“Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others”. So said John F. Kennedy. For the late Christopher Hitchens, “I learned that very often the most intolerant and narrow-minded people are the ones who congratulate themselves on their tolerance and open-mindedness.” As the gloom and doom mongers continue to subject every obiter dicta of Law and Justice to forensic analysis to seek to prove that, indeed, the Polish skies have fallen in, we might ask, as I touched on here in Free Expression, whether the Law and Justice government does herald a new era of intolerance.
When it comes to free speech, half of Poles agree that the government should be able to impose censorship to prevent people from making offensive statements about minorities, a figure slightly above the EU average. Indeed, whatever the question, it is always about half of Poles who answer: 55 per cent see democracy under threat, 51 per cent managed to vote in the recent general election (please see Democracy) and so on. One half yes, one half no and one half disagrees with the other two. But I digress – back to the survey.
The study by the Pew Research Centre found that 41 per cent of Poles think that folk should be able to speak publicly without any legal repercussions, which places Poland third in the EU in its support of the government censoring free speech. Germany led with 70 per cent being in favour of government censorship (old habits die hard) and 27 per cent against. Italy came a close second with 62 per cent and 32 per cent respectively. The EU average of 49 per cent for, 46 per cent against was much higher than in the US with only 28 per cent favouring government prevention of offensive speech and 67 per cent favouring complete free speech which is, of course, protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Be that as it may, the real threat to freedom of speech, and thus all other freedoms, comes when those defining what is offensive – itself a contentious issue – stray into restricting discussion of that with which they disagree. Because, if history has taught us anything, it is that power will be abused, misapplied, and generally make a nuisance of itself, long after the original reason for the power having been granted has disappeared. Allied to the PC terror, for which the Christopher Hitchens quotation above might well serve as a motto, and we face a serious problem.
Now, according to a survey by the Polish edition of Newsweek, 24 per cent of respondents rejected the existence of global warming (16 per cent weren’t sure and 60 per cent agreed there was a problem). Fine, that is a point of view and, since climate is in a state of continual change, and even scientists are not completely in agreement (not that those who disagree are given much chance to say so) a point of view which anyone might hold. But not if the zealots of Greenpeace have their way. “As you can see, Polish society has not yet learnt the lesson in this regard,” said Greenpeace spokesperson Katarzyna Guzek. “The Newsweek survey could serve as an impetus to launch a broad educational campaign, in which Poles could become acquainted with climate change issues in an accessible and reliable way”. In other words, anybody who is not fully in tune with the zeitgeist is a climate change denier who must be subject to re-education or the ritual Orwellian Two Minute Hate.
Of course, I exaggerate, but only slightly. Stray, for example, into the areas of the threat from Islam, the attack on the Christian values that underpin European civilization, whether unlimited immigration is really a good thing, the evaporation of freedom of speech and reason at our universities with students’ babyish calls for “safe spaces”, and watch the rabid reaction from soi-disant tolerant brigade. “We can’t stand intolerance” is the chant as they attack any dissenting voice with all the zeal of the Salem witch hunters, but none of the humour or mercy.
Perhaps I am being unduly tolerant of the new kids on the block, but compared to the cant from governments that should know better, and the PC terror elsewhere, Law and Justice has not so far strayed beyond the pale. But there is no room for complacency. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions”, and these are not men without convictions.