Monday, May 21, 2012

Defending free speech in a debate on banning Baltic Pride in Riga

The debating society of the University of Latvia has asked me to participate in a debate on whether the Baltic Pride March planned for Riga on June 2 should be banned. I, of course, will be taking the side of free speech and assembly with other debaters and will be opposed by Jānis Rožkalns, a former Soviet-era dissident and anti-pride activist of late, as well as Jānis Šmits, a member of the Riga City Council and a minister. Both believe that the Pride event should be banned  to protect children and the "moral climate" of the city.
The debate will take place at the University of Latvia "Mazā aula" lecture hall on Wednesday, May 23, at 16:30.
My view is that freedom of speech and assembly, no matter how "offensive" the purpose, cannot be forbidden. Censorship and the restriction of basic rights is a hallmark of authoritarian and totalitarian societies. Free speech is freedom for the speech we hate. My opponents, who evidently hate the idea of gay rights (they maintain that they don't hate gays per say) should be held to this standard. I certainly hold to this standard when, in this blog, I have defended the right of neo-Nazis to peacefully express their views.
I also will say that the issue is not one of Gay Pride in particular, since I would have exactly the same arguments for free speech and assembly if, instead of Rožkalns and Šmits, I was facing the opponents of allowing the Legionnaire's March (or the anti-Legionnaire protestors) on March 16 or those demanding tht the gathering to celebrate May 9 be banned. I also am against banning, to my mind, the crackpot celebration of the "liberation" of Riga by the Germany military on July 1, 1941, setting off a new round of repression against Latvia's citizens, in particular Jewish Latvians.
Living in an open, free democracy means living in the market of ideas, including ideas that you personally shun (so if you don't like gays or neo-Nazis or various crackpots holding the floor for a few hours, stay away. I personally am somewhat entertained by those whose views are radically different from mine and sometimes radically batshit).
Just for the record, I am straight, married, and have three sons and one grandson. So much for being a destroyer of family values or whatever crackpot accusations participating in this debate may bring down upon me. And yes, I am not homophobic, although being gay for me is second in being personally unimaginable to -- playing golf. It is just not me, neither batting a little ball around in a wide, well trimmed grassy field nor same-sex relationships. But that doesn't motivate me to start a no-golf movement or to declare golfers as a pestilence to society.  Hey-- don't ask, don't tell. And yes, you are free to flaunt your par, your score or whatever it is. This is a free country, let's keep it that way.

1 comment:

Fil in Riga said...

On most levels, I fully support your position. That even people we loathe should be allowed into the marketplace of ideas is self evident. I also think gays should have 100% the same rights as heterosexuals, including adopting kids - two loving parents, who both just happen to have penises, may well provide a better family life than many so-called normal couples. Not to mention institutions.
What I find perplexing is this idea that marching around Riga to is the best way to get a message across. Having a face to face confrontation with homophobes may provide some drama, but I doubt it will change the hearts and minds of middle Latvia. In fact, it might just polarise the issue further by associating it with "nekartiba" and "amoralisms"; in other words, playing right into the homophobes hands. I don't think marches or pride events have been the key to acceptance of gays in the west. No, change has come about due to the media becoming sympathetic, and ever more gays coming out of the closet. When your neighbour or colleague who is a really nice guy stops hiding that he likes men, it doesn't seem like such a big deal. Of course, it takes courage to be one of the first to do that. Perhaps if more Latvian gays got behind brave men like Maris Sants or Karlis Streips, things would look better. But instead of promoting openness and understanding, we are to have an anxiety-raising stomp in the streets. I also broadly sympathise with the Legionaires, but there are far more intelligent ways to further their cause than an annual turf war over public space.