, you get", referring to the fact that the cartoonists knew exactly the risks they faced in publishing images of the prophet Mohammed. Whilst some criticised the terrorists for their actions, I was surprised to find that many said that they understood why they had sought revenge in the name of religion. Religion is very important to many of my students, and they cannot understand why a publication would be devoted to tearing down the things that people hold dear to them.
But that's the point. We are fortunate to have the right to freedom of expression. Though unpopular with many because of the views it expresses, Charlie Hebdo ceaselessly exercises that right; the right to express, the right to offend. And then there's Dieudonné. According to some a biased man; a bigoted man; a dangerous man. But does the fact that his biases do not align with our own justify his arrest, or his silencing? It's important to note here that France does have particular laws when it comes to freedom of expression. There are certain constraints upon them, much as in the UK. Certain forms of anti-semitic expression are prohibited, along with voicing support of terrorism. So although it's tempting to say that Dieudonné's not breaking any laws with his Facebook post, arguably, in France at least, he actually is.
Having said that, being arrested is probably exactly what Dieudonné was hoping for when he sent out that post. He knows he has extreme supporters, many of whom will be outraged by his arrest, considering the context. The apparent hypocrisy of the situation may even draw more sympathy to his cause, and here's what you don't want: more support for Dieudonné.
I'm with the Millian school of thought on this one. What's great about freedom of expression is that you can offend. Yes, we have constraints upon that, and even then the limits of those constraints are ambiguous; for example, when does speech become an act of violence, when is speech discrimination, when does speech become oppression? We preserve the right to free expression because that expression is power. When you cannot speak, you cannot act, and when you cannot act, you are not free. Speech is powerful. For the same reason Charlie Hebdo was honoured this week, Dieudonné was silenced. And though it is difficult to find anything redeeming about Dieudonné's views, we must recognise that for many, this is a view they hold about Charlie Hebdo.
And so when it comes to Dieudonné, however unpalatable his views are, let's recognise his right to express them. And now that I'm done writing, I'm exercising my right to continue ignoring the man. Ah, that's better.