The Dutch from Twente, the region I hail from, have a saying: 'Scheld'n dut gin zeer, moar a'j mie houwt, dan houw 'k oe weer.'
As the Twente dialect is unintelligible even to many Dutch, I'll provide a translation: 'Name calling doesn't hurt you, but I will hurt you if you lay a finger on me.' (It's somewhat similar to the American saying 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me', except in that version, you don't have to deal with an angry Twent who will hit back ;-)) Or, in other words, verbal violence isn't comparable to real violence.
It turns out though that Dutch law still contains plenty of articles catering to those who are easily offended. Not too long ago a Dutch man was arrested for burning an American flag. This is legal in the USA, but here you can get fined for it, as it constitutes 'an insult to a friendly head of state'. I'm sure Mr. Bush lost a lot of sleep over that.
Likewise, there's apparently an arcane article which makes it possibly to prosecute religious insults.
To my amazement, secretary Piet-Hein Donner of Justice this weekend announced he is going to investigate whether or not there are possibilities yo reinvigorate this forgotten article. Apparently too many sensitive people are being hurt. As I haven't heard any Christians, Jews or Hindus complain lately, this can only mean Mr. Donner is afraid of hurting Muslim feelings.
Never mind that Mr. Donner has tolerated extreme cases of Islamic 'offending statements', for example when it turned out the El Tawheed mosque sold a book calling for gays to be thrown off high buildings. I am not gay, but if I were, I think I might take offense to that idea.
Never mind also that although Mr. Donner stresses this shouldn't be explained as an endorsement of the actions of Mr. Van Gogh murderer Mohammed Bouyeri, it is of course extremely insensitive for Mr. Van Gogh's family. Too bad the Dutch state isn't a religion, otherwise the Van Gogh family could sue Donner under his proposal.
And never mind that this article against religious insults is deeply discriminatory. As far as I know, no other form of ideology is given such special privileges under the law. Or will non-religious people be able to sue a Christian or a Muslim when the latter two claim he's a heathen and will surely rot in hell for all his sins?
The correct response to Mr. Donner's ludicrous plan was offered today by immigration secretary Rita Verdonk. To paraphrase her words: the problem isn't the people that do the insulting, it's the people that feel insulted. Or, in the words of Mrs. Verdonk: 'I think the average Muslim has a lower level of tolerance than the average Dutch. And I can't imagine that my colleague Mr. Donner intends to take us all to that lower level of tolerance.' According to Mrs. Verdonk, we'd be rewarding intolerant Muslims for their intolerance.
Besides, there are major problems asking a judge to rule on whether someone has said something insulting. First, you need to prove the person who said it had an intent to insult. Otherwise, one could simply stifle all his critics by claiming offense. Second, you need to prove the other party is really offended, for exactly the same reason.
A much better way of dealing with hurt feelings is therefore simply not having them. Yes, that's a choice. Andrew Sullivan wrote about this (in a different context) much more eloquently than I ever could: 'Hate is only foiled not when the haters are punished but when the hated are immune to the bigot's power. A hater cannot psychologically wound if a victim cannot psychologically be wounded.'
Methinks here lies a challenge for our new countrymen.
There's also a philosophical reason to let freedom of speech reign, even when some people use (or abuse, take your pick) it to spout offensive statements. For in a marketplace of ideas, it's not just the sellers that determine what happen, it's the buyers as well. If someone uses the marketplace of ideas to sell bigotry, he will ostracize himself for few buyers will want to deal with him anymore. There's no need for the government or a judge to do that for him. Some of the buyers may even organize around a seller condemning the bigotry.
Mrs. Verdonk is right. We should use the Van Gogh murder to get this country to a higher level of tolerance, not a lesser. And we could start by removing laws such as the ones prohibiting religious insults, as well as insults against friendly heads of state, out of our law books.