Celebrity fashion designer John Galliano’s trial for a drunken anti-Semitic tirade is yet another blow to freedoms in France, where it’s illegal to publicly make offensive remarks ‘based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity.'
Being racist and offensive is obnoxious, mean-spirited, ignorant and anti-social. It should not, however, be defined as a criminal act. A free society needs to have a sufficiently thick skin to withstand the rants of a racist drunk, and insulted individuals the courage to respond peacefully.
The insulted individual in this instance, Geraldine Bloch, is seeking just €1 in damages on moral grounds. ‘What we are after is an expression of regret and an excuse for what has happened,’ her lawyer stated. Her motive may be laudable, but it should not be the role of the courts to extract apology for hurt feelings. (Her boyfriend, apparently, is not quite so commendable – he is allegedly suing for an undisclosed but substantial sum.)
The controversy has led to Galliano’s dismissal as creative director at the house of Dior, and he has been strongly and publicly rebuked by actress Natalie Portman (and many others) for his anti-Semitic remarks. A spokesmodel for the Dior brand, Portman has refused to have any further association with Galliano, and is boycotting his designs, thus encouraging others to do the same.
This is civil society – albeit high society – in action, responding to unacceptable behavior. State interference in this case is unwarranted, superfluous and detrimental to freedom of speech and individual responsibility.
Galliano’s defence – addiction, depression and drink – obscures the real issue of the right to speak freely. This cornerstone of liberty is often ignored in attempts to be inclusive and politically correct.
Friedrich Hayek wrote his seminal work, The Road to Serfdom, in response to government reactions against the privations and economic hardships that resulted from World War II. State control and socialism were being rapidly accepted as a way of safeguarding economic, national and individual security. Hayek warned against this, writing, ‘from the saintly and single-minded idealist to the fanatic is often but a step.'
We must indeed be vigilant against any repetition of the anti-Semitic atrocities committed by the Nazi regime, which Galliano referenced in his insults. But we must also be vigilant against a slow and unwitting creep towards oppression. France has even outlawed insulting one’s spouse. Where will it end? Suppressing free speech, however unpleasant, is a move towards authoritarianism and away from freedom. When the state steps in with its massive boots – be they Dior or hobnail – liberties get trampled.
John Galliano deserves the public’s condemnation, not a criminal sentence.
Meegan Cornforth is the Events Manager at The Centre for Independent Studies.