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When hate speech curtails the freedom to live

April 19, 2017
Global


  A legal line on hurt feelings can derail a quest for tolerance

In December 2016, Dutch courts found far-Right politician Geert Wilders guilty of inciting discrimination in a 2014 post-election speech that was deemed "demeaning and thereby insulting" towards the Moroccan population.

The Party for Freedom (PVV) leader had appeared on television asking supporters whether they wanted fewer or more Moroccans in The Netherlands, to which the answer was, "Fewer!" A smiling Wilders answered: "We're going to organise that."

Such an utterance would have little to no legal ramifications in the US, where President Donald Trump made similar remarks about Mexicans in the US – and more – during the election campaign.

According to Trump, many Mexicans in America are criminals and rapists; Mexico should pay for a wall separating the two countries; illegal immigrants should be deported; and Arab Americans cheered on the 9/11 attacks – despite a lack of evidence for the last claim.

Why the different treatment for what appears to be the same thing?

"There is a major difference in the treatment of hate speech between the Americans, who are really exceptional, and the rest of the liberal democratic world – Canada, Australia, Western Europe," explains Cherian George, an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.

"International human rights documents say that governments should intervene not just when there is violence but also when there is incitement to discrimination." 

'If you think of hate speech as the giving of offence, this other limb of it is the taking of offence. It is the manufacture of righteous indignation for a political purpose' 

– CHERIAN GEORGE






Taking offence

George was speaking at a recent SMU Wee Kim Wee Centre lunchtime talk, 'Combating Hate Campaigns: Law and its Limits', where he explained how America was unique in drawing the line at incitement to violence but allows incitement to hostility, as Trump had repeatedly done.

Minority communities in America have expressed fears of increased discrimination and even violence in the wake of Trump's victory, though reported actual physical attacks are few and far between.

Instead of setting such a high threshold for legal recourse, why not draw the line at insult or offence, which much of the world outside of the liberal democracies have?

Would that not keep a lid on rabblerousers such as Wilders and French far-Right leader Marine Le Pen, and thereby manage tensions between different communities?

"Many people would think this is like choosing a setting on a thermostat," says George, drawing the analogy.

"Rather than setting the air-con to kick in when we're about to suffer from heatstroke, let's set it such that it kicks in when we get uncomfortably warm. That sounds intuitively sensible.

"But incitement and offence are not two different marks on the thermostat; they are qualitatively different. What makes them different is that incitement focuses on measurable harm that can be objectively assessed by courts, such as discrimination and libel.

"Offence is highly substantive, it's in the eye of the beholder. More importantly, it's asymmetrical – offence can be taken even when no offence is intended. So how do you rationally police this? It's a problem," George says.

Hate spin

Besides the obvious impingement on freedom of speech, George points out implications for freedom of religion if offence laws were put in place.

"Insult laws, offence laws, blasphemy, lèse-majesté [and so on] are a bad idea because they are counter-productive in trying to achieving racial or religious tolerance," he asserts.

George highlights the case of Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a.k.a. Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian in the world's largest Muslim country. Ahok is accused of blasphemy by insulting the Quran, and though he had made no calls for discrimination or hostility, never mind violence, Islamic hardliners have called for his imprisonment.

The governor may not have used hate speech, but those behind the push to oust him are practising what George calls "hate spin".

He explains: "If you think of hate speech as the giving of offence, this other limb of it is the taking of offence. It is the manufacture of righteous indignation for a political purpose.

"Manufactured offence is something that happens everywhere. It is most dangerous where those campaigns are reinforced by laws that give legal credibility to their campaigns.

"Hate spin agents are therefore not just able to beat their chests or do a street demonstration against a film or something else, they can also point at the law that prohibits the offence and demands the government takes action."

He concludes: "I am sure the Jokowi government wishes to tell the people: 'Look, calm down. This is no big deal. This is an innocent statement.' But it is difficult for them to say that when their own laws state that there is a plausible case that Ahok was indulging in blasphemy. It has backfired badly on Indonesian democracy." 

'Indonesia is the country with laws against offence, while in the US, they won't protect you from getting your feelings hurt'

– CHERIAN GEORGE





Free to worship

Ahok's case illustrates the use of manufactured outrage by the religious Right to marginalise minority groups. In the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, Christians from nearby Bogor City hold fortnightly open-air morning services outside the presidential palace to make a point about the closure of their church by the mayor in 2010. The church has since remained closed despite federal orders to re-open it.

Meanwhile in the US, the Christian Right hold similar views towards the Islamic religion – for example, Bryan Fischer calling Islam the "Ebola virus of culture".

Relations with the Muslim minority were thrust on to the national stage in 2010 when members of the Christian Right in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, protested the approval of the construction of a mosque. After attacks on the mosque and long-drawn court battles, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro opened in August 2012 and saw off the final legal challenge for its closure in 2014.

"Indonesia is the country with laws against offence, while in the US, they won't protect you from getting your feelings hurt," George points out.

"There is practically nothing Muslims can do to legally punish the Islamaphobic groups for the lies that they expound. It could be done in Indonesia.

"The irony is this: Although the US gives less protection to minorities from offence arising from free speech than Indonesia does, guess which project is now standing? The Muslims built their mosque in Murfreesboro but the Javanese Christians still don't have a church.

"My guess is, if you ask realistic minorities which they would prefer: Have your feelings protected but stopped from practicing your religion? Or for the state to not give a damn about what is said about you but it will absolutely protect your right to build your place of worship and your right to dress whichever way you like?

"I think most minorities will choose the latter," George says. 

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