Jaak Valge: Of freedom of speech and efforts to cancel history

Jaak Valge.
Jaak Valge. Source: Riigikogu

Cancel culture is nothing short of castrating history, while it is about more than that. It is also a threat to free society because its goal is not to find the best solution or the truth but rather to reinforce a particular ideology by limiting information and aggressively condemning attitudes that are out of favor. Efforts to chancel history have now arrived in Estonia, Jaak Valge writes.

Hardly anyone believed we would need to fight for freedom of speech and our own treatment of history again after Estonia regained its independence. Even if the question was raised, it concerned fears of a new Soviet occupation.

And yet, we are forced to address these matters in independent Estonia. Draft legislation to amend the Media Services Act currently in Riigikogu proceedings aims to regulate, from a left-liberal standpoint, what the media can and cannot do, while the organizers/curators of the KUMU exhibition "Rendering Race" have set about changing names authors have given their works.

Both attempts serve the same agenda – to break social consciousness that has developed over a long period of time. While it is true that societies are always changing, this change should not come from the outside and be forced upon us.

Amendments to the Media Services Act include a closed list of characteristics against which hatred must not be incited. In other words, an attempt to give certain social groups preferential status or change recent social balance.

This is made more unpleasant by the fact that incitement of hatred is subject to various interpretations. It is difficult to pinpoint infraction. The effect is cultivating fearfulness and self-censorship in society.

The bill also prescribes promoting media competency for which guidelines should be handed down from the European Commission but haven't at this time.

This expects us to approve aspects of which we are still unaware. Besides, media competency is another rather vague notion that could ideally stand for source criticism and balanced coverage but will more likely aim for promoting the left-liberal agenda. Because Estonia lacks an institution capable of measuring, controlling and if necessary correcting information balance.

The Estonian media is ruled by a so-called left-liberal base consensus, meaning that publications are acutely left-leaning. The Estonian Public Broadcasting Act prescribes balanced coverage of social life. The public broadcaster's development plan even declares that the organization credits the guarantees of the survival of the Estonian state and people and the family-based marriage model and promotes democratic governance.

However, the reality is just the opposite. NGO Media Studies Center (Meedia Uurimise Keskus) analyzed ERR programs and articles between October 15, 2020 and January 20, 2021 and found that 72 percent were against defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman or against holding a corresponding referendum.

These figures are inversely proportional to attitudes in society. A survey carried out by pollster Norstat in November of 2020 found that 75 percent of citizens were prepared to participate in the referendum, while 63 percent said they would have voted for keeping marriage a union between a man and a woman.

Compliance with the new Media Services Act would be monitored by a handful of Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority (TTJA) officials. The bill emphasizes that the agency needs to be independent. A closer look reveals that this stands for independent from the Republic of Estonia or the choices of our free citizens. At the same time, the authority is obligated to comply with guidelines from the European Commission.

Therefore, relevant decisions would not be made based on Estonian history, culture or identity but rather the discretion of anonymous bureaucrats far away.

Estonian history, culture and identity have also been affected by so-called cancel culture the first fruits of which arrived in the wake of the #MeToo campaign. USA and Canada are busy "canceling" former heroes and removing their statues because their attitudes are not compatible with modern times. Even though the statues were in most cases erected following reasons that had nothing to do with their now deplorable attitudes that on top of everything were rather widespread at the time.

Cancel culture is an attempt at castrating history but not just that. It is also a threat to free society because its goal is not to find the best solution or the truth but rather to reinforce a particular ideology by limiting information and aggressively condemning attitudes that are out of favor.

A survey by U.S. think tank Cato Institute from the summer of 2020 revealed that 62 percent of Americans are afraid to express their political views. That figure is 77 percent in the case of Republican supporters who tend to have more conservative views.

Efforts to cancel history have arrived in Estonia. Organizers/curators of the KUMU exhibition in question make no secret of the fact their aim is to alter our history and through it our identity. Looking at Estonian history from the perspective of Estonians "is not the most sensible approach because we are living in a multicultural global world," one of the curators said.

According to curator Bart Pushaw, titles of works are being changed "not just because of insulting use of language" but also because new information has come to light. Whereas it remains unclear whether Andrus Johan's "Mustanahalise mehe portree" (Portrait of a black man) is found to be insulting or whether it has been changed to "Mehe portree" (Portrait of a man) because new information that the person in the painting is indeed a man has come to light.

Ants Laikmaa's painting "Abyssinian" has been renamed as "Samuel Peters" because that indeed was the name of the man depicted, while it is once more unclear whether the museumgoer benefits from this knowledge or whether the attempt has been to avoid insults.

What is clear is that such attempts to change history equal treating society as children in whose case it is believed that keeping something from them will turn them into better people.

But we cannot change the past. There were thousands of reasons for more rigidly set gender roles, clearer distinction between races and nationalities and depreciation of people with different color skin.

As circumstances changed, so did attitudes. Whereas they will continue to change, while we do not know in what direction. However, attempts to design the past to be more palatable will make serial designers of us all and give our offspring a voucher for rewriting every aspect of our own day and age.

Hiding the past does nothing to improve the present. The only way to learn from history is to analyze it, while restricting information in this manner is sure to hinder social development.

There have always been attempts to belittle Estonians for having survived half a century of occupation. The occupation did deprive us of a lot of things. And while there is no reason to believe we were rendered more foolish, we have reason to believe we emerged more sensitive to certain matters.

A Eurobarometer survey from last November and December found that while freedom of speech is held to be important in all EU member states, it is considered as the most important value in Estonia and the Czech Republic that have first-hand totalitarian experience and Finland where free speech was dialed back in the process of Finlandization. It is our past that makes us value freedom of speech.

We are still able to recognize the cold breath of Soviet censorship. The concept of hate speech and racial discrimination was created in the Soviet Union. In 1966, the communist Eastern Bloc succeeded in making it a part of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

As concluded by Chris Berg, policy director for the Melbourne Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) in his article "The Soviet Origins of Hate-Speech Law," dialing back freedom of speech by referring to hate speech was not meant to set minorities free, as claimed by more than a few modern human rights advocates, but rather to keep democrats in check.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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