This interview was conducted in May 2022 and has been edited for brevity and clarity.
About Jacob Mchangama
Jacob Mchangama is a Danish lawyer with a degree from the University of Copenhagen and he has throughout his career been focused on human rights questions and freedom of speech. He has previously been working as a chief legal counsel at the Danish think tank Centre for Political Studies (CEPOS) and his most recent book is called Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media. Mchangama has been awarded the 2013 Freedom Prize, the 2015 Jyllands-Posten Free Speech Award and the 2017 Blixen Award for contributing to freedom of expression.
Blasphemy and the right not to be offended
How did free speech become such a central topic in your career?
– Like most people in Scandinavia, being a youngster in the 1990s and early 2000s, I didn’t think much about free speech. I took it for granted. It was a value that was just there, and not really something that had to be fought for or something you had to worry about. In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten published a number of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. This unleashed not only a global crisis with terrorist attacks and boycott against Denmark, but also a huge discussion within Denmark and a lot of other Western societies about freedom of speech and expression.
– Suddenly, you had people who were arguing that free speech shouldn’t be used to punch down on vulnerable minorities. Criticizing or mocking religions of minorities was seen by some as just that. I was surprised that these opinions came mainly from center-left people who otherwise would embrace secular, liberal values and certainly not be in favor of religious dogma. Then I saw the position shift again when the Danish government restricted free speech in order to target extremist Muslims, while the political right cheered. “We have to limit free speech in order to save free speech,” was the argument. Noticing this political shift was extremely interesting to me, and it got me thinking more about free speech. Where does it come from? How important is it? What does it mean for a society to have free speech versus not having it? What is at stake? Does it really matter?
What was your stance on the Danish cartoons?
– At the time, my position was that these cartoons were a deliberate, immature provocation but that they should still be protected as free speech. I’ve since then got to know the newspaper editor quite well and I believe that he was proven right by the subsequent events. He wanted to test whether there was a real taboo or not and whether or not religious extremists were trying to limit free speech. Unfortunately, he has been proven right by the fact that he still has to live with 24/7 security protection. Not only that, but further evidence is the fact that Swedish artist Lars Vilks escaped several attempts of murder and of course the attack on Charlie Hebdo. These events have proven that there really was a problem. It became obvious that a lot of people preferred not to discuss it due to the fear of being called a racist, or giving a voice to right-wing extremism.
“I don’t think that you can have a right not to be offended if you live in a modern, open and pluralistic society.”
During the Easter holidays in April 2022, there were violent riots in several Swedish cities after the Danish politician Ramus Paludan had planned to burn the Quran. This gave rise to a national debate about freedom of speech and if Western democracy is compatible with some of the more conservative, Islamic values that exist in some of the suburbs where Paludan went. There seems to be a substantial group of people who want religion to be protected by law from both critique and mockery. What is your take on this?
– First off, I just want to mention that Paludan actually has a Swedish citizenship as well, so let’s say he’s a gift to Sweden from Denmark – one of our great exports, haha! Now, to your question about protecting religion. I can certainly understand that people who are devout get offended, especially if religion is important to you, both as a matter of faith and as a matter of culture and tradition. But I don’t think that you can have a right not to be offended if you live in a modern, open and pluralistic society.
– You can wonder if these people would have a different opinion if someone was burning the Bible or the Swedish flag for instance. In discussions about free speech, it’s often clear that people are willing to give up principles in order to protect their underlying ideology or preferences. If you are a Muslim in Sweden, you have to remember that your rights to live in accordance with your own values, to practice your faith and to engage in religious speech, are protected by the very same values that protect Rasmus Paludan when burning the Quran. This is a rare phenomenon in human history and it’s the price we have to pay if we want to live in an open society. No matter how much Swedes disagree with your religious values and traditions, they don’t get to prohibit you from reading the Quran or wearing a head scarf.
– I see free speech as the anthesis of violence. It’s a way of living together without resorting our differences to violence, but it takes time to get used to. I think that’s been the big problem in Scandinavia with the immigration, that a lot of people have come over a relatively short period of time with very different ideas of the relationship between religion and free speech. Many of them were simply not used to see religion being criticized in this manner. An additional problem on top of this came from the elites in Sweden and Denmark, who thought that the way of demonstrating tolerance is to protect these people from getting their feelings hurt. I can see where that comes from but I think it’s totally misguided, The best way to ensure a flourishing, diverse society is to tell people that this is the price we all have to pay. It means that even your most sacred values about religion are open to criticism and even mockery. It also means that you yourself have the right to criticize and mock Rasmus Paludan, Christianity or even Swedish democracy. But you don’t get to have a veto and you certainly don’t get to try to enforce it through violence and intimidation.
So, we agree that provocations like these should be allowed, but do you even think that they should be encouraged, to make a case for free speech?
– No, I personally don’t see any great value in these events, and I don’t see Rasmus Paludan as a champion of free speech. He is someone who exercises his free speech but he is not someone who would be in favor of protecting free speech for others. You can see that his political ideas are very authoritarian and are in conflict with basic human rights. Nevertheless, provocations have obviously been important throughout history and a lot of the things that where seen as provocative previously are not considered as such any longer. We need to push the boundaries of orthodoxy and challenge it and in order to change it.
“That to me also shows that Rasmus Paludan is not the real problem. The problem is people who not only are offended, but also insist that they have a right not to be offended and that speech in the public square should be limited.”
– But what is interesting is that towards the end of Paludan’s tour in Denmark, no one gave him any attention, and that is probably why he moved to Sweden. The only way he is effective is if people show up and protest him. If, for the next couple of times when Paludan goes to one of these suburbs, people would just ignore him, I think the problem would very fast be solved. That to me also shows that Rasmus Paludan is not the real problem. The problem is people who not only are offended, but also insist that they have a right not to be offended and that speech in the public square should be limited. There will always be provocative types, but ultimately Rasmus Paludan is not using violence, and that is an important line.
Why don’t we expect similar reactions and riots if somebody would burn the Bible or publish satirical cartoons of Jesus?
– The populations in Denmark and Sweden are the most secular and liberal in the world. But if you go back to the 17th century, we had strict Lutheran orthodoxy which included the death penalty for blasphemy. Considering our history, I think we should be quite happy that religion doesn’t play the same role in society anymore. The Scandinavian populations have over time been accustomed to the fact that it’s not dangerous to have religion mocked or criticized. On the contrary, there are in fact many good things coming out of it. I don’t think most Christians see it as an existential threat to have their religious ideas challenged. They can live perfectly happy side by side with atheists and others.
Cultural differences and free speech limitations
Are there any parameters or proxies that can be used to effectively predict the degree of free speech in a country?
– You can look at the World Value Survey which analyses cultural values. It plots countries in a two-axis graph base on whether they are committed to self-expression or survival and whether they are more traditionalist or more secular-rationalist. The countries in the top right corner, with a high score on self-expression and secular-rational have a much higher degree of tolerance for free speech than countries that score more towards traditionalist and survival values. If you want to look at it from a perspective of religion, the Northern European Protestant countries together with the United States will tend to be committed to free speech, while the more orthodox Christian and Islamic countries are not.
– The next question we have to ask then is if this is due to the theology of religion. I don’t necessarily think so, even if it might be part of the picture. If you look at the history of Lutheranism and Protestantism, you have Martin Luther who was definitely not a tolerant person. He actually advocated the death penalty for blasphemy and worked as a censor at the university. But I do think that the unintended consequences of the reformation have over time been extremely important to the degree of tolerance and commitment of free speech in Lutheran and Protestant states. We haven’t seen the same development in other countries. Take Russia for example, where the Empress Catherine the Great tried to institute some degree of free speech but then changed her mind when the French revolution unfolded.
Many of the countries that take pride in being committed to freedom of speech still have certain limitations in the legislation, like hate speech laws for example. Hate speech is controversial, in part because it is so difficult to define in a satisfactory way. What are your thoughts on hate speech laws?
– On the one hand, it’s true that certain types of speech can have consequences. It would for example be impossible to organize a genocide without using speech. We saw how radio was used in in Rwanda and the role social media played in Myanmar to facilitate and incite violence. But it does not follow from that, in my opinion, that restrictive hate speech laws are an efficient cure. On the contrary, I believe in fact that the cure could be worse than the disease in this case.
“How do you define hate speech? What groups should be protected? Does it even help?”
– How do you define hate speech? What groups should be protected? Does it even help? We have some evidence suggesting that countries in Western Europe that have done most to limit the speech of right-wing extremists are also the ones that experience more violence. I believe that free speech acts as a safety valve in a society, and when you restrict it, you are likely to create a pressure cooker. We have to remember that speech has been essential for fostering tolerance and acceptance of previously persecuted minorities. It was not restrictions on free speech that made people in Scandinavia tolerant to homosexuality, but it was mainly speech and activism. The same with the rights of women. All these great expansions of the sphere of tolerance and the defeat of bigotry have more to do with the exercise of speech and the spread of new ideas, than with trying to censor people.
Are we bad at dealing with the conflicts that naturally arise in a diverse society?
– Well, there are specific topics, like immigration has been one in Scandinavia, that are surrounded with taboos. The issue with that is that being afraid to talk about real problems makes it very hard to solve anything, Just the fact that you belong to a minority doesn’t mean that the minority cannot have views or practices that are worth of being criticized. Also, criticizing views and practices of a minority does not necessarily mean that you are a racist. When people can see that there are actual problems going on, but are not allowed to address them, society becomes toxic, extremism is bred and it gives rise to conspiracy theories, It also makes people lose faith and trust in political institutions and in mainstream media. It creates an unhealthy situation. It’s so much better to have a free and open debate, even if it can get very uncomfortable.
Free speech on Social Media
When free speech is discussed today, it is often in the context of social media. Elon Musk has said he wants to acquire Twitter to make it a haven for free speech. How do you view the social media platforms in the light of the free speech debate?
– First, I think the benefits of the internet and social media clearly outweighs the harm. We tend to only talk about the problems with social media. The problems do exist and I think there are several reforms that we could make to improve social media. But if the social media platforms disappeared tomorrow, a lot of us would certainly miss them. Try following the latest updates of the war in Ukraine without access to Twitter. It gives us the ability to hear different voices and opinions. With social media, you don’t have to rely on a narrow elite of gatekeepers to shape and filter the public debate, It’s clear to me that it has been of great benefit.
– The fact that social media mainly consists of these huge, centralized platforms, I think is not necessarily healthy. I would like to see a more decentralized social media environment, and I believe there are companies working on that. Even if some reforms are needed, the current and only political answer seems to be to regulate more. I see it as an elitist backlash against social media from politicians, and interestingly also from traditional media. They are the former gatekeepers who resent that they no longer play the same privileged role that they once did.
“The evidence shows that when you try to limit misinformation, it will not increase trust, but rather decrease it.”
This became a heated topic during the COVID pandemic with some opinions and information being censored after having been categorized as misinformation or even disinformation. Do you think that was wrong or was it necessary for the best of society in such a serious situation?
– I think it’s impossible to do content moderating of scientific misinformation in real-time during a pandemic with a virus that we don’t fully understand and where science is evolving day by day. I think it would have been wiser to limit the censoring to include only very obvious things, like recommendations to drink bleach, which obviously is harmful. But I think you should be allowed to question whether vaccines are efficient, if masks should be used and so on.
– The evidence shows that when you try to limit misinformation, it will not increase trust, but rather decrease it. This happens because inevitably authorities will get things wrong. If they have then set themselves up as some kind of Ministry of Truth and a number of mistakes are being revealed, people will not have any trust in those authorities anymore. Ultimately, democracies are based on the premise that citizens had the ability and the right to filter information for themselves. This idea that private tech companies and governments have to determine truth and lies is a dangerous proposition and shows a lack of faith in ordinary people. Actually, if you take it to it’s logic, it questions the whole premise of democracy!
You said in the beginning of this interview that you took free speech for granted when you were younger. Do you think this applies in general, that the young generation takes it for granted while the older generation have seen the terrible consequences of limiting it?
– Yes, I really think so. For people who lived during the Cold War for example, it was part of the identity to believe in free speech. They could see that the lack of free speech meant dictatorship on the other side or the iron curtain. These so called boomers have seen the great benefits that have come as a result of challenging cultural taboos and restrictions, and allowed controversial things to be said. The younger generations haven’t seen this, so they often take all benefits of free speech for granted. I think they lack the holistic and comprehensive view of free speech and tend to only focus on the dark sides. It is fully understandable that they want to get rid of the bad things, but if you want robust free speech, the harms and costs are unfortunately part of it. Especially because we tend to disagree about what the dark sides are and where the limits should be drawn. Free speech is a package deal.
What book would you like to recommend?
– One that I really liked was Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore. I thought it was brilliant and would strongly recommend it.
Click here to buy Jacob Mchangama’s book:
Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media
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