Opinion: We all have taboos (Freedom of expression)

POSTED: 02/2/15 1:14 AM

Freedom of expression without taboos does not exist, columnist Thomas von der Dunk writes in the Volkskrant. Hardly ever before has freedom of expression been such a hot topic. The outrage about the Charlie Hebdo attacks may have died down, the aftermath is smoldering on many levels. Von der Dunk asserts that westerns countries also have their taboos, though they are different from the taboos Arabs entertain. Not a single society can do without taboos, Von der Dunk notes. This is his take on the matter, to which we added just a little local flavor.

“Die innere Seinsverpflichtung, der wir uns seit dem Pariser Attentat auf Grund unserer tiefen Schikcksalsverbundenheit ausgesetzt wissen, und die unerschütterliche Kulturverstrickung von Deutschland mit Frankreich haben die Bundesregieriung heute zu einer mannhaften Zukunftaussage in Anbetracht der abendländischen Wesensgewissheit geführt. Allerdings ringt die Politik in dieser Hinsicht noch immer mit einer permanenten Motivationsproblematik, die bis heute eine qualifizierte Kommunikationsakzeleration innerhalb der systematisierten Beziehungsstruktur mit der Bevölkerung verhindert hat und somit die konstruktive Identifikationspotenz der multikulturellen Gesellschaft belastet.’

We trust that our readers master enough German to understand these bloated words. However, even if readers understood the individual words, they still would not understand anything. And no, this is not the beginning of an official statement by Mutti Merkel in the Bundestag after January 7. But it could very well have been.

I have produced the above paragraph in German with the assistance of a gadget designed for public speakers and that was available in German bookstores years ago – a so-called Phrasendreschmachine.

With the help of a cardboard card with three disks that contain respectively ten adjectives, ten prefixes and ten substantives, thousands of combinations are possible – and this twice, because the card has two sides. On one side there are phrases suitable for conservative politicians – I used them five times for the first sentence – and on the other one those for progressive politicians; with four of them I constructed the second sentence.

Instead of ‘tiefe Schicksalsverbundenheit’ I could have gone for ‘abendländische Schicksalsverbundenheit’ or for  ‘tiefe Schicksalsergriffenheit’ , or ‘tiefe Vergangenheitsverbundenheit’ (in which case impressed listeners get the image of two World Wars immediately in their minds).

Or turning ‘innere Seinsverplichtung’ into ‘innere Schicksalsverplichtung’ but then immediately in exchange for  ‘tiefe Schicksalsverbundenheit’ and ‘tiefe Seinsverbundenheit’. A gifted rhetorician does not use a roaring expression twice.

The result is often incomprehensible, but it sounds good and lofty, and that is what matters for such solemn occasions – excuse me: for such moments of ‘innige Seinsverantwortung.’ I assure you: my selection is hardly above what you hear at times in the theoretical introduction of historical or sociological scientific German studies.

And I am able to assure you of something else. In the future many politicians and decision makers will feel an urgent need for such a Phrasendreschmachine when at the moment they have to be right there their own language wizardry – sorry, I mean of course ‘kreative Kommunikationsflexibilität – fails them.

I am not sure if ever a Dutch version of the Phrasendreschmachine has been on the market, but if so, it would have contained phrases like ‘all of us together,’ ‘holding each other,’ ‘communication to the people’ and – for other occasions – ‘I do not recognize myself in this’ and ‘you did not hear me say that.’ Every group of politicians has its own lingo.”

(In St. Maarten speak, such a system would certainly contain expressions like ‘moving the country forward,’ ‘taking care of the people’s business,’ ‘it’s wrong, wrong, wrong,’ and ‘no crime was committed.’)

“Pomposity often has to hide a lack f exact awareness of the core content, January 7 confronted the West with the question: what do we stand for – and, even more: are we acting accordingly?

Je suis Charlie. That slogan was used on all those squares on a regular basis by politicians and all those others who had tried before to ban unwelcome criticism at an equally unwelcome moment. We strongly oppose the long toes of others, but we love to pamper our own.

Take the Netherlands during the past couple of years. Currently we are standing tall in favor of the freedom of expression, but we have had (Piet Hein) Donner’s battle against blasphemy, the arrest of (cartoonist) Gerrit Nekschot and the two Republican protesters with their own Charlie-like placard during the crowning, the image that depicted Theo Hiddema as a shifty attorney (according to me an open door), mafia buddy Bram Moszkowicz – was Jort Kelder really that wrong? – and we could go on and on. Oh, how are we dealing with those who protested against Black Peter (our uncrowned king)?

Freedom of expression without taboos – that is what is was supposed to be all about. But we too have our taboos, though they are different from the taboos Arabs have. No society is able to do without them. And the largest taboo these days is that for now the unity must not be broken by asking ourselves difficult questions.

For instance, during the Volkskrant columnist-marathon on January 11, Wouter Bos was pleased that, other than after the murder of Theo van Gogh, this time no Muslim had added the word but to his denouncement of the attack.

However, a historian is always saying ‘but.’ That is the trouble with historians – and the reason why in emerging dictatorships history is the first thing the state will carefully arrange.

It is only two weeks ago that everybody was outraged about a times-commentator who had dared to wonder whether there was a link between Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and the end of its creators. A French anti-Semitic comedian was arrested because he semi-identified himself with the supermarket-killer, and the Free University – what’s in a name – banned a free discussion about Israel because the result of it threatened to be displeasing to the board.

We just happened to have a strong liking for aberrant opinions, as long as they tally with our own deviation.”

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