M. Vincent van Mechelen1


With the gory assassination of the Dutch film-maker and columnist Theo van Gogh2 by a religious zealot the familiar mantras started all over again. On the more liberal 'left' --this is not meant in any particular party-political sense-- there were those who loudly invoked and demanded the absolute freedom of every citizen to say whatever 'e* wants. On the more orthodox 'right' there were those who equally loudly demanded full responsibility for one's own actions and the greatest respect possible for other people in what is being said and shown. While the murder led to the arrest of various would-be assassins in the Netherlands, a minister of the Christian-Democratic party immediately raised the question whether the blasphemy law should be enforced much more strictly than before. In return a social-liberal member of parliament proposed to abolish this law, but the Labor Party, among others, refused to cooperate 'at this moment' and let a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get rid of this miscreated piece of legislation slip by. A well-known figure of the media had just been murdered by someone who had felt deeply offended by what had been said, written and displayed of 'er* own particular brand of Abraham(ite) religion. That person and 'er coreligionaries could see neither the fun nor the usefulness of the freedom of expression of people like Van Gogh; a freedom of expression which in a great many monotheist circles ought to be legally curtailed by something like a law against 'the slandering and libeling of God' --the literal Dutch translation of the word blasphemy.

Just as 'no-one', or no-one 'in their right mind', condoned the killing of a controversial public figure, so no-one would openly admit to being opposed to freedom or to freedom in combination with something like responsibility or respect. At present a concrete, that is, officially laid down, law such as the blasphemy law is still a bone of contention in the Netherlands, but abstract notions such as freedom, responsibility and respect are favored by 'everyone'. Of these three notions it is probably respect for a group of human beings in general rather than for a particular value, right or duty which takes us on the freest ride: without any further normative basis either party in a dispute can easily claim to show, if not respect, no lack of it. But freedom in combination with responsibility takes us on a ride which is at least as free. And irresponsible, for it provides no inherent criterion whatsoever for the curtailment of freedom. In spite of the absence of any well-wrought framework, many, perhaps even most, Netherlanders, who until recently may not even have realized that the polders were subject to such a thing as a blasphemy law, are believed to be proud of the freedom of speech and other freedoms in their country.

So far as this one aspect is concerned, i* am definitely not proud of a country which puts and keeps a blasphemy law on its statute, both because it limits people's freedom of expression and because such a law is supremely discriminating towards non-theocentrist worldviews. In this document i will not deal with the question of discrimination but with that of freedom only. When i say that the blasphemy law limits people's freedom of expression, i mean to say that it illegitimately limits people's freedom of expression, for, indeed, i distinguish legitimate and illegitimate limitations of this freedom. I have no affinity with those who are against a rule like the blasphemy law, because they are against any type of limitation of that freedom. In my eyes people who make use of the freedom of speech without knowing what may curtail it turn a soil which should be steady enough for every person individually into a quagmire for all of us. While 'the orthodox right' are but too desparate to infringe on the freedom of expression, there are some (many?) on 'the liberal left' who want us to believe that this freedom would know no bounds at all. I realize that in the first instance my own standpoint may seem as vague and noncommittal as the argument of those who hammer away at the point that freedom should always be enjoyed in combination with responsibility. Some may even wonder why i am not one of them.

Let me make clear, first of all, that i, too, can think of responsibility as something good in a sense. But not in itself. In one meaning of the word, responsibility is even something bad and nonresponsibility something good. (I hope, for example, that none of my readers is responsible or coresponsible for an assassination or other murder.) But if and when responsibility is construed as something good, it is only so, because it promotes the maintenance or attainment of what is good in terms of one or more noninstrumental values outside itself. We should feel responsible for what is good, but responsibility itself is not the good in any ultimate or even derivative sense. Those speaking in terms of 'freedom and responsibility' suggest implicitly that these values are of the same order and type. Such a category mismatch is, of course, in practice a very convenient one and most suitable for pleasant discussions about freedom in general and the freedom of expression in particular. If these discussions lead to anything at all, then to some form of arbitrary wishy-washy-ism in which the right to freedom amounts to hardly anything else anymore than the right to be conventional and mediocre. However, for conventionality and mediocrity we do not need any rights. So, i will continue to argue in favor of freedom instead of some such combination as freedom and responsibility; and i will concentrate on the freedom of expression. (Actually, i am not a supporter of ultimate freedom at all but of personhood. In the present context, however, the two can often be used interchangeably.)

There is no such fundamental thing as a freedom of expression for the author of this document. More importantly, and perhaps surprisingly for some, there is no such fundamental thing as the freedom of expression for anyone, not even when freedom is looked upon from a normative instead of a factual perspective. Whether freedom of speech in the normative sense is treated as a value or as a right, it is not a fundamental value or right, in spite of what you may have heard in the mantras referred to above. Fundamental is the universal value of freedom --if recognized as an ultimate value-- or the personal right to freedom which i call "the right to personhood", but which others may deal with under a label such as self-determination, autonomy or personal integrity. It is from the right to personhood or 'self-determination' that a number of subrights can be derived, among which the right to free expression. Just as there is no fundamental freedom of expression, so there is no fundamental freedom of and from religion. Such an assumption or, worse, conclusion is nonsense, however frequently ethical and legal specialists may have repeated it to you. To claim that there is a fundamental freedom of religion, without the and from is even nonsense upon stilts! It is only the right to personhood or, alternatively, a value such as personhood, autonomy or integrity which is fundamental.

"What difference does it make?", some might wonder now. At least this difference: any talk about a so-called 'fundamental right to (the) free(dom of) expression' clashing with a so-called 'fundamental right to (the freedom of) religion' is fundamentally unsound. It is fallacious in theory, and in practice the argument is only adduced by people who want to restrict the freedom of expression in order to serve, if not save, a particular (type of) religion or religion in general; at the cost of other people's freedom, that is. There is a huge difference between the spurious claim that the freedom of religion is a fundamental value or right and the claim that there is a (more) fundamental discretionary right of a higher order which splits up into two twin-rights: a subright to believe in and practise a religion and a subright not to believe in and not to practise a religion. The same applies to the freedom of expression. The right to say whatever one wants is not a fundamental right: it is only the twin-right of a higher-order discretionary right to say what one wants or does not want and not to say what one wants or does not want. So far, the position of those whose liberty knows no bounds is definitely superior to the position of those who think about these issues in terms of clashes between fundamental values or rights in which these values or rights ought to be assigned certain weights. The totally liberal mind is not really governed by the mentality which the English tend to call "petit bourgeois" and which the Dutch call more aptly "grocer's mentality". The latter phrase is more appropriate here, because of the image of the balance in which the interests of one group of persons are weighed against those of another group of persons. Speaking in terms of weights and interests takes the power away from the principles and lays it in the hands of the one (the state, for instance) doing the weighing. It surreptitiously reduces a nonutilitarian right to a variable in a utilitarian calculus. This is a long cry from the position one takes on the basis of a fundamental right of personhood or some such right or value. On that basis there is no normative conflict of subrights or subvalues.

"So far", i said, because every adequate normative theory will have to deal with transgressions. 'Perfective' or 'ideal' ethics distinguishes the good from the bad and/or the just from the unjust, and tells us what actions or omissions are right instead of wrong. But 'corrective' ethics tells us what we must or are allowed to do about situations or actions which are wrong, and what we must or are allowed to do with persons or groups who trangress against what is good, just or right in a perfective sense. The good in the case of the right to personhood is both the right itself and the duty not to interfere with other people's personhood. Solely by recognizing this duty or collection of subduties are other people's rights of personhood, such as the right to freedom of expression, recognized. Within the framework of the right-duty constellation founded on personhood everyone has the right to live (on) as 'e 'imself* wishes and decides, and no-one else has the right, let alone the duty, to kill a person without 'er permission. But a person killing a person who has not trangressed against the right to personhood cannot appeal to the right to personhood anymore in the same way as 'e could appeal to it before the killing. Before the killing no-one was allowed to detain 'im; after the killing 'e has forfeited that right. (It goes without saying that this picture will be more complex in reality, if only because the killer may not be the person who one believes to be the killer.) Physically speaking, my right of personhood is a freedom for me and the correlating duty a restriction for others. But i myself am, in turn, similarly restricted in what i may do to others. I do not have the freedom to kill them without their permission and i do not have the freedom to prevent them from expressing themselves freely. If i did so, i would forfeit my own freedom wholly or partially, even if the illegitimate increase of my personal freedom was at least as big as the illegitimate decrease of my victim's freedom. (This in itself is already enough reason not to speak of freedom as an ultimate value, but instead to speak of "the fundamental right to personhood".)

Whether one recognizes personhood, like i do, or (personal) freedom, there are restrictions. Those acts which are physical infringements on other people's freedoms are, perhaps, the clearest cases, but they are merely examples of all possible acts which are or can be detrimental to personhood or personal freedom in general or to the freedom of one person or group of persons in particular. Killing a person without 'er (explicit or implicit) permission is, probably, the most serious attack on 'er personhood one can think of. However, it is not only the killing itself which is an attack on personhood; any kind of action or behavior that contributes to such a (possible) killing is an attack on personhood. In the verbal field this means that it is not only an attack on personhood to demand the killing of a person who has never (equally seriously) transgressed against personhood 'imself, but also to suggest that such a killing would or could be a good thing. Altho the degrees of seriousness may differ, it unequivocally demonstrates that there is no such thing as an unlimited freedom of speech, if that freedom is used to attack and erode the very foundation on which the principle itself is ultimately based.

When i argue that there is no fundamental right of free expression or no fundamental freedom of expression, i claim by no manner of means that free speech would not be of great importance. (There are many speakers of the present and related languages, i fear, who equate fundamental with (very) important and who feel forced for that reason to regard every right they find important or most important as "fundamental".) All i argue is that it is a subright derived from a right to personhood which is fundamental. And being a subright it is within the right-duty constellation of which it forms part restricted by all duties and any duty belonging to the same system. It is here where i must leave the licentiousness of out-and-out liberals behind. And i believe it is from here where the exponent of unconditional freedom-of-expression liberalism starts digging 'er grave. If it were 'er own grave that this freedom radical were digging, i could not care less --it is 'er right of personhood-- but where people live together in a society and have not only rights but also duties towards one another, it is not 'er own grave, it is the common grave of all of us, liberals included. For the unconditional free-expression ideologist is blind to the expressions and actions which erode away the foundation of the very principle on which the freedom of expression rests. Such a person goes on hitting and smashing that foundation --or let others do it for 'im-- until finally some antiliberals (with orthodox religious zealots in the forefront) take away not only 'er freedom to hit and smash the foundation of freedom but even 'er freedom to speak and act in favor of freedom.

Let me illustrate this by means of a case taken from my own life. I am personally involved in a conflict with Retecool.com3, a popular Dutch weblog with thousands of 'members' called "Retecoolers", most of whom try to remain anonymous to the outside world by using nicknames instead of real names (and sometimes by changing these nicknames as often as the weather). I have also been the 'site planner' of TRINPsite for nine years now. In that capacity the owner of Retecool called me "a day-care patient" three years ago. (Such a kind of label, i later found out, Retecoolers use for almost anyone they dislike for one reason or another, or for no reason at all, because in my case a reason was never given.) Now, the day-care patient was a lie and presumably an offense. But, if an offense, was it a milder or a worse offense than being called "a goat fucker" (Van Gogh's term of abuse for a not exactly defined group of worshipers of one of the Abraham religions)? It does not matter, because purely on the basis of the right to personhood people have the right to lie and to offend other people. Obviously, no-one has to resign 'imself to the often gross falsehoods and irrelevances and the pieces of rudeness which may be expressed in offenses, but it is values of a different order on the basis of which these qualities are wrong and should be countered. Lying and discriminating against or offending people may be terribly immoral, they are not infringements of the right to personhood per se and they will therefore not justify an infringement of the offender's right to personhood, not even a corrective one.

So far, so good (or not too bad). However, the owner of the Dutch weblog also suggested that i should be locked up. Was the suggestion merely a joke? Members and visitors of Retecool are 'annoying' --probably a euphemism-- people all the time and often what they write on the Internet cannot be taken too seriously. When the conflict flared up this summer (of 59 aSWW) another Retecooler wanted my private website 'off the air' and again another Retecooler even wished me dead. Were they jesting or were they serious, or were they being vague on purpose about the mood in which they wrote their words? (The naive coward thinks it will provide 'im a watertight alibi for whatever 'e said: "I was only joking".) Yet, whether it is uttered in a serious vein or not, to wish me dead is in itself wholly acceptable: everyone and anyone may wish me dead! It is something completely different tho to wish me killed, as this would be the most serious infringement possible of my right to personhood to happen to me. Locking me up for my ideas, however deviant from yours, is less serious than killing me for my ideas, but it would be an act forming part of the same list of transgressions. Wishing me locked up for my ideas may be less serious than locking me up for my ideas and joking about locking me up or wishing me locked up for my ideas, in the company of people who dislike me, may again be less serious than really wanting me locked up, all these acts and activities gnaw away at the very pillar on which personhood --freedom, if you prefer-- rests. They do this only in different degrees.

While the conflict was between me as an individual and Retecool, a considerable number of Retecoolers did not only offend, or attempt to offend, me in hundreds of reactions, they had the audacity to start offending my late parents (whose pictures and information are on my private website as well). Now, to be abused yourself is one thing, but to have your parents, even your late parents, abused is quite another thing. Nevertheless, other people may find it worse to be abused themselves, and the abuse in words, pictures and sound files can only be taken as offense or an offense of a certain degree of seriousness on the basis of individual feelings and preferences. ('Individual feelings and preferences' which are in practice often group feelings and preferences, of course.) Whether i like it or not, the right to personhood grants people the freedom to offend both me and my parents. And it really pains me to have to admit the latter. But there is this proviso, to which the eyes of those suffering from self-inflicted blindness and the ears of those suffering from self-inflicted deafness must be opened: the use made of the freedom to annoy and offend others may not and must not destroy, or help to destroy, the foundation of that freedom. And that freedom is not the right to free expression itself; it is the right to personhood or, if i have not succeeded in making you accept that term, the universal freedom from which all special freedoms derive.

The limit was overstepped several times; it was most clearly overstepped when one Retecooler started to publicly distribute pictures of my parents surrounded by and holding attributes of the nazis and NSB (a Dutch pre-war and wartime political movement that collaborated with the nazis). Even before the Second World War my parents were not members of the NSB --other 'respectable' Dutch citizens were-- and during the war they worked with the resistance or only suffered from the nazis. So the pictures are falsifications in every sense of the word, and they are disgustingly offensive. (One of my father's own paintings was replaced by a portrait of Hitler, and my mother was being put a copy of Mein Kampf in her hands, for instance.) Why, now, do i and will i not accept this offense as an instance of my enemy's freedom of expression? The reason is that it makes a complete mockery of freedom in general and of the freedom of expression in particular. It demonstrates a blatant disregard for the difference between persons who fought against or at least suffered from oppressors (my parents) and the oppressors themselves (the nazis and their fascist friends). These oppressors were not just a couple of short-tempered, unworldly or other-worldly patriarchs who would not allow free speech in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe; they were part of a system that committed one of the most atrocious slaughters in human history, a murder many million times Theo van Gogh!

The familiar mantras for and against a total freedom of expression do not furnish us with any substantive criterion whatsoever to distinguish between the type of offense everyone must accept from the point of view of personhood, or liberty for that matter, and the type of offense no-one has to accept even not from that same point of view. For these mantras draw no distinction between the kind of free expression which makes use of the foundation of personhood without eroding it away and the kind of free expression which parasitizes on that foundation, while eroding it away, if not (yet) in actual fact, then potentially. Whereas we must be willing, and have the right, to live with the former type of offense, because we have the duty to respect other people's sub-subright to offend and not to offend, we cannot and do not have any duty to undergo the offenses of those whose actions and behavior is inconsistent with the very foundation on which their right to offend rests.

Until now i have mostly spoken about the right of expressing oneself in a fashion one likes, altho i have also mentioned the duty to respect every other individual's right to do so. Yet, in a way, there is a much more serious duty: the duty to defend personhood against verbal and physical attacks by political and religious totalitarians. This includes the real and suggested encroachments of the freedom of expresssion and of personhood in general in what religionists may call "their sacred books". Whether such attacks are or are not considered 'offensive' by the ones who it concerns or who think that it concerns them, it is not their being or being believed to be 'offensive' which counts. What counts is that they are attacks on personhood and attacks which erode its foundation, and that we in the fight against such attacks shall not transgress the legitimate rights of personhood of others ourselves either. This does not mean, however, that we may not invite our fellow-citizens to stop repeating the old mantras. For they will not help to bring into being the real conditions for peace, that is, a social and societal life free from injustice and violence.


Pronounced in the Canadian way as |VIN(T)sant vaen MEshalan| or in the Dutch way approximately as |FINsent fahn MEghalan|, with short |ah| and guttural |gh|, as in one pronunciation of the Scottish word loch.


Pronounced approximately as |TEIjoh fahn GHOGH|, with short |ah| and guttural |GH|, as in one pronunciation of the Scottish word loch. Van Gogh was murdered on 59.46.1.


The name Retecool is pronounced (in Dutch) approximately as |REIta-KUL| with primary stress on the first syllable.


The first-person singular pronoun is spelled with a small i, as i do not consider myself a Supreme Being or anything else of that Ilk. The third-person singular pronoun used is 'e, with 'im, objective case, and 'er, possessive pronoun. He and she are used when it is believed or suggested that sex or gender is or could be relevant.


©MVVM, 59-66 ASWW


notes and papers