Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Freedom of speech is far too complicated to let religion get in the way

As part of my journalism studies I am, naturally enough, learning about Freedom Of Expression (FOE) and differing national and philosophical attitudes. Which is fine, because it's one of the few areas left where philosophy has a real contribution to make (disclaimer: I have a Minor in philosophy, I'm not entirely without knowledge whereof I speak, but I do think that material evidence trumps a good idea).

The thing is: It's really complicated. It's not a simple "I have a right..." question. In fact, the complexities have lead to defamation being a messy, twisted area of law where only the foolish or the people who really need to get out more dare to tread. If you say something defamatory, is it true - in which case they have to prove that you did it maliciously - or is it covered under legal or parliamentary privilege, and do you live in a country where even truth that is defamatory has to be justified under public interest, and who gets to decide what that is anyway?

And so on.

I have just started skimming through a paper Mill's Liberalism, Security and Group Defamation. At the start, the author, Glyn Morgan, provides three examples of the conflict between hate speech/group defamation legislation and freedom of religious expression. In England (traditionally known for being litigant-friendly and tough on defamation, much like Australia), a homophobic street preacher was told (posthumously, but the case still had to be heard) that the police could tell him to shut up because keeping the peace trumped his right to FOE. In Denmark and Sweden, however, homophobic preachers in pulpits were eventually allowed to continue because it was a "legitimate expression of their religious views".

Now, that scares the hell out of me. In my own country, Islamic preachers (who, conveniently, still can't speak English and had to be interpreted, which gives them an instant defence of mis-representation), have been roasted for promoting violence against non-Muslim states and women who don't wear burkhas. I don't accept that, just as much as I don't accept Christians promoting violence against gays or abortion clinic doctors.

In those cases, the only value I see in providing them with freedom of speech is so that we can find out who they are.

Mill (who, according to Eric Idle, was frequently and of his own free will, particularly ill on half a pint of shandy), claimed that freedom of speech is paramount so that all individuals can come to the most completely informed opinion possible. Fair enough and yes I agree - this has enabled me to come to the opinion that certain Imams need to be deported, and certain Vicars need to be locked up for incitement to violence.

On the other hand, Communitarians (I almost feel ill typing words like that, but if you're going to talk about social structure you may as well hang your argument off worked-out theories) have argued that allowing hate speech on the basis of freedom of speech ignores the vital role that group membership plays in the self-identity of many individuals, and that hate speech is therefore a violation of individual rights.

Which is also fair enough, and in line with the appropriate UN Conventions and Statements on human rights and so forth.

I, personally, am struggling to see this clearly due to my natural reaction that any argument hinged upon religious grounds is inherently invalid anyway, and so whatever they say is worthless and we may as well just call it criminal hate speech and be done with it. I'll go so far as to accept that "We must work towards a society based upon Sharia law" is permissible while "We must destroy this decadent society so start now" isn't, and "The bible tells us that homosexuality is wrong, so I'm telling you not to do it," is okay, but "You will rot in hell and I hope you get sent there ahead of time," isn't.

I suppose the key principle is not so much hate speech, which I believe is inherently offensive, but incitement-to-violence-speech, which is a much more complicated and subtle thing, but which is normally a natural consequence of hate speech simply through reinforcing bigotry in the potentially violent.

In defence of this view that hate speech is problematic for practical and not just philosophical reasons, consider the point raised by Morgan that most western liberal democracies (please ignore the layers of qualification there and just go with "democracies" not shams like, say, Zimbabwe) have enacted legislation banning racial vilicification except the USA. See my point? Thought you would.

But back to religion. The problem with religion is that it tends to lead to certainty about inherently uncertain things, such as the worth of particular private behaviours, based upon inherently uncertain claims, such as something physically improbable which happened 2,000 or 6,000 or 1,500 years ago and comes down to us in the form of a book which may well have been translated numerous times and demonstrably edited along the way.

Now, there's so much uncertainty in there that such claims really desperately need to be open to criticism and debate - not abuse, if only because abuse is inherently unhelpful - and should not be allowed to make statements in support of sweeping legislation and cultural values without being forced to vigorously defend that viewpoint in public forums. In fact, although Mill's ideas are used to support freedom of religious expression, religions will themselves be the first to deny that expression to others, and for the very reason that Mill wanted it - they don't want people to come to fully informed opinions, they want people to come to their opinions based upon their information.

The desirable reaction to this is the "no sacred cow" defence: No idea, by itself, deserves special protection. And yet special protection is what we are affording to religions, and it just isn't good enough.

So here is my opinion:
  • You have a right to state your opinions in private or public forums (I somehow feel that should be 'fora', but never mind that now);
  • You do not have a right to advocate violence to others. On any grounds - violence even in warfare should be a last resort;
  • You have a right to defend your views, even offensive ones, however;
  • If you complain when people criticise your views, you have lost the right to express them;
  • If you express a view which is defamatory or hateful to another individual or group, they have a right to rebuttal, and if you can't defend yourself they have a right to an apology;
  • Deal with it.

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