Let’s talk about Charlottesville.
As you probably heard, two weeks ago there was a protest in a small Virginia town against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general who defended slavery in the American South. Various hate groups, including white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, assembled there with shields, weapons, fascist flags and anti-Semitic slogans. They were met with counterprotest, and things got violent. A supremacist slammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring 19.
Charlottesville has shaken hope for a post-racial America to the core. But before readers in Japan breathe a sigh of relief and think, “It couldn’t happen here, not in peaceful Japan,” remember this:
Japan has also had plenty of hate rallies — there was about one per day on average in 2013 and 2014, according to the Justice Ministry. Rightist xenophobes and government-designated hate groups have assembled and held demos nationwide. Bearing signs calling foreign residents “cockroaches,” calling for a Nanking-style massacre of Koreans in an Osaka Koreatown, even advocating the extermination of “all Koreans, good or bad,” Japan’s haters have also used violence (some lethal) against the country’s minorities.
As JBC has argued before (“Osaka’s move on hate speech should be just the first step,” Jan. 31, 2016), freedom of speech is not an absolute. And hate speech is special: It ultimately and necessarily leads to violence, due to the volatile mix of dehumanization with flared tempers.
That’s why Japan decided to do something about it. In 2016 the Diet passed a law against hate speech (albeit limiting it to specifically protect foreign residents). And it has had an effect: Japanese media reports fewer rallies and softer invective.
America, however, hasn’t gotten serious about this. It has no explicit law against hate speech, due to fears about government censorship of freedom of speech. Opponents argue that the only cure is freer speech — that somehow hate will be balanced out by reasonable and rational counter-hate. That persuasion will win out.
But in 2016, it didn’t. Hate speech is precisely how Donald J. Trump got elected president.
Think about it. How could a masher with an unbelievably tarnished past, no experience in government and no clear agenda beyond trolling the establishment get so many votes? Because he managed to prey on local fears, undermine public trust in institutions, cow critics and opponents and morally bankrupt an entire political party by scapegoating the weak outsiders in society — picking on the disenfranchised to empower the discontented.
We’ve heard ad nauseam what Trump said on the campaign trail, but a few illustrative examples: calling Mexicans rapists, criminals and underminers of American institutions. Calling for Muslims to be registered, tracked and banned from travel. Demanding outsiders be rounded up, expelled and kept out with a wall. Et cetera.
Again, it worked. And Trump repaid the favor to his hating base in his response to Charlottesville. He gave tacit approval through his uncharacteristic silence about the event, then when he did speak, he tried twice to put white supremacists and counterprotesters on an equal moral plane. The haters rejoiced. Most everyone else was aghast.
Back to Japan for a second, because Trump is not alone here. Before the hate speech law, Japan’s politicians and authorities had in fact advocated every single thing Trump did, but against Japan’s international residents. To wit:
Then-Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa saying “All foreigners are sneaky thieves” in November 2003; likewise former Miyazaki Diet member Takami Eto in July 2003 calling foreigners “murderers and thieves” who were turning Kabukicho into a “lawless zone.”
Then-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s famous “Sangokujin speech” of April 2000 calling for a roundup of heinous foreign criminals before they riot during natural disasters.
Election posters in 2011 and 2013 proposing to “put Japanese first before foreigners,” “oppose immigrants” and “expel the barbarians.”
Tokyo police tracking of Muslim communities for terrorist links, revealed in 2010.
Applying a “nationality clause” to bar foreigners from infiltrating administrative positions in Japan’s bureaucracy.
And if you consider the ocean a wall, Ibaraki police posters saying, “Stop foreigners at the shore and protect our country” in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
The difference is that Japan’s institutionalized racism is tacit and embedded, not something the herd or hoi polloi say out loud in street rallies. It doesn’t play well at the United Nations or before Olympic committees. Hence, like so many of Japan’s equal-rights laws, the hate speech measure was passed to avoid international embarrassment.
America, however, is a lot more impervious to international criticism, and will probably hold fast to the status quo sans hate speech law. After all, a famous aphorism holds, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”
For example, look at how Confederate monuments are tumbling down in the wake of Charlottesville. And how Trump’s ham-handed response has caused unprecedented bipartisan protest, with political allies and business leaders distancing and deserting.
And there are the institutional safeguards: a strong media poring over every nook and cranny of Trump’s pockmarked past. An independent judiciary that disqualifies Trump’s decrees at the local level, recuses itself at the federal, and appoints a special counsel to investigate. A national narrative of “a nation of immigrants” that is inclusive of outsiders. Strong anti-defamation groups protecting minorities. Even a plethora of political comedians (many of them minorities and foreigners themselves!) offering criticism, analysis and exposure of hypocrisies of power like never before. So who cares about Trump’s hate speech? Sooner or later, Trump will get his.
JBC still argues that this is too little too late, for the damage has been done. Haters are no longer a marginalized fringe resorting to stunts like (unsuccessful) marches through Skokie, Illinois, in 1977. In this age of underground internet communication, anonymous trolling and doxxing, and unprecedented levels of anonymous harassment online, hate groups have organized to the point of taking over media, creating a fake reality and gaining real power. And they will outlast Trump.
That’s why America needs to get on the same page as Japan (and our European brethren, after their historical experiences with authoritarianism and fascism) and outlaw the activities of those who would advocate violence, hate and intolerance towards other people. Deprive the haters of a mic.
Why? Because a lack of illegality means they automatically get a platform to disseminate their views. Haters take advantage of the media’s need for a sense of “balance” by getting “both sides of the story.”
Consider a historical example: Not so long ago, mobs of whites killed African-Americans through lynchings, or public hangings. They weren’t illegal everywhere, and local media actually covered the event, reporting what justified this capital offense. “The negro looked at a white woman funny,” “That boy was getting too uppity,” etc. Often claimed as a means to reestablish public order, lynchings were living effigies to protect unequal Southern culture. And media abetted future killings by normalizing the activity.
However, after America finally got around to outlawing lynchings, there was a knock-on effect: Media no longer asked haters for “their side” of the story. Because it didn’t matter — there was no longer any legal justification for lynching someone. And no pretense to moral equivalence.
Similarly, the haters in Charlottesville should have their activities outlawed. Of course, they’ll be the first to decry the loss of their freedom of speech. Yet the haters, hypocritically, already seek to deprive others of their freedom of speech, equal rights — even their right to exist.
Philosopher Karl Popper called it the “paradox of tolerance” — where if a society is tolerant without limit, the intolerant will eventually win and destroy the tolerant society. Hence one must be intolerant of intolerance. For hatred in particular has the habit of making calm, rational debate in an arena more difficult, often impossible — especially since it appeals to the baser elements of human nature.
Look, it isn’t all that hard. It’s usually very clear which side is on the side of freedom to live and let live. Moreover, America has fought at least two major wars to defeat the intolerant. Even Japan, one of America’s erstwhile fascist foes, seems to understand that.
So now it’s time for America to get on the same page as Japan. Outlaw hate speech. Charlottesville has finally shown the true colors and intentions of the haters, and of the politicians in high office who encourage them.
It’s no longer time to wait for them to wind up on the wrong side of history. It’s time they got on the wrong side of the law.
Debito’s latest book, “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination,” is out now in paperback. Twitter: @arudoudebito
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