Since WWII, the United States has taken a different tack, exceptional from a global perspective. American free-speech doctrine protects a panoply of viewpoints, even when they target ethnic or religious groups, cause deep offense, or are false by consensus. One underlying theory for doing so is that bad ideas will eventually lose out in a well-functioning marketplace. Some go so far as to argue that it is valuable in itself for a society to tolerate even the most extreme viewpoints. Hence, speech can almost never be restricted on the basis of viewpoint. Most famously, that approach protected the rights of neo-Nazis to march through heavily Jewish parts of Skokie in a 1977 Supreme Court case. It is the approach that allowed neo-Nazis and other white supremacists to demonstrate in Charlottesville on Saturday.
Americans are generally proud of their free speech tradition, and many argue that the European approach is unprincipled or ineffective. Why is denying the Holocaust forbidden, but depicting the prophet Muhammed—which is blasphemous to many Muslims—condoned? Many of these lines reflect majority opinion and national experience rather than neutral principles. And policing speech can embolden those being censored. When the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders was convicted for inciting discrimination, he became even more popular among some groups.
Whatever its merits, the European position is rooted in its experiences that the free market of ideas can fail—disastrously. Dangerous ideas can catch on quickly, especially when people holding power or influence endorse them. My great-grandparents were not like the protestors in Charlottesville last weekend; they were ordinary citizens who saw their economic lot improve and stayed silent because they benefited from, what some knew then—and nearly everyone knows now—were toxic ideas.
America today is different from Europe in the 1940s. But Europe’s history raises the question: Can we count on the market of ideas to succeed? Is it possible for white supremacy and related ideologies to spread beyond the relatively small number of Unite-the-Right fanatics and their brethren? Some suggest that Donald Trump’s election is one piece of evidence that’s it’s already happened.
There are no easy answer to these questions. But I believe that in a system where government does not police vile ideas, as in the United States, a larger burden falls on ordinary citizens and other private actors. It is my (admittedly anecdotal) observation that, to some extent, Americans are already doing this. Americans who express objectionable views face harsher community judgement than Europeans who do so.
My American fiancée has often expressed shock that the Dutch still commonly use the term neger (negro) although its usage is increasingly controversial. A team of all-black-faced helpers officially accompany the Dutch Santa before Christmas each year. And I have occasionally found myself surprised to learn that there are some things that I absolutely cannot say here, or that people can lose their jobs for what they say off-hours.