Loose lips: When Does Free Speech Become Hate Speech?
Featured image by Ben Howarth.
Following the debate on free expression in pop culture last time round, Ben and I locked horns on a different matter altogether: the perceived discrimination of religious groups. The debate was ignited by the rants of the relentless Professor Paul Weller of Derby University, whose obsessive and adamant insistence of discrimination against Christians irked us both. He claims that ‘A lack of basic religion or belief literacy perpetuates a status quo where not enough is known about these religions.’
Contrary to Waller’s claims, I reckon that, as a society, we are extremely lenient on religious privilege. Not to mention that Prof Weller is arrogant enough to think that everyone should respect the content of his religious beliefs. Nonetheless, lawsuits dealing with deemed discrimination against religious groups have made the news this year (see below).
Nadia Eweida was told by British Airways that she had to wear her Christian necklace discreetly, in line with the company's uniform policy. But, according to the European Court of Human Rights, Eweida was discriminated since her 'freedom of thought, conscience and religion' was impeded. Three separate but similar claims of discrimination were, however, rejected.
Cases of religious privilege are prevalent. For instance, last year Bishops of the Church of England maintained the right to be undemocratically gifted seats in the House of Lords. Meanwhile, Michael Gove’s free schools and academies can discriminate up to 50 % of their intake solely based on children’s religious convictions (as if they have any sincerely held religious beliefs by this age). We also see children of no faith, or of different faiths, such as Islam, left with no choice but to attend schools of one religion only, such as Judaism. Surely, to be less divisive we should consider schools which are each fit for purpose for the multicultural society we live in. The list, of course, doesn’t end there. I will spare you from more of my ranting and trust that you at least appreciate the common theme of my arguments.
I feel that nobody should enjoy privileges that no one else can benefit from. That’s hardly a ground-breaking opinion. But tell this to Professor Weller or Eric Pickles MP. The latter boasts that the government is proud to ‘do God’ (strictly the Christian one) and ardently opposes a potential ally in the ‘intolerance of aggressive secularism’. This is hardly good news for the majority of people who don’t share his particular views.
Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles MP, is an outspoken Christian.
Back to the debate. Ben (BH) and I (JCR) entered a discussion of Professor Weller’s comments.
BH: ‘Weller needs to stop trying to think for people. He’s only trying to restrict attitudes that oppose his views. More to the point, why do I have to consider other people when it comes to what I feel or say? I’m not responsible for anyone but me.’
JCR: ‘He does need to mature and stop being so self-obsessive. However, in defence of limiting speech, remember that discussion we had about the banning of anti-gay Christian bus ads in London? Both homosexual and Christian groups found each other’s adverts ‘highly offensive’. More importantly, there’s an underlying issue in that one could use free speech to spread an ideology that hate-mongers—one that does so with no evidence or compelling reasoning. This sets a dangerous precedent, does it not? Shouldn’t we limit some kinds of speech?’
A Christian group's proposed slogan in response to this Stonewall advert read: 'NOT GAY! EX-GAY, POST-GAY AND PROUD. GET OVER IT!' Presumably, they did this because they thought it would protect those who chose not to be gay. However, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, stepped in to ban the proposal.
BH: ‘Well, it was probably irresponsible of the Christian group to try to spread this message but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to—though of course I would never support such statements. I consider it irresponsible for people not to educate themselves better on the subject. Look, if you want to have all the positives that come hand in hand with free speech, (e.g. cutting-edge comedy and music), then you have to be prepared to let someone say something horrible.’
JCR: ‘Okay. Let me propose a hypothetical situation. Should I be allowed to spread the following statement on buses and billboards: “Adam Sandler is a stupid Jew”?’
Sandler was arbitrarily chosen by me here. Factually speaking, he is a Jew.
BH: ‘If that is your opinion, then yes.’
JCR: ‘Fair enough. Aside from that, then, what do you think about age restrictions on watching films, there being no sexual themes on TV before 9 o’clock, etc.?’
BH: ‘That’s a long conversation. I think organisations like BBFC, MPAA, and FCC shouldn’t intervene in general. Nothing should be as far-reaching as altering the plots of films, for example. But I see the value of guidelines.’
JCR: ‘I struggle to see the consistency in the logic there. Who are you protecting with those guidelines?’
BH: ‘I see the value of having guidelines with regards to telling an audience a little bit about the film they’re going to see. They’re useful for a parent to gauge whether or not a film is appropriate for their young child or not. But those guidelines shouldn’t change anything about the film.’
JCR: ‘But there are so many situations where a mere statement can be dangerous. Last time I used Justin Bieber’s Mum, Pattie Mallette, pushing her pro-life agenda onto young girls as an example. You wouldn’t step in to stop this but would you step in to stop malicious verbal attacks against minorities (like mine above)? Sure, it’s hard to legislate against Mallette publicly declaring her views on abortion but what about protecting these minorities—not just ethnic minorities but other groups, such as Goth—who can become psychologically scarred from being ostracised and aggressively bullied? This could be and is legislated, albeit with some ambiguity.’
Sophie Lancaster was murdered in 2007 for being different. Lancaster and her partner were members of a gothic subculture. They were picked on because of this. Did hate speech incite the perpetrators attitudes or are cases like this a result of individuals' cruel and mindless thuggery?
BH: ‘Bullying is going to happen no matter what. It’s up to the adults, not the authorities, to teach their kids the right attitudes. Restricting speech just seems so primitive. Limiting language doesn’t actually solve anything. Banning the word ‘nigger’ doesn’t end racism, for instance.’
JCR: ‘I agree that it’s not the word per se. I think it’s the intent behind bullying that makes it such a cruel act. As such, it’s one thing to describe what a ‘nigger’ denotes; it’s another to use it as an insult. The intent elicits negative emotions; this is fundamentally why we seek to stop bullying. But, in general, I agree, I should be able to criticise people. It’s just hard for others to know when my intent is sincerely malicious or otherwise unnecessary. This is where the crux of the whole debate sits, in my opinion.
‘To turn the debate on its head, I should be able to criticise religious establishments without Professor Waller snivelling in response to people being naive about his religion.’
When does free speech become hate speech? I think vulnerable people need to be protected from verbal abuse and unsubstantiated claims to a degree. On the other hand, Ben feels as though free speech should always be prioritised and only sees a danger when people act on their words, which comes down to individual responsibility.