Banning the Nazi salute opens a Pandora’s box
Originally published in The Age.
Banning the Nazi salute will not do anything to decrease anti-Semitism, the hateful targeting of LGBTQ communities or counter right-wing and fascist extremists. If anything, it may make matters worse.
This is not an easy argument to make after the confronting displays on the steps of Victorian state parliament last week. We should demonstrate solidarity with those targeted by extremists, but we must also consider whether these bans would even be effective as well as the broader consequences.
It may seem like a powerful statement, but it’s actually just an opposing symbolic gesture that does not address the intention behind the use of hateful symbols.
Germany has longstanding laws that ban “symbols of anti-constitutional organisations” including the swastika and SS insignias. The Nazi salute and the declaration of “Heil Hitler” are also banned in public spaces.
They have been banned since the 1950s, but Germany retains a serious problem with neo-Nazis. In fact, right-wing extremism has been on the rise in Germany, reaching a two-decade high in 2021. In December, German security forces arrested more than two dozen people for an expansive plot to overthrow the state. The German security services are themselves grappling with a significant insider threat from neo-Nazis. Clearly, banning symbols and salutes is not addressing the problem.
The recent proposals by Victoria’s Labor state government and the federal Coalition to ban the Nazi salute are reactive rather than substantive. And if there’s anything that these neo-Nazi groups want, it’s a reaction. Banning symbols and salutes provides them with more opportunities for provocation and propaganda.
In December, Victoria passed legislation criminalising the public display of the Nazi swastika, or Hakenkreuz. Did that end up reducing public displays of Nazism? In fact, it did the opposite.
The salute on parliament’s front steps was the group proving it could circumvent the flag ban and still convey their hateful ideology.
Any symbol or gesture can be turned into one of hate. Extremist groups understand this all too well and will often use signs and gestures that also have an anodyne or double meaning to troll efforts to counter their expression. White supremacists neo-Nazis have done this most recently with the “OK” hand gesture.
Are we going to ban the OK sign too? If extremists can constantly change their semiotics, then bans become whack-a-mole.
And if we ban the swastika, why haven’t we banned the ISIS flag? It also symbolises a hateful ideology that led to the attempted genocide of minority communities, in this case Yazidis and Christians. If we apply the same rationale behind the calls to ban Nazi symbols then we should apply it to expressions of all violent extremist movements.
And even if bans on gestures were implemented, would they work? The Nazi salute has been used in satire across the decades, from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to Mel Brooks’ classic The Producers. The Larry David Show had a running gag about various hateful symbols – the swastika as a fashion trend, the red Trump hat as a people repellent and the etiquette of dry-cleaning a Klansman’s robe.
These artistic and satirical expressions use hateful symbols and gestures but, for the most part, society deems them acceptable because it is understood it is not a form of vilification. (Though Brooks received considerable criticism from fellow Jews that the song Springtime for Hitler was not only in bad taste but dangerous.)
However, this means that individuals who make a Nazi salute or fly a Nazi flag with genuine hateful intentions can easily argue their behaviour is also a form of satire, allowing them to avoid sanction, provoke, troll and confuse the discourse.
How then would you differentiate between satirical and hateful displays and how would you prosecute the latter? This also raises serious questions about the level of state interference and policing of our gestures, expressions and symbols.
Rather than banning Nazi symbols and salutes, we instead need a renewed focus on education about Nazi and fascist movements and their horrible consequences. The generation who lived through these horrors is dying and this lived history is slipping from the grasp of younger generations. It is having very real consequences.
Expressions of Nazism are becoming appealing as a form of rebellion and subversion for young men in particular. Many have no real understanding or perspective on these symbols’ terrible history. Banning them only makes them more seductive.
We can also strengthen and increase enforcement of anti-vilification laws to address public displays of vilification. Rather than ineffective prohibitions on expressions and symbols, the recent actions of neo-Nazis could then be dealt with under Victoria’s existing laws.
We also need to have a greater awareness around the dangers of amplification, and the unintended consequences of well-intentioned actions or prohibitions. Such bans can lead to increased exposure of extremist content and actions, and play into the propaganda of these movements.
We have a real crisis of imagination and ingenuity when the go-to solution in a democratic society is to ban forms of expression. Instead we must come up with strategies to address the root causes behind fascist radicalisation and to counter their appeal.
We can’t take symbolic action against symbols.