From left, Henry Theriault, Jermaine McCalpin and Ohannes Kilicdagi

AGBU/NAASR Panel Wrestles with Genocide, Free Speech and Social Media

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Hate speech is protected in the US but there are in fact limits to free speech. Hate speech that incites violence is considered a crime. The tremendous growth in social media has complicated the situation. Social media multiplies the effects of hate speech, and because social media is an anarchic space, it is almost impossible to police.

On December 8, 2019, at Harvard University, the Armenian General Benevolent Union New England District and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR)/Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Contemporary Armenian Issues Lecture Series jointly sponsored a panel discussion titled “Incitement to Genocide, Freedom of Expression, and Social Media.”

The panel featured Dr. Henry Theriault, associate vice president for Academic Affairs, Worcester State University, who also serves as the president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars; Dr. Jermaine McCalpin, assistant professor and chair of the African and African-American Studies Program at New Jersey City University, an internationally recognized expert and consultant on transitional justice, genocides and reparations; and Dr. Ohannes Kılıçdagı, who recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University and currently serves as the coordinator of the Krikor Guerguerian Online Archive Project at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University. The panel was introduced and moderated by Marc Mamigonian, director of Academic Affairs at NAASR.

Ara Balikian, chairman of the AGBU New England District, opened the evening by explaining that the program was an initiative of the AGBU to mark the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime on December 9. He turned things over to Mamigonian who introduced the speakers and outlined the parameters of the discussion.

The first speaker, Theriault, focused on the direct connection between hate speech and genocide. Noting that genocide denial is itself a form of hate speech, Theriault invoked Israel Charny who has written that denial mocks victims and celebrates their destruction. Incitement is an action through hate speech. Often incitement is subtle and seen as protected speech. Hate speech changes the ethical standards by which decisions to act are made, making violence more likely.

Theriault explained that hate speech in liberal democracies is usually considered protected speech, based on the “Harm Principle.” This principle holds that speech can only be punished if it directly causes material damage and can only be prevented if it will be directly responsible for violence. However, he observed, those using hate speech but not doing direct violence are still part of the process resulting in genocidal violence and should be held accountable. Furthermore, even after genocidal violence ends, denial as a form of hate speech still does material harm.

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Instead of recommending criminalization of hate speech, Theriault believes that punishment should concentrate on repairing the damage caused by hate speech such as correcting the historical record. Legal sanctions are not only justified for hate speech that incites violence but are also justified for genocide denial which is a growing form of hate speech on the internet.

Kılıçdagı focused his remarks on the case of Dogu Perinçek, the president of the Fatherland Party in Turkey, who made three public speeches in Switzerland in 2005 and said that the Armenian Genocide is an “imperialist lie.” The Switzerland-Armenian Association lodged a criminal complaint against him, at the end of which he was convicted on the Swiss Criminal Code’s prohibition of hate speech and justification of genocide. Following various appeals, the European Court of Human Rights decided that Perinçek was protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and his freedom of expression had been breached by Swiss authorities.

Kılıçdagı explained that the ECHR in its decision expressed the view that there was no tense political environment about the Armenian Genocide and no serious possibility of a clash between Turks and Armenians in Switzerland, and therefore that Perinçek’s statements were not incitement to violence. Additionally, since Perinçek had made his speeches “only” in three public events, their impact was limited — a remarkable view in the age of the internet and social media.

However, in Kılıçdagı’s assessment, the ECHR, which claims to protect universal norms and values pertaining to human rights, adopted a parochial approach in this case. In the era of global social media and communication technology, the effects of Perinçek’s speeches could not remain limited to Switzerland. Social media multiplies the impact of genocide denialism, hate speech, and racism. Kılıçdagı advocated that international political and judicial bodies adopt a global outlook against the global rise of discriminatory populism if they want to prevent the repetition of mass atrocities anywhere in the world.

The final speaker, McCalpin, observed that we often create a false dichotomy between speech and action, perhaps in part due to the aphorism facta non verba: action not words. That is, people create a separation between words and deeds even though speech is of critical causal importance in the cascading into genocide or xenophobic violence. “One cannot separate what is said from what happens primarily because genocidal violence is not spontaneous combustion and those speaking are not lone wolves with no listeners,” noted McCalpin, and when thought leaders and demagogues speak people listen and in listening, they act.

McCalpin emphasized that those who are influencers and inciters cannot be absolved by declarations that they didn’t kill anyone or ordered killings. Words have consequences; hate speech proceeds from hateful persons, and while freedoms of speech and expression are protected rights, they are not limitless rights.

Following the three speakers’ prepared comments they engaged in a lengthy discussion with audience members, rounding out an impressive and substantive evening. There was general agreement among the speakers and event organizers that the discussion served as an important starting point and that the topic will be taken up in future programs. Video from the evening has been posted on NAASR’s youtube page.

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