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Devil’s Advocate: On the right to offend

Is there a right not to be offended? If so, what about the right to offend? In particular, are some Muslims simply conflating being justifiably criticised with being illegally abused? Omer Ali, Ceasefire's very own Devil's Advocate, ruminates on the matter...

Columns, Devil's Advocate, Politics - Posted on Thursday, August 19, 2010 23:50 - 6 Comments

By Omer Ali

“The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.”
— Sigmund Freud

Twelve cartoons depicting Islam’s prophet Muhammad were published on September 30th 2005 in Danish paper Jyllands-Posten under the title ‘The Faces of Muhammed’. Muslim groups in Denmark protested their publication and several Muslim organizations demanded an apology from the paper which was not forthcoming. Meetings and negotiations between the paper and these groups continued for months after the publication of the cartoons. Thus far, however, it was a civil affair.

On February 12th 2008, two Tunisians and a Dane of Moroccan origin were arrested and charged with planning the murder of Kurt Westergaard — the cartoonist whose depiction of Muhammad was that of a bearded man with a bomb for a turban. Less than two years later, on January 2nd 2010 a man of Somali origin armed with an axe forced his way into Westergaard’s home. The cartoonist survived by taking shelter in a specially designed panic room and calling the police.

This is not the first time that a member of the public has been met with violence for offending the sensibilities of some Muslims. In November 2004, a Dutch-Moroccan man murdered film director Theo Van Gogh. Some Muslim groups deemed his film ‘Submission’, which tackled Islam’s treatment of women, blasphemous.

I take care to say ‘some’ because it is too easy to fall into the trap of applying a single characteristic to a diverse group. In fact, only a fringe would undertake such drastic action. An extreme form of belief is required for members of any group to act in a way that is clearly against their self interest, but is – in their opinion – in the group’s interest.

What had changed since the initial publication was that within a short period of time, the cartoons were published by newspapers and magazines in more than 50 countries, including some with a Muslim majority. The reaction of the vast majority of Muslims was inimical to these moves. Embassies of the European countries where newspapers led the publication charge were attacked; some were burned.

It seems that what “representatives” of the Muslim community, and here I include fringe elements as well, are in effect asking for is a ban on the publication, showcasing and airing of material they consider offensive. This is unworkable and, to put it simply, unfair.

The debate about the Jyllands-Posten cartoons quickly develops into a debate about freedom of speech. The side defending the publication of the cartoons broadly argues that freedom of speech is paramount and any censorship is unwarranted. The other side then often raises a number of contradictions, notably the double standard of this very position considering that holocaust denial is illegal in sixteen, mostly western,  democracies.

True, freedom of speech is not completely unconstrained and hence justifying the publication of the cartoons exclusively on these grounds is problematic. Since all other religions are subject to regular ridicule, however, the fundamental question becomes: why should it be the case that one religion be made exempt from this treatment?

It shouldn’t. At least not in a society where all religions are equal in the eyes of the law. Instead, those Muslims who find themselves offended at abuse of their religion will have to accept that what they consider sacred need not coincide with what others see as beyond ridicule. In a pluralistic society values are diverse and interaction between different factions results in people being exposed to others’ points of view. These could be agreeable or opposed to theirs. These could also be offensive. In constraining freedom of speech, however, society did not judge the charge of being ‘offensive’ to be sufficient for speech to be disallowed. This I find to be reasonable. Consider the alternative scenario in which a group’s offence at a particular type of speech made that speech eligible for censorship. Then the populous, say, David Beckham fan club would undoubtedly place denying Beckham’s deadball accuracy on the list of proscribed speech.

Episode ‘200’, the 6th episode of the 14th season of South Park, which aired on April 21st 2010, featured the prophet Muhammad purportedly in a van, a bear costume and behind a black rectangle labeled ‘censored’. Shortly thereafter, in reference to South Park’s producers Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee posted this on the website RevolutionMuslim.com: ‘We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.’ The post included a photo of the Dutch director’s murdered body and the addresses of both Comedy Central and a house co-owned by the South Park duo.

Some Muslims today (and, as a matter of fact, some Non-Muslims too) see any depiction of the prophet as blasphemous. Whereas some of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons could be regarded as deliberately derogatory, episode ‘200’ offends Muslims such as Al-Amrikee simply because the prophet features in it. I avoid pedantry by not debating whether or not insinuating that the prophet was in a bear suit counts as depiction. Instead I would rather raise a point, regularly ignored, about the core of the Muslim reaction to depictions of the prophet. Does depiction of the prophet deserve such a vexed reaction from Muslims in the first place? Islamic art historian Wijdan Ali believes that the interdiction of imagery of the prophet came as late as the 17th century and yet drawings of the prophet continued to appear among more peripheral sects within Muslim societies until the modern era. While some artists depicted the prophet but obscured his face, others had no such qualms. This makes it clear that the ruling is not fundamental to the faith, hence attitudes towards the issue of depicting the prophet ought to be more tempered. Out of the many live issues in Islam today, this one seems to enjoy unusual concord amongst both moderates and extremists.

The group RevolutionMuslim.com is extremist by all metrics. It represents an interesting case because of the contradictory positions it occupies. On the one hand, it preaches its extreme anti-US views thanks to the enshrinement of freedom of speech in the bill of rights. On the other hand, it attempts to curtail this same freedom because of the offense perceived when others exercise it. Furthermore, these attempts are extra-judicial in nature. Actions by such groups only serve to reinforce the ‘separateness’ from which Muslim communities in non-Muslim-majority countries continue to suffer. Like a child in the playground who refuses to take part then complains about being excluded. The incident with episode ‘200’ illustrates this problem incisively.

Throughout the years, South Park has managed to offend almost everyone; from presidents, both serving and past, to A-list celebrities. They’ve also gone after religions with no repercussions; in the same episode that Al-Amrikee flags, Buddha is shown snorting large amounts of cocaine. In fact, only Muslims have managed to remain on the periphery of their mockery.

In a sense, it would not be preposterous to think that the Muslim community would (or even should) be lobbying for inclusion in the derision that other groups in society are regularly subjected to. Muslims, like every other group, are not incapable of raising their concerns in civility, yet we see this far too seldom. Granted, some extreme elements, far more vocal than the moderate majority, regularly hijack the platforms of expression, but it’s precisely for the sake of their image that moderate Muslims need to take a stand. The media’s willingness to run with another story about some extremist group’s heinous act in the name of Islam is also counter-productive. However these are the facts on the ground, and rather than lamenting them, Muslims should be more proactive. The outpouring of emotion from Muslims of all shades in the aftermath of the re-publication of the Muhammad cartoons would have been more beneficial to the community had it come in the aftermath of Van Gogh’s murder.

That offence provides insufficient grounds for censorship means that Muslims will likely continue to encounter offensive material in the future. What is important is that fringe groups are not able to channel this collective feeling into implicit support for their extra-judicial activities. These activities are deleterious to the image of the religion; a dozen cartoons in a Danish daily are not. Some Muslims (and non-Muslims) simply need to accept that almost nothing is universally sacred, that in a society regulated by the rule of law, objection is expressed in ways that do not include physical violence. In short, they need to learn how to be offended.

Omer Ali is based at the University of Warwick and writes on economics, politics and world affairs. He is a former editor of the Voice Magazine. His “Devil’s Advocate” column appears every other Thursday.


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Johnny Blaze
Aug 20, 2010 3:11

While there are countless reasons to criticize and condemn the irrelevant two-man-band behind RevolutionMuslim.com; that it “preaches its extreme anti-US views thanks to the enshrinement of freedom of speech in the bill of rights” is not one of them. It is an argument often used when wars of aggression are questioned “how dare you use your freedom to speech to criticize our brave boys who are fighting for your freedom of speech”. In essence what you are saying is that when people win any freedom from the state they should, out of courtesy, not seek to exercise this freedom.

The ban on Holocaust denial is also suggested to be the only, or at least most serious, curtailment of freedom of speech in Europe. This ignores the United Kingdom’s grotesquely draconian libel laws which require cases only to prove “malicious intent” to be successful. The UK also still has blasphemy laws in place to protect Christianity and one hardly be reminded of the absurd situation in the 1980’s and 90’s when members of the political party, Sinn Fein’s voices we’re banned from being played on British television. This qualified freedom of speech is no freedom of speech at all. In the words of Chomsky “even Goebbels believed in freedom of speech for things he agreed with”. This is to say nothing of the far more insidious, and regular, self-censorship we see every day in the mainstream media (or every Thursday in the Devil’s Advocate column! – I kid)

“Muslims should be more proactive. The outpouring of emotion from Muslims of all shades in the aftermath of the re-publication of the Muhammad cartoons would have been more beneficial to the community had it come in the aftermath of Van Gogh’s murder”. This regurgitation of the tabloid-favourite “moderate Muslims need to do more” is, as in most instances it is invoked, completely misplaced. There was widespread condemnation of Van Gogh’s murder from Muslim Leaders in Holland and abroad when it happened, six years ago. I really don’t understand what more you expect them to do.

Aug 20, 2010 3:28

Nobody was jailed for printing the Mohammed cartoons. However, several Muslims were jailed for up to five years for offending the bigoted right-wingers by protesting against it in ways they found unsightly, such as dressing up as suicide bombers. This is the real free speech issue: people are allowed to offend vulnerable minorities but not to offend the Sun or the Mail.

The South Park affair has been taken out of all context. South Park depicted Mohammed as a flame-throwing superhero in 2001 with absolutely no reaction. In the later 2006 and 2010 controversies, the media framed the coverage as potentially offensive to Muslims because of the media’s interpretation of why the 2005 Jyllands-Posten cartoons were deemed offensive. I think the 2005 protests were less about the fact of depicting Mohammed than about the promotion of racist stereotypes of Muslims. But the media does not wish to admit how widespread Islamophobia is, so it came up with the line that Muslims are all so irrational that the mere fact of drawing Mohammed drives them into an uncontrollable rage (thereby proving the point that Islamophobia is widespread). After which, the media make a big controversy in advance of the 2006 and 2010 South Park episodes and try to goad Muslims into responding.

The group which eventually rises to it in 2010 is one of a number of small groups competing for the allegiance of the salafi scene. Salafi adherents aren’t Muslims in the usual sense, they’re related to Islam a bit the same way as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh Day Adventists are related to Christianity, they’re neither representative of nor doctrinally recognisable to the mainstream, though they claim to be the true bearers of the entire heritage of the religion. The salafi scene in Europe and America is small, cellular, and organised around charismatic leaders among whom supporters transfer their support. As a result, there is an intense competition among preachers and faction leaders for allegiance. One of the ways to raise one’s share of attention within the scene is to get media attention or notoriety, and one of the ways to get notoriety is to say something extreme or provocative. Hence the public statement by a tiny group nobody outside New York had heard of before, that somebody at South Park might get killed (notice that they didn’t even advocate it, just said they thought it might happen). Suddenly they’re on the front page of the US press and doubtless exponentially increasing their website hits.

South Park are “equal opportunity offenders”, and people need to leave them alone. But the cartoons are a different matter. The problem isn’t that people are “offended”. The problem is that the cartoons are racist. Drawing Mohammed with a bomb in his turban (the turban being a terribly displaced orientalist trope btw) is a crude way of saying “all Muslims are terrorists”. It’s a bit like drawing a caricature hook-nosed Jew pulling the strings of politicians, or President Obama in a loincloth swinging from a tree – it’s playing on widespread prejudices against a group of people by showing these prejudices in a graphic, memorable form. From what I’ve heard, the Jyllands-Posten is a despicable little rag, the Danish version of the Sun and largely responsible for the frightening rightward lurch in Danish politics over the last decade. Ditto the Nazi-sympathiser van Gogh’s film – the argument of the film is that Islam is evil, all Muslims are liars and none of them can be trusted, as they have a plot for world domination. It’s very similar to “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and Holocaust denial, except directed against Muslims instead of Jews. I find such representations vile, I have mixed feelings about whether they should be banned (on the one hand they can and do incite hatred – on the other it’s dangerous giving the state powers to ban things), but I don’t expect the mainstream to give platforms to such things, and if they do, they need to get a vigorous reaction. And if inciting racial hatred is illegal (which it is in Britain and most of Europe, but not for instance in America), this should logically cover depicting Mohammed as a terrorist and portraying Islam as a global conspiracy, else it is being used in a discriminatory way. Actually I’ve not seen a copy of the Sun or Mail that I didn’t think would give rise to a racial hatred prosecution if it was used consistently.

Actually, there IS a legal right not to be offended in Britain, under the law on “causing harassment, alarm or distress”, and the law on ASBOs which requires that the prohibited act cause “harassment, alarm or distress”. Of course you’re right, it’s draconian, it’s unworkable and it covers all kinds of morality-dependent distress – and it is routinely used to censor (animal rights and peace protesters are accused of “harassing” executives by protesting outside labs, offices or factories for example; there is also an atheist priest-abuse survivor banned from distributing anti-religion leaflets). These kinds of totalitarian laws need to be smashed. But the thing to notice is that they are never, or almost never, used to protect minorities or the vulnerable. The EDL do not get arrested by the hundreds when they chant “f**k Allah”. It’s always the people who offend right-wing bigots who get persecuted. Apparently it causes “harassment” to see a graffiti tag on a wall, to see a person passively begging, or to see youths simply standing around socialising. It’s theocracy pure and simple – the enforcement of an entire moral code, dressed up as protecting those who adhere to the code from being offended.

Given that right-wing bigots are getting this protection, I can’t say I blame Muslims who raise an outcry over how it’s OK to offend *them* as much as one wishes, but not OK to offend the bigoted in-group. It is, of course, proof that Muslims are second-class citizens, that it is one law for the in-group and another law for everyone else.

PS: Someone may be able to clarify this, but I’ve heard that the prohibition on depicting Mohammed is related to idolatry, refers to depictions of *all* prophets (which would include Jesus, Mary and Moses), and only applies to believers (i.e. nothing in it says that a non-Muslim is forbidden from drawing Mohammed). So someone who was offended by depictions based on this prohibition, should be offended whenever they walk past a Christian church, and by South Park’s Jesus character. Because the rule is based on a hadith, it is not believed by Shi’ites, who continue to make drawings of Mohammed. Said prohibition is hence nothing to do with the controversies, which are not about depicting, but specifically about insulting/dishonouring – which is why similar responses (flag burning, effigy burning, attacking embassies) were used.

PPS: It seems to be small, vulnerable minorities which are most worried about symbolic insults – probably because they’re connected to patterns of exclusion and violence, and challenge the group’s tenuous inclusion in public space. See for example:
and on a rather different recurring issue:
I doubt such incidents would raise any (mainstream) brows in Christian-majority countries.

Aug 20, 2010 12:50

Thanks for the comments and challenges. I’ll begin by addressing Blaze’s: I think RevolutionMuslim have the indisputable right to criticize the US. However, this right may be threatened by what they’re advocating. Namely, that if speech causes offence, it should be banned. If this is applied legally with depictions of the prophet in mind, then their criticism of the US will most likely be found offensive by some other group and hence be banned.

The UK’s libel laws are a significant hurdle to free speech and hence are currently under review. Free speech is by no means completely unhindered; this does not mean that arbitrary further retrenchments are justified. The UK’s blasphemy laws have been unused for the past 90 years and were superseded in 2008 by new legislation.

I’m sure some Muslims reacted with indignation at the murder of Theo Van Gogh, but no Moroccan embassies were burned. It is clear that the difference between the reactions to the republication of the cartoons was simply on a different scale.

Now on to Andy’s points: that nobody was jailed for publishing the cartoons is good. Some Muslim groups would rather see that change. I disagree with convicting protesters no matter how unsightly their slogans, but the way to address this is to reform the law that allows such convictions not introduce new such laws.

I agree that claiming RevolutionMuslim’s response is representative of the Muslim community’s is inaccurate. It is not inaccurate however to characterize it as an extreme manifestation of the community’s sentiment – that no one should be allowed to insult what they consider sacred. It is this attitude, seeking immunity from insult, that I object to.

Yes, Muslims did find the Jyllands-Posten cartoons much more offensive than South Park’s episode ‘200’ but this is not just because of what they were insinuating. Countless references associating Muslims and explosives go unnoticed. The reason why these cartoons were so detested is their use of the prophet. So the core issue is the targeting of something that Muslims find sacred.

How the cartoons could be interpreted is irrelevant. As long as they do not fall into the category of ‘acts intended to stir up religious hatred’ of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act in their original from then they are strictly legal. It is legal to make statements about Muslims, Jews and President Obama. The examples you give may be distasteful and will likely provoke a negative public reaction, but they are allowed and should remain so. Groups regularly protest the publication and airing of material they find offensive. They do so by writing letters to the editors of offending publications, protesting, boycotting and a whole coterie of other legal, peaceful means. Muslims should behave similarly.

The point you make about the Sun and Mail is interesting. It goes to show how damaging laws that try to protect sensibilities can be. It is very clear when someone causes physical harm to another but not so clear when they offend them. Describing a religion as violent may be offensive to its adherents but unless such a statement is followed by: and therefore we should attack as many of them as possible, then it’s perfectly fine. Otherwise, as you point out, a number of newspapers would probably find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Although ASBO’s are for the most part concerned with threatening behaviour, a person is guilty of causing harassment, alarm and distress if they use ‘insulting words’. I’m not sure about this but I would think that this referred to words found generally insulting such as the usual profanities. I wouldn’t know how this applies to type of statements we’re concerned about. In any case, ASBO’s regulate interpersonal interactions which I think are quite different to cases where two people are directly involved.

I agree with your point that if there is a perversion of the law, it would likely be in the powerful group’s favour. This does not mean however that each group should be entitled to its own perversions.

Aug 20, 2010 22:33

“the way to address this is to reform the law that allows such convictions not introduce new such laws” – you’re right, we should be levelling civil liberties up rather than down, but I think it explains why minorities sometimes feel they have the right not to be offended, because other people are already getting this “protection”.

The other kind of drawings I describe (anti-Semitic, anti-black racist, etc) might or might not be legal. Actually I’ve a feeling they wouldn’t be, unless mitigated in some way by their context – and especially, if someone was caught distributing those images on leaflets, they’d be arrested for inciting racial hatred. But leaving that aside: there is one big difference between the Jyllands-Posten case and various others involving offensive images. All the other cases get universally condemned in the media, and the papers in question end up apologising.
So while it’s not illegal, there’s a kind of informal sanctioning against *mainstream* (as opposed to fringe racist) outlets running these kinds of things. On the other hand, portraying Islam as evil, Muslims as terrorists and Muslims/Arabs in terms of all kinds of Orientalist stereotypes is still viewed as within the field of legitimate controversy. And this is my worry with the framing of the article: why is it the expansion of the existing taboos to protect Muslims in line with existing norms towards other groups the main focus, when so many other kinds of ‘offensive’ speech are already taboo?

“Groups regularly protest the publication and airing of material they find offensive. They do so by writing letters to the editors of offending publications, protesting, boycotting and a whole coterie of other legal, peaceful means. Muslims should behave similarly.” – in general they do, you’re talking about literally a handful of people who’ve attacked journalists or cartoonists. The problem is that when other groups protest, they get media support, but when Muslims protest, they get depicted as unduly touchy and intolerant, as wanting “special protections”, as indirectly inciting violence, and/or as connected to others who carry out attacks. This doesn’t happen to other groups so much, even though there’s occasionally attacks coming from all kinds of sources. When Ernst Zundel got a bomb in the post, nobody complained that Jews in general were too touchy about being insulted, or intimated that Zundel wasn’t doing anything wrong or suggested he had every right to say what he said. Contrast the coverage of Zundel’s eventual extradition to Germany with the coverage of Wilders’ (now repealed) ban from the UK. I can see how people can maintain that Zundel/Wilders should be left alone on grounds of free speech (however abhorrent their statements), and how people might say that both of them are inciting hatred and should be stopped, but I can’t see how the cases are significantly enough different to explain the very different media and public reactions, *except* by recognising that Islamophobic prejudices (in contrast to anti-Semitic prejudices) are still deemed a legitimate part of public controversy. Similarly, when anti-abortion activists firebomb clinics, nobody takes this as representative of Christians, even if the people doing it are militant Christians. Why do we never here that Christians should be doing more to stop such attacks? With regard to why there are sometimes attacked by Muslims (or salafis we should say) annoyed about cartoons etc, people will eventually get frustrated that they’re not being listened to, especially when they’re subjected to constant stereotyping, when their complaints are misrepresented in the media, and when they are subject to so much additional legal inequality and social persecution that they feel the whole system is against them. If other people took Islamophobia more seriously, it would be less likely to happen. And also, the kind of people who do this are not going to care if they get condemned by imams or protested by other Muslims.

You seem, though, to be missing the main point: that Britain DOES have an extensive and wide-ranging ban on offending other people, but this regime is mainly used to ban people from offending the prejudices of the bigoted elite or the tabloid-reading ‘majority’ (if such they are) – it is NOT (normally) used to protect vulnerable minorities who are at risk of mistreatment (there are a few exceptions where it is used against racists or homophobes, but this is rare). So first off, Muslims who want censorship are not demanding special treatment, they’re demanding equal treatment (under a regime which is itself highly illiberal). And secondly, the main problem is not the generally ignored call to ban things which offend Muslims, but the very real and widespread phenomenon that anything that tabloid readers find offensive gets banned.

I agree with you that having a regime which criminalises ‘offensiveness’ is absolutely intolerable. In my view it renders the current British system illegitimate. Things are so far from the recognition of free speech here that it is meaningless to call Britain a liberal-democracy. But so far, few people seem to have realised this. Instead they’re worried about the future threat of illiberalism from the *extension* of the current regime to protect minorities. It’s like complaining about getting wet from light rainfall when you’re drowning in the sea.

ASBOs can refer to all kinds of things which are deemed offensive by someone else, there is really no limit as to what they can be used for. Have a look here:
The case-studies are in the left column. Yes, in some cases people have been banned from using swear-words or other supposed insults (one man is banned from using the word “Taleban” for example). I don’t see how that’s any different from the cases in the article. South Park also swear all the time, and that’s also a reason some people have tried to have them banned or censored. Swearing is a form of expressive communication, is very common in certain (mainly working-class and youth) communities, and would be covered by a “classical” (as opposed to a neoliberalised sold-out) version of free speech (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cohen_v._California). I’m not sure that swearing is “generally” offensive. Some people get offended by swearing, others don’t. I’ve heard of a case where police stood around eavesdropping until someone swore to his friends, so they’d have an excuse to arrest him – I seriously doubt his friends were offended. But if we’re adding the criterion that something has to be “generally offensive”, rather than offensive to a special group to be banned, this gets us back to the problem that bans on offensiveness which favour the in-group are discriminatory against minorities (put simply: Bill is allowed to offend Ahmed, but Ahmed isn’t allowed to offend Bill). In my view that’s even worse than banning everyone from offending everyone else, because it is BOTH illiberal AND discriminatory. (To compare – which would be worse – to legalise ALL assaults, or to legalise ONLY those assaults committed by white people against black people?)

ASBOs and harassment laws have been used in cases very similar to the Jyllands-Posten controversy. This is the case I was referring to, which is EXACTLY like the :
I don’t see how this is at all different from the Danish cartoon case.

Another related case from the other side, this time against a person expressing intolerant religious views:
From what I can tell, this is for (potentially) causing offence to a vulnerable minority by expressing intolerant views – in this case, that being gay is ‘a sin’ and ‘against the word of God’ – not for using any specially aggravating phrases – it is the content of the claim, not the form, which led to the arrest. Remember also that there is no special law against homophobic hatred, this is being done on the basis of laws which could apply to anyone.

We also have democratically-elected politicians being suspended by unelected officials to make sure they don’t say anything that might be deemed offensive.

Then we have what I call ‘rightist PC’, with random public figures coming under attack for saying something deemed to go against the right-wing “consensus”. Such figures are often subjected to threats, violence and sanctions such as losing jobs. While the statements in question are rarely illegal, a lot of informal sanctions are mobilised to informally prohibit them.

I think it all adds up to a systematic climate of ‘theocratic’ policing of anything deemed to cause morality-dependent distress to adherents of the dominant ideology.

One last point:
“Describing a religion as violent may be offensive to its adherents but unless such a statement is followed by: and therefore we should attack as many of them as possible, then it’s perfectly fine. Otherwise, as you point out, a number of newspapers would probably find themselves on the wrong side of the law.” – you’re confusing the law on incitement (of a crime) with the law on inciting racial hatred. Yes, they have to say “and therefore we should attack them” to be accused of inciting assault (actually it would also have to be found to be an actionable threat as well, and there’s all kinds of other hedgings around traditional incitement laws). They can be convicted of inciting racial hatred for, for instance, making false and demeaning statements about an entire group, or for racialising an incident without due cause, for instance reporting the race of a criminal/suspect when it isn’t pertinent to the case. The *spirit* of the law is that populist newspapers aren’t meant to race-bait against minorities. The *letter* of the law means they have various kinds of wiggle room. One of these is that, until recently, they could substitute religion for race (“Asians taking over Britain” = racist, “Muslims taking over Britain” = OK). Another is by talking about “immigrants” instead of ethnic minorities (“black people destroying white culture in Britain” = racist, “uncontrolled immigration destroying British culture” = OK). Still another is the use of “adjectival racism” – it’s illegal for them to explicitly racialise a story without due cause (e.g. to say that “two gangs of black kids were involved in a fight” if it wasn’t about race, because this gives the impression that crime is a specifically black / racial problem) but they get around it by saying “the fight took place in Hyson Green” or “outside the West Indian community centre” or “the suspect’s mother, an immigrant from Ghana…” which added together the reader will code as “black crime” without the paper actually saying it. I don’t know if you’l feel these kinds of laws to violate free speech or not. They aren’t about preventing offence, though they’re sometimes used for that; they’re meant to be about ensuring fair coverage, preventing the dissemination of knowingly false impressions, and preventing ‘disorder’ (of these, only the third is an iffy motive in my view). They’re basically akin to libel laws in many ways, but far less strict. I can see how they’d be viewed as violating free speech though. I’d be interested to know whether you feel they do/don’t and why.

Aug 23, 2010 11:57

Andy, my neck’s aching from nodding so much while reading your comments. Absolutely spot on in my view.

“I think it all adds up to a systematic climate of ‘theocratic’ policing of anything deemed to cause morality-dependent distress to adherents of the dominant ideology.”

In a nutshell.

Aug 24, 2010 12:35

It is correct that other forms of offensive speech very similar to the case in question are, in fact, taboo. This is the outcome of a historic (and ongoing) process of cultural evolution. I personally would be delighted should offensive speech towards Muslims were to become taboo; not, however, to become illegal. Things become taboo through societal consensus which cannot be forced.

There is a clear difference between attitudes towards activities of fringe elements of Islam and those of other religions and groups. That Muslims seem to be under constant suspicion and wholly implicated by the actions of these elements is lamentable. Unfortunately, this is a well trodden path that many racial, religious and national minorities have had to endure. This treatment is likely to persist for some time especially since September 11th served as an introduction to Islam for a large number of people in Western Europe and North America; a first impression that will influence perception for some time to come.

Rather than pointing to an asymmetry in the application of the law, the examples you cite of speech being censored point to a choice of grounds on which offence is not tolerated. From the sample you provide, sexuality and race are grounds on which offence is not tolerated; religion does not make the list.

The case of a man furnished with an ASBO for leaving offensive leaflets in an airport prayer room has only superficial similarities with the Jyllands-Posten case. First, an individual,as opposed to a publication, is involved. Second, the individual’s motives were clearly malicious. There is a fundamental difference between the use of ASBOs and the censorship that I take issue with. ASBOs constrain how you say things but not what you can say. Had the individual in this case posted the material printed on the leaflets on a blog for example, they would not have been issued with one.

A number of examples are given before you conclude that they testify to a ‘climate of ‘theocratic’ policing of anything deemed to cause morality-dependent distress to adherents of the dominant ideology’. All the sanctions in these examples did not resort to the judicial system. These were either private individuals or organisations that decided to take actions, those actions being within their rights, to express opposition to the statements uttered. One may disagree with the positions taken but I’m sure no one is advocating that they should not be allowed to take such positions.

Thanks for clarifying the difference between the law on inciting crime and that on inciting racial hatred. Predictably, the debate has become one about the right of free speech and how unfettered it should be. I would like first to make clear that I do not find free speech intrinsically desirable. Nor do I believe that the freer speech is the better. I simply believe that restrictions should be warranted and that their benefits to society should outweigh their costs. The law on inciting racial hatred as you’ve described it above would undoubtedly be a restriction on freedom of speech. By definition, if under this law an individual or group could not express things which they could in its absence then it infringes on their right of free speech. Now, like other slogans (such as free trade), an extreme form is not only undesirable but practically impossible to implement. The restrictions outlined above seem to been motivated by all the right reasons and I would support them. In reality however, we know that intentions rarely matter and the question becomes whether or not the restrictions are effective in achieving their stated aims.

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