On Thursday, the Polish senate passed a bill that would prohibit speech suggesting the country was complicit in crimes committed by Nazi Germany, banning phrases such as “Polish death camps.” This has triggered worldwide debate about the liberties the bill would curtail. There are different perspectives to consider in dealing with such delicate issues, but unfortunately the media coverage didn’t foster this type of constructive discourse. The outlets we analyzed presented little to no data about the reasoning behind the bill, or the effects it could have. Most of the coverage was biased against it and focused instead on controversy — namely, on other countries that oppose the bill. We hope to spur more thoughtful discourse.
Note: We acknowledge that we are not experts in Polish history. We will consider certain assumptions as true for the sake of this exploration. This by no means represents a complete examination of the bill. Please add to the discussion by sending additional perspectives to us here.
Why does Poland want this legislation?
Banning the expression of certain concepts in speech and writing goes against freedom of expression — regardless of the content. From the perspective of the U.S., which so strongly supports freedom of speech and has sturdy laws protecting it, it may be easy to view the Polish legislature as regressive. Yet, it’s important to question: what’s the Poles’ intent? Why would the Polish legislature want to support this bill? Do they have valid points worth considering?
A nation’s identity is greatly influenced by its history, and that history is kept alive by the words spoken and written today. By controlling language, the Poles appear to be seeking to preserve a certain national identity — and this includes not being complicit in the Holocaust.
How accurate is the Poles’ perspective that it’s false to refer to certain events or places related to the Holocaust as “Polish”? This may depend on what we understand and associate with those terms. If we assume that the Polish people’s participation in the violence of the Holocaust was significantly less than that of Germans, and that Poles were the ones who were violated, it’s understandable that they would resent any association with their transgressor’s offenses. And if we assume that describing these events or places as “Polish” somehow assigns the responsibility for those actions to Poland, it’s understandable that the Poles would reject this. Regardless of whether some Poles were complicit, if most were victims of the violence of the Holocaust, it would be consistent with their national identity to not associate the terms of the Holocaust with their nation.
Is preserving national identity more important than freedom of speech?
While observing American society, Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, suggested that the Statue of Liberty in New York be complemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. He stated, “Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”
From this perspective, are the Poles pursuing responsibility by establishing their truth through words? Would this justify curtailing certain freedoms? This may or may not be the case, but exploring these questions broadens our consideration of the matter.
Is there any good to legislating speech in the pursuit of truth?
Although there could be some valid points to the Polish perspective, that may not justify the enforcement of rules prohibiting certain speech. The pursuit of truth needs to be inspired — not forced. To recognize something as true is an internal process for every person that ultimately cannot be controlled or forced by external means. People may write and speak with certain language, but they can’t be coerced to believe it.
Regulating speech cannot ultimately fix the deeper issue: how people perceive themselves and their history, and the ability they have to honor it. Government, through law, can control information, yet this ultimately leads to a more dependent and less effective society. And in time, through generations, this backfires.
Ideally, people would want to adhere to high standards of objectivity in perceiving the world around them and recording their history. Ideally they would seek the pursuit of truth as the highest of values, and would be open to having civil discourse with standards of objectivity and critical evaluation. Fostering a self-aware, well educated and critically thinking population that understands how the pursuit of truth serves them may go a longer way than enforcing certain perspectives through the regulation of speech.
Human beings developed science, and as a result we have access to great technological advances. Applying these scientific standards to the communication of facts (our news) and the recording of history could also enable important progress. With scientific standards in disciplines that communicate facts, there is no need to curtail freedom. Societies can be empowered through strong national and personal identities that are consistent with truth — without the need to regulate speech.
We want to hear from you! Please submit your thoughts on this discussion to us here.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News