When Hate Assembles
Both freedom of speech and the exercise of the right to assembly are being abused for the purposes of espousing hatred in the Czech Republic today. Both covert and open elements of hatred can be noted during the assemblies convened by extremist and radical groups. Open manifestations of hatred primarily include direct verbal attacks, targeting (for the most part) minorities: Foreigners, Romani people, sexual minorities, etc.
Actions convened by extremists often also involve covert extremist references. These covert hate elements can be found, for example, when we examine the intentional convening of an event on a certain day, such as the anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s birth or death, of the bombing of Dresden, of Kristallnacht, etc. Similarly, extremists make provocative choices of the sites for their gatherings – assembling in front of a Jewish synagogue, holding marches that border on pogroms in socially excluded localities, etc. Militant assemblies with the aim of directly committing violence represent the height of such gatherings.
Extreme political groups do their best to grab attention by exploiting the intolerance factor. They don’t want the attention of those participating in their assemblies only. Through the media reporting of their events, they seek the attention of broader layers of society. It must be said that they are currently succeeding, in part because of the very often ill-founded publicity they receive. Their effort to profile themselves as the only real protectors of traditional values or of the “white majority” is getting a positive response from some members of the population.
The important question is: What is the best form of defense against these group manifestations of hatred? We can consider taking legal measures against such assemblies; manifesting our own civic disagreement with the convening of such events, including by blockading them; or, as part of sticking unconditionally to the notion that the freedoms and rights of all citizens must be left undisturbed, we can remain passive and take no action.
This last variant – the “If you never do anything, you can’t screw up” approach – must be unconditionally rejected. As the famous saying by the 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke goes: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
If Czech society honors the democratic principle of respect for people as unique human beings and respect for their dignity, it cannot be lazy about its response to manifestations of hatred. Moreover, we must realize that the enemies of democratic values, those who oppose the unconditional defense of human dignity, are very often strongly convinced of the correctness of the opinions they espouse. The rise of totalitarian dictatorships in 20th-century Europe showed us many examples of the enemies of democracy overpowering, through sheer determination, the desire of other people to defend it.
Even though today our country is not directly threatened with the elimination of democratic values, society should not be slothful when it comes to manifestations of intolerance. Human beings and their dignity must be defended. We cannot permit one group to declare itself superior to another and degrade it.
What options of resistance to intolerant assemblies should we consider? The first option is the defense of democracy by the state itself, or rather, by state bodies. Freedom of assembly is guaranteed in many catalogs of human rights, but those same documents also admit that freedoms and rights may be restricted under certain circumstances. The right to assembly may be restricted, for example, for the purpose of defending the freedoms and rights of others. Hate attacks have very often qualified for restriction under this essential constitutional requirement.
In Western Europe, the defense of citizens’ human dignity represents something that is more worthy of their democratic values than an unconditional insistence on the right to peacefully assemble. This is why the Czech legal order makes it possible, should certain criteria be met, to take the precaution of banning an assembly or of dispersing it once it is underway. However, these restrictive conditions have been established rather strictly, because the fundamental aim of a democratic state must be to stick to defending everyone’s political rights, even of those citizens holding opinions that others disagree with and find offensive or shocking.
What is required is an effort to preserve a democratic, pluralistic society. Given the general function of the law, we must ask whether society should do more to fight against hate assemblies using means besides restrictive legal measures, which should be used only in truly extreme cases. That kind of struggle usually takes the form of expressing civic disagreement.
A negative response from the public to hate assemblies, in my opinion, does much more than legal measures can to discredit both the march that is taking place and the opinions being espoused by it. Citizens must realize that they themselves create democracy. They don’t just create it once in a while during elections. They create it each and every day through their interaction with the opinions and posturing of their fellow citizens.
Once again, we must repeat the importance of rejecting passivity and the need to stand up to evil in all its forms. So what would a manifestation of civic disagreement look like?
Some groups support expressing disagreement through engaging in protest blockades of hate gatherings. However, when one group is making an effort to restrict other people’s freedoms and rights, is the best response really to make a similar effort? In my opinion it should not be (although naturally I am familiar with the opposing arguments). I cannot identify with elevating my position above that of someone else by restricting that other person’s exercise of his fundamental freedoms and rights.
I fear that such a position is too close to the opinions espoused during racist or xenophobic gatherings. That is why I primarily support forms of civic disagreement which clearly express resistance to the espousing of hatred but do not sink to the level of degrading the freedoms and rights of others.
Hatred in all its forms must be eliminated through active expressions of disagreement and through argument, not by suppressing the option of expressing hatred. In my opinion, such suppression runs the risk of never truly eradicating hatred from people’s thinking, which is what is needed. An example of this would be not blockading a hate march, but expressing open resistance during it (naturally, nonviolently) to the ideas it expresses.
Hate gatherings represent only one manifestation of extremism and radicalism on the territory of the Czech Republic. It is essential that Czech society reject these gatherings as a way of presenting hatred and define them as negative. When seeking the best way to express resistance to these hate actions, however, we must consider which of our possible responses best contributes to defending human beings and their dignity as required by the principles of the democratic legal order.
Štěpán Výborný, Department of Constitutional Law and Political Science of the Law Faculty of Masaryk University, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
This article was first published at Romea.cz