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Blair vs. freedom of expression

by Sirocco Fri Jul 1st, 2005 at 04:04:42 PM EST

A bill outlawing 'incitement to religious hate' has been successfully pushed through the House of Commons by Tony Blair's government. The bill, introduced at the urging of Muslim groups, prescribes up to seven years of jail for any utterings overheard by 'any person' in whom they are 'likely to stir up... religious hatred.' It is decried by the Liberal Democrats and a broad coalition of civil liberties advocates, artists, and religious societies, who consider it a menace to the freedom of speech.

Writes Evangelical Times:

For example, government guidance about the proposed new crime states that while of itself ‘Christians claiming Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, the life and the only way to God’ would not be caught by the offence, such words could be a crime if they were considered ‘insulting’ and it was a ‘likely effect that hatred would be stirred up’.

Many Christians think this opens them to genuine risk under the law, since sharing the gospel — even sensitively and thoughtfully — can lead to unintended offence being taken. It will become easy for someone to allege a Christian was ‘stirring up hatred’. In a democracy there has to be freedom to say things with which others disagree.

Objections like this - and especially, claims that the bill will criminalize the criticism of religion - are, however, scoffed at by supporters such as Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain:

[T]he incitement to religious hatred proposal has been portrayed by its critics — ranging from the comedian Rowan Atkinson and the conservative commentator Charles Moore to the National Secular Society — as, in the words of Melanie Phillips, “criminalising legitimate and necessary criticism of religion."

Their objections are preposterous. The new law will not prohibit anyone from offending, criticising or ridiculing faiths. The attorney-general Lord Goldsmith has clearly said it is “about protecting people from hatred, not faiths from criticism”.

The problem with this argument is that living religions are more than abstract propositions: They are also the practices of specific groups, blurring the line between 'people' and 'faiths.' How about, say, blasting Islam as a misogynistic ideology which subjugates women through everything from the hijab to the prohibition of marrying non-Muslims? Or by extension, slamming Muslims as either patriarchal sexists (men) or clueless participants in their own oppression (women)? These are - arguably, hate-inciting - statements about a certain group of people as defined and delineated by a faith.

As another example, take a somewhat hyperbolic comment yours truly made on Booman Tribune in disgust at the election of Ratzinger to Bishop of Rome. Here the Catholic Church is denounced as a 'glorified psycho sect' on account of a dogma it touts and the social effects thereof. While not meant as such, that might well be construed as 'incitement to religious hatred.' The risk of actual prosecution, let alone conviction, for making such a statement in the UK would presumably be slight. But it ought, I submit, to be nil.

Incidentally, several major religions teach that stalwart unbelievers are so wicked as to deserve infinite posthumous torture. (The Koran, xxii.9: "As for the unbelievers, for them garments of fire shall be cut and there shall be poured over their heads boiling water whereby whatever is in their bowels and skins shall be dissolved and they will be punished with hooked iron-rods.") Worse from a practical viewpoint, some have clauses ordaining murder and enslavement of infidels under certain conditions (ibid., xlvii.4: "When you meet the unbelievers, strike off their heads; then when you have made wide slaughter among them, carefully tie up the remaining captives") and the specific nature of the conditions is a matter of dispute. Incitement to hate?

Maybe. Prompted by the British Humanist Society, the bill defines religious hatred referring not just to belief but also to lack thereof. Does anyone eye a potential conflict with the freedom of religion? Salman Rushdie:

[The bill is] likely to create a desire by the most extreme factions in religious groups to limit what can be said. That will create a backlash.

It might even… I mean, it could be used against the extremely intolerant remarks often made in mosques on Fridays. I doubt very much that that's what the Government has in mind, but if they're talking about inciting religious hatred, there's quite a lot of it going on there.

Yet defenders of the law insist it is a logical extension of existing legislation against hate speech. Inayat Bunglawala again:

The 1986 Incitement to Racial Hatred law helped create a climate in our society in which most Britons now clearly believe that incitement to race hate is a social evil.

However, under those race hate laws, Jews and Sikhs — because they are regarded as “mono-ethnic” groups — are protected against religious hatred, but not followers from other “multi-ethnic” faiths.

This is plainly unfair. Incitement to hatred of others purely because of their religion should also be regarded as a social evil whatever their religious background.

Now, there are some apparent disanalogies here, as Keith P. Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, points out: Whereas race is an immutable characteristic, religion is an ideology that can be embraced or rejected at will. But wait a minute - can it always be so rejected? Many believers would deny having any such option, since it amounts to choosing Lies (and the consequent damnation of the soul) over Absolute Truth. And in Islam there is a death penalty for apostasy. Thus the disanalogy, on closer inspection, is not so obvious.

Wood also notes that unlike race, religion brings proscription and prescription, and sometimes political ambitions: "We must be able to vigorously call religion to account." But what about ethnic groups defined by religion, as in the aforementioned cases of Jews and Sikhs? With a law against ethnic hate speech on the books, it is in practice a delicate matter to attack the religion without risk of transgression.

Very well; maybe the respective bans on racial and religious hate speech really are on the same footing. If that is so, it bears out a long-standing concern, to wit, that anti-racist hate speech laws set a dangerous precedent in restricting freedom of expression. Bigotry is indeed a great social evil. Yet it is unwarranted to assume that any social evil can be checked by coercion without unacceptable infringement of civil liberties. As the comedian Rowan Atkinson notes, "[h]uge latent power will be lying dormant, just waiting to be abused for political ends."

I incline to be fairly absolutist about this. Here, it seems to me, is one policy issue where European countries should take a page from the USA. To be exact, they should adopt something like the First Amendment to its Constitution, as applied by means of the Clear and Present Danger Test of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:

The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.

If we Europeans have forgotten the legacies of Voltaire and John Stuart Mill, we are lucky that the USA recalls them. For the risk of prosecution for 'religious vilification' isn't hypothetical on our continent these days. In Italy, for instance, a judge has ordered the trial of journalist Oriana Fallaci for the supposed crime of writing a book, The Rage and the Pride, which is 'unequivocally offensive to Islam.' Says Nick Cohen in The Observer:

The alleged crime of The Rage and the Pride is to insist there is an unbridgeable divide between the Islamic world and the West. What she says may not be true, although it certainly is true of Islamism and the West, which have armies at war to prove it. It's also the case that even by the standards of Italian journalism, Fallaci is a raging prima donna. Still, since when has it been a criminal offence for prima donnas to sing, however tunelessly?

I take exception, as it happens, to her book; but much more so to her prosecution. That it is a huge PR victory for Fallaci's shrill charges of European collaboration with 'the Islamic invasion' is also ironic and attests to the fact that clamping down on people for their views is counterproductive as well as wrong.

For both the Brits and the rest of us, it is time to wise up before this stuff gets out of hand. We could do worse than listen to H.L. Mencken: "The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion."

there is no doubt you are going to hell after what you wrote...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Jul 1st, 2005 at 06:27:58 PM EST
According to Dante's Inferno Test I'm headed for the 7th level where I'll join the other heretics. But what the hell, in Heaven all the interesting people are missing.

The world's northernmost desert wind.
by Sirocco (sirocco2005ATgmail.com) on Sat Jul 2nd, 2005 at 11:16:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I am very interested in civil liberties, freedom of speech, and the separation of church and state. I am very interested in the stopping even outlawing of hate crimes. I would want to know what Michael D. Higgins of Galway (IRL) said about this legislation before I took a stand. On the face of it, I am suspicious of this legislation.
by GraceReid on Fri Jul 1st, 2005 at 11:47:20 PM EST
This is incredible farce...
They are simply making people fight about this nonsense while they are busy robbing other countries and their own treasury...
It's not religion that can be offended it's a people that could be...
There is no one who is spreading hatred more then their media and their solders invading other people's space and wealth...
Bloody fog...there is nothing out there to be protected from hatred but people...CITIZENS...white and black , Christians and Muslims...simple as that...
I can't believe this is happening in Europe...
Civilization definitely is going backward... Like we haven't learned anything at all...

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind...Albert Einstein
by vbo on Sat Jul 2nd, 2005 at 08:23:36 AM EST

That he's a bigger asshole than Bush.

Hard to believe, but I believe he's proved his point.

"Counterproductive as well as wrong" pretty much sums it all up.

I should point out that there are some vital distinctions which are far too easily lost.  First, is between hate-speech codes and hate-speech laws.  The former, typically on college campuses and in workplaces, are about keeping a relatively civil and hospitable tone in places that exist for specific purposes.  They are consistent with other codes of conduct that also are commonplace in such contexts.  They are limited in scope and purpose, and do not carry criminal penalties.

Many people fail to realize that such codes are necessary, in part, because of power relations which enable members of dominant groups to intimidate, humiliate and otherwise distress members of subdominant groups through "mere speech," but not vice versa.  Curbing hate speech thus is not aimed at expression of ideas, but at expression and perpetuation of coercive power, which itself tends to suppress free expression.  The value of having zones free from such hate speech is that it creates a moral tone and example for the rest of society--a far better way to combat hate speech generally than by criminalizing it.

Second, there's the confusion around hate crimes.  Hate crime legislation is not punishing speech--although, unfortunately, too often the laws are applied that way due to poor understanding, a situation that hopefully will change over time.  Hate crimes go both to motive (just like the difference between murder one and man two) and to effect (just like the difference between burning down an empty shack and an occupied home).  There are not just centuries, but millenia of legal precedent for making such a two-fold distinction.  The only thing novel is that it's the powerless, rather than the powerful, who are being protected by the law.

Third, we come to one issue touched on here--that of anti-racist hate speech laws.  This is not an American phenomena, and is responding to social circumstances I do not know first hand, so my attitude is necessarily cautious.  My inclination--as indicated above--is against such laws because there are better ways. But I believe they can be justified without the slippery slope indicated above.  

I am not saying they should be justified.  They could be opposed on absolutist grounds.  But it's at least conceivable to me that they could--in some circumstances--be necessary in order to prevent recurrent violence and perpetual second-class citizenship.  This seemingly creates a delicate situation with respect to ethnic groups defined by religion, such as Jews and Sikhs, since ethnic and religious protection are difficult to separate in these instances.

But this is an incidental result.  There is no reason to make the further leap that multi-ethnic religions should be protected, since the law protecting Jews and Sikhs was never intended to protect their religion. It may seem unfair that Jews and Sikhs gain some special degree of protection, but the law cannot redress all imbalances.  The best available set of remedies need not be perfect.  It need only avoid being needlessly and capriciously discriminatory.  Ethnic hate-speech laws do this, despite protecting Jews and Sikhs.  One can oppose them on their face. But slippery-slope arguments against them can be rebutted, since there is a clear reason not to extend the logic.

Folks like Blair are especially heinous because they would destroy all the distinctions drawn above. The fact that he claims to do so on behalf of values I cherish only makes him more repulsive to me.

by Paul Rosenberg on Sun Jul 3rd, 2005 at 02:09:39 AM EST
Thanks for the distinctions.
As regards hate-speech laws, several continental European countries (including France and Germany) have laws against the apology of nazism, understandable in the historical context.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Jul 3rd, 2005 at 06:32:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, I'm familiar with those laws.  In The Beast Awakens, for example, Martin Lee talks about how links have been formed between European and US neo-Nazis, in part beause the Europeans import literature published over here.

I think that's an excellent example.  It would certainly be much better if the US were not awash in the analogous apology for slavery that survives to this day, particularly in the American South.  

by Paul Rosenberg on Sun Jul 3rd, 2005 at 01:17:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hate is not a crime. It is a natural instinctual emotion. If that hate gets translated into actions, that is a crime.

"Any utterance" is too broad.

Would someone who has not been deterred by existing law from killing a black or muslim be deterred from talking about such acts by more laws? He is not afraid of the consequences of killing, but is afraid of the consequences of talking? I don't think so. It sounds like a reckless political stunt on Blair's part.

by Coriolanus on Sun Jul 3rd, 2005 at 08:36:55 PM EST

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