In Germany, it’s illegal to insult someone. Like, call-the-cops-and-end-up-in-handcuffs illegal. Like, paragraph 185 illegal (for the legal Erbsenkacker (nitpickers)). Like, you can be jailed for up to a year illegal (but will probably just end up with a fine).
Even if you just flip someone the bird.
And even after several decades it feels weird that garden-variety insults are gesetzlich verboten here.
Sure, I’m from America where the only thing more holy than the Holy Bible is the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights and its guarantee of freedom of speech. But my incomprehension of insults-as-a-crime is more visceral than that. I can’t just make a side-comment about someone’s idiocy? Really? Because I run into several people a day who’ve earned it and, if I’m honest, every other or every third day I do something that probably deserves a comment as well.
It just seems too unverhältnismässig (disproportionate). Someone says a few words on the street and now the entire judicial apparatus has to get involved? Social media has of course ratcheted up the whole insult-as-a-crime game and when I see how some men behave online, it could be a a crime. Though when courts do get involved, it’s weird what they consider an insult and just some dude expressing himself.
Late last month a court ruled it was OK for a blogger to call left-leaning Berlin politician Sawsan Chebli a “talking Islamic puppet” and a “token migrant”.
(That’s her saying she’s going to appeal the ruling.)
The same court ruled a year earlier that calling Green politician Renate Künast a “dirty” female body part was also just freedom of speech. I disagree.
Sticks and stones
To be fair, the courts don’t always rule against my side – they’ve said it’s also OK for us to call far-right politician Bernd Höcke a “fascist”, because he is. I’d add creepy to that list. And probably a threat to democracy.
But my frustration at the whole insult thing took on a new dimension when German soccer fans recently unrolled banners at games that that called Dietmar Hopp, a billionaire founder of software company SAP and owner of the Hoffenheim soccer team, a Hurensohn, or son of a whore. I’m not sure I understand the kerfluffle but it seems like fans have insulted him before and he complained and so the German soccer league decided to reintroduce collective penalties that make all the fans pay when just one fan insults Mr. Hopp, which just seems dumb.
To begin with, Hopp is a billionaire. He has plenty of means to extract revenge, er justice, on his own dime and secondly, if I’m ever a billionaire, y’all have free license to call me whatever you want. Seriously Dietmar – I’d think you’d have other things to worry about (or not worry about).
As an aside, the banners were apparently the work of “ultra” fans, or über fans. I’m kind of an anti-ultra for reasons.
My own insult lawsuit
On top of all of this, I actually have a case pending where I’m accusing someone of insulting me. What happened was that a giant Volvo SUV last summer was perturbed when I, on a yellow Cannondale mountain bike, moved slightly out of a bike lane and into traffic to pass another cyclist. To express his distaste with my move, the SUV driver moved into the bike lane and nearly pushed me into a row of parked cars. I smacked his window because my bike bell didn’t seem to be alarming him to my precarious situation.
The SUV driver didn’t think this was very funny and, well, 15 minutes later the cops were there and as the officer was listing all the charges she wanted to lay on him (assault, reckless driving and coercion) she asked if I felt insulted by his offers to sleep with my mother as well as the accusation that me and a witness were both drug addicts and homosexual lovers.
I laughed. “My mother’s dead and even if she were alive it’s up to her who she sleeps with,” I said. She laughed. I also didn’t understand how me being either a drug addict or gay was supposed to be an insult. “But if I need to be insulted to file charges then sure,” I told her. She laughed again.
I haven’t heard much since (I don’t have much faith in the German justice system).
But I wasn’t insulted. If he had questioned my abilities as a father or reminded me of the time in 5th grade when I punched Becky McCaw in front of the whole class – then I might have been insulted.
I’m speaking from a position of privilege and know that sometimes words hurt – getting unexpectedly nailed by the Berliner Schnauze has left its mark on me many a time. And it’s probably nice for some people under continuous verbal assault to have some form of recourse. But it’s one aspect of German life I doubt I’ll ever get used to: Criminalized insults.