EU visitors to Delaware discuss free speech, extremism, race

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WILMINGTON — Visitors from the European Union and EU member state ambassadors to the United States brought conversations about the most pressing issues around the globe to the First State on Monday.

They discussed COVID-19 recovery, climate change, education, international trade and supply production at the Bethel AME Church in Wilmington.

Additionally, at the end of the event in Wilmington, Sen. Sarah McBride, D-Wilmington, led a panel discussing equality and human rights around the world, during which several ambassadors said they are shocked by the United States’ laws of free speech.

The ambassador to Belgium, Jean-Arthur Régibeau, said physical violence always begins with verbal violence and noted that any writings by Adolf Hitler are basically nonexistent in his country.

“It is simply forbidden in Belgium because, for us, it is hatred,” he said. “But you can find it in the United States, which is just amazing to us because Hitler is a symbol of everything we want to oppose. It is destruction. It’s against humanity and against human dignity.”

Mr. Régibeau added that he feels the availability and legality of such content give it legitimacy. He also said that online anonymity can encourage users to share “any type of fantasies,” while renouncing all social responsibility for their opinions, no matter how hateful.

“It is even worse because they feel they are right, and there is no one to contradict them,” he said. “That is the opposite of democracy. Americans believe it is democracy because it is freedom of speech, but where is democracy when there is no contradiction possible, no debate? It’s just individual, and then, you forget that you are actually a member of a community.”

EU Ambassador to the U.S. Stavros Lambrinidis said that the United States has not yet crossed the line of tightening its laws on speech, as other nations may have.

“In Europe, we have determined that speech that is intended to incite ... violence against someone is illegal,” Mr. Lambrinidis said. “Speech can break bones as much as a punch to the face can. Of course, we all defend free speech religiously on both continents. ... But you have to make a decision that there are some things that are simply too poisonous to be out there.”

Monday’s discussion came less than a month after an extremist group promoting anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-Muslim ideology marched in Newark, prompting a counterprotest from University of Delaware students. Signs warned “homos,” “whores,” “Muslims,” “drunks” and more to “Obey Jesus or Hellfire.”

“The reality is we have to operate within our own confines,” said Sen. McBride regarding last month’s protest. “If you are someone who is black or LGBTQ or a woman or a person with a disability or Jewish or Muslim going into those spaces, and you’re so inundated with hate, that’s not a free marketplace of ideas for you to participate in.”

She added that social media companies need to ensure that they are not creating environments where hateful speech — or even violent speech — can fester nor conspiracy theories can spread.

Mr. Lambrinidis said that the internet age has led to a quick, hateful divide among many societies.

“No one thought that we, in our democratic societies, would end up hating so fast and end up being incapable of speaking to each other, sometimes even when we’re in the same household,” he said. “Now, we’re seeing it happen, and we see our democracies crack under that pressure.”

Sen. McBride, who is transgender, said that in the United States and in several EU member states, there has been a rise in nationalist and populist movements like xenophobia and LGBTQ+ prejudice, not just in rhetoric but in policy.

“This is a global problem, and there are global forces beyond the individual circumstances in our country,” she said. “Beyond the fact that the legacy of slavery and race is truly the throughline in American history — regardless of the unique dynamics in the European Union, the financial crisis, the migration phenomenon in the 2010s — this is happening globally.”

Global response

Keith Azzopardi, the ambassador of Malta to the U.S., said that human rights injustices are not a problem of any one individual but a global issue that necessitates a global response.

“It’s a moral obligation, not because human rights are law or because they are ensured in our constitutions or our charters, (but because) it is an important obligation that we step up, and we don’t take for granted the fact that we should enjoy human rights,” he said.

He recalled the death of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a journalist investigating corruption who was killed four years ago by a car bomb in Malta. He said the country was shocked, but officials are still seeking justice.

Mr. Lambrinidis turned to similar incidents in the United States, such as the murder of George Floyd, which he said was a wakeup call for everyone in Europe, too.

“If anything shocked us in Europe as much as it did here in the States, it was that picture of that knee on George Floyd’s neck,” he said. “Racism is not gone. It is around. It is in this country, and we have it in Europe. And although Americans and Europeans, perhaps, have made the largest strides in terms of dealing with this scourge, we have to keep doing more because hatred is climbing.”

Delaware State University President Dr. Tony Allen described the anger in DSU students after Mr. Floyd’s death and outlined changes on campus amid Black Lives Matter protests, including the addition of a “Black Lives Matter Boulevard,” a complete review of the school’s suppliers to ensure their core values align with DSU’s and ongoing interactions with university police.

“I’m proud to say all three of those things got done,” Dr. Allen said. “What I’ve learned is, sometimes, we have to listen, show up and shut up and watch our young people, like they’ve always done historically, help lead us through this.”

Human rights

Gender inequality and women’s rights — largely exemplified by the Taliban in Pakistan and Boko Haram in Nigeria — were other pressing matters discussed Monday.

“What’s so scary about smart girls?” said Mr. Lambrinidis. “If you think about it, smart girls become educated girls, who become empowered women, and empowered women entirely change the balance of power in any society. And the last thing a terrorist wants is an empowered society. They want a big black hole for power that they can fill with hatred. So if you want to fight terrorism, educate girls.”

U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., spoke of her own experiences as a woman of color, the first to represent Delaware in Congress.

“It is hard to love people you don’t like, but that is what we are called to do,” she said. “The mental health stress on all of us is compounding.”

Sen. McBride added that she has to find “radical compassion” for the “bullies” she encounters as a transgender woman because she is more likely to have meaningful conversations.

“When you undermine the ability of people to speak and engage, you undermine the ability of marginalized communities to open hearts and change minds,” she said. “All of these different issues and rights exist in an ecosystem where they’re interconnected and interrelated, and if you remove any one of them, if you undermine any one of them, it’s going to have a ripple effect that damages our society.”

Mr. Lambrinidis said that, ultimately, everyone is a minority in some way.

“And the moment you open up the door to hell, which is justifying discrimination against people that you don’t like or that are not like you, is the moment that you turn the gun to your head,” he said.