Limiting Free Speech (22): Aggressive Proselytizing

Some governments, local or national, want to ban aggressive proselytizing by some religious groups. In a multicultural environment, and especially in an area where there have already been tensions or clashes between religious groups, governments may believe that public order requires such a ban. Aggressive proselytizing by one group can provoke angry reactions by other groups. This can lead to public disturbances or even violent clashes.

As a rule, proselytizing is a form of speech that should be protected by freedom of speech, even when it is “aggressive” in the sense of persistent, widespread, continuous, and highly visible. However, “aggressive” can be more than this. As always in discussions on limits on freedom of speech, this freedom has to be balanced against other rights. When freedom of speech is used in such a way that it leads to violations of other rights, one has to decide which does the least harm: continuing to respect freedom of speech, or limit it for the sake of respect for other rights?

For example, when proselytizing becomes intrusive, the right to privacy may be harmed (in the case of religious telephone marketing for example). Or when it becomes too aggressive in an already tense multicultural setting, it may lead to violence and violations of the rights to security and bodily integrity. The system of human rights isn’t an harmonious whole, and different rights can harm each other. Freedom of speech is very important, but there’s no reason to believe that it is the only important or the most important human right.

Proselytizing is of course also part of freedom of religion. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration grants the right to freedom of religion, but this article doesn’t include a right to try to induce someone to convert to one’s faith. It merely states that anyone has the right to freely choose, practice, change, teach, manifest and worship his or her religion. “Teach” may be interpreted to include proselytizing, but that is not evident. Article 19, however, the article about freedom of speech, does specifically grant the right to impart information and ideas. Religious information and ideas are obviously included.

Article 18 clearly states that proselytizing shouldn’t mean forcing people to adhere to a certain religion. Religion should be a free choice. The rule against forced conversion is mirrored by the exit-right: freedom of religion means that people shouldn’t be forcefully converted, and also means that people who are already members of a religion have the right to decide to leave. Article 20 of the Universal Declaration as well prohibits coerced membership of an association.

This prohibition of coercion is important when talking about proselytizing. Many religious groups use “soft coercion” in their attempts to increase their flock:

  • they use their power in the media, in politics or in the economy
  • they promise rewards to people if they convert (such as education or healthcare)
  • they use family members who have already converted to try to convince people to convert as well,  etc.

Hard coercion, such as indoctrination, “deprogramming” (a kind of indoctrination), fear tactics, bribes etc. are less common, because most religions understand that religious belief must come from the heart and must be a voluntary choice (albeit a voluntary choice that can be encouraged).

It is precisely when coercive tactics (hard or soft) are used that the “target religions” will consider the proselytizing to be aggressive. And then they may decide that counter-aggression in some form is the only possible response. The results of this are obvious.

Proselytizing should be a contest of ideas, and the only tactic should be voluntary persuasion. This can mean argumentation, “witnessing”, giving the good example, and even doing good works and engaging in charity if there are no conditions attached. A soup kitchen that is only accessible after conversion is again a type of coercion that shouldn’t be allowed. Most religions adhere to these principle, at least in their major texts. Many followers, however, are less patient in their attempts to save unbelievers from eternal doom. And their impatience often forces them to use tactics that go beyond persuasion.

For many religions, it’s a duty to proselytize: “Go to all the nations and make disciples” says the Bible. And this is understandable: if you’re convinced that you possess the truth, it would be immoral to leave your fellow humans in the darkness of error. The same goes for non-religious “truth”. What makes religious truth special is that this truth means eternal salvation. So the absence of truth not only means error but also eternal damnation. Hence, persuasion is a very important and urgent matter (although some religions, like Orthodox Judaism, don’t proselytize at all, in part as a result of a historical fear that other religions would react in an aggressive way). This importance and urgency, however, do not excuse the violation of people’s freedom to choose.

Limiting Free Speech (7): Violence in the Media and Real Life Violence

Conventional wisdom says that violent films, violent video games, violent song lyrics or even news stories about violence, lead to an increase in violent crime. On the basis of this causal link, some argue that the right to free speech of movie makers and others should be limited and they should be forced to show restraint when depicting violence. And if they don’t, some measure of benevolent censorship should be applied. The use of movie ratings, which do not limit freedom of speech, isn’t enough. It’s useful to protect children – probably the most impressionable part of humanity – but if violence in movies incites real violence, there’s no reason to think that this is only the case for children.

Is this conventional wisdom true? It probably is, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that limiting free speech is the right kind of remedy. Many studies have pointed out that media violence exposure increases aggressive behavior because

  • it renders viewers insensitive,
  • excites them,
  • changes their moral compass (especially in the case of young viewers),
  • and gives them ideas (people, also adults, learn through imitation).

However, another study claimed that movie violence might temper the real thing:

On days with a high audience for violent movies, violent crime is lower. And crime is not merely delayed until after the credits run. In the hours after theatres close — from midnight to 6 a.m. the next day — violent crimes dropped. Violent films prevent violent crime by attracting would-be assailants and keeping them cloistered in darkened, alcohol-free environs. Instead of fueling up at bars and then roaming around looking for trouble, potential criminals pass the prime hours for mayhem eating popcorn and watching celluloid villains slay in their stead. “You’re taking a lot of violent people off the streets and putting them inside movie theaters,” said one of the authors of the study, Gordon Dahl, an economist at the University of California, San Diego. “In the short run, if you take away violent movies, you’re going to increase violent crime.” Over the last decade the showing of violent films in the United States has decreased assaults by an average of about 1,000 a weekend, or 52,000 a year. (source)

Such things are difficult to prove. Who can say that a movie is the cause of a particular crime? And who can redo the events to see what would have happened had the criminal not seen the movie? Or the other way around: if you claim that moviegoers forgo activities that have a greater tendency to encourage mayhem, like drinking and drug use, how can you prove that they would have been more likely to have committed a crime had they not visited the cinema?

Any act of violence has multiple and complex causes. One person can sit through hours of violent movies and remain his own calm self. Another person turns violent because of one wrong word. He or she may be burdened by low self-esteem as a result of years of childhood negligence, poverty etc. The problems is: if there have to be limits on the freedom of expression of artists, these have to be the same for all viewers. You can’t check at the ticket stand of a cinema if a person has violent tendencies that may be aggravated by a violent movie. You just have to cut away the violent scenes from the movie. And then you’ll always be overshooting (pardon the expression) because you’re protecting many viewers who don’t need protection since they will not be incited to violence.

But better safe than sorry and cut the violence anyway? I don’t think so. Freedom of expression and artistic expression are extremely important. It’s likely that other measures, short of censorship, and intervention earlier in the causal chain of violence will be more successful in stopping or limiting violence.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (10): Prejudice According to Allport’s Scale

People who are aware of, and ashamed of, their prejudices are well on the road to eliminating them. Gordon Allport

Gordon Allport, a psychologist, created Allport’s Scale in 1954. It’s a measure of the manifestation of prejudice in a society. The scale contains 5 stages of prejudice, ranked by the increasing harm they produce.

Stage 1: antilocution

Antilocution (“speaking against”) means making jokes about another group,’a0but also’a0the expression of hateful opinions. In the former case it’s also called derogatory speech, and in the latter case it’s called hate speech. Both cases can be examples of prejudice, prejudice in the sense of an opinion reflecting negative stereotypes and negative images based on preconceived judgments rather than facts.

Antilocution is often believed to be harmless (“sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you”), but it can harm the self-esteem of the people of the targeted group, and it can clear the way for more harmful forms of prejudice. The line between violent words and violent acts is often very thin. The self-image of a group can be hurt, which can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Stage 2: avoidance

People in a group are actively avoided by members of another group. Harm is done through isolation and by preparing the way for more harmful acts. Xenophobia, or the fear of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange, results in exclusion.

Stage 3: discrimination

A group is discriminated against by denying them equal access to opportunities, goods and services. Discrimination is intended to harm a group by preventing it from achieving goals, getting education or jobs, etc.

Stage 3b (added later): subtle aggression

This is an assumption of hierarchy, particularly hierarchy of power, an assumption that somebody has less knowledge because of their age, gender or race or other characteristics and that these people can be excluded in some way.

Stage 4: physical attack

This has become known as hate crime. Groups are the victim of vandalism, the burning of property or violent attacks on someone’s physical integrity such as lynchings, pogroms etc.

Stage 5: extermination

The extermination of a group through genocide, ethnic cleansing etc.

Human Rights and International Law (7): Crimes Against Humanity

A crime against humanity is a large scale atrocity against a civilian population, such as genocide, ethnic cleansing or the massive killing of civilians during war, and is the highest level of criminal offense. It is either a government policy or a wide practice of atrocities tolerated, condoned or facilitated by a government. Atrocities such as murder, torture and rape are crimes against humanity only if they are large scale and part of a widespread or systematic practice organized or condoned by a government. Isolated atrocities are certainly human rights violations, and can perhaps even be war crimes, but they don’t fall into the category of crimes against humanity. (And acts which do not violate human rights can never be crimes against humanity, even if they are widespread and systematic and even if they cause suffering).

Crimes against humanity can take place during a war or in peace time, and can be committed by a state against its own citizens or against the citizens of another state.

What Are Human Rights? (16): Limited Rights That Need to be Balanced Against Each Other

Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Some rights can cause violations of other rights or of the rights of others, which is why rights have to be balanced against each other.

In specific instances of rights that come into conflict ’97 for example the right to free speech and the right to privacy ’97 a judgment has to be made about the priority of one right or the other. The decision can be made by a judge, but also by the legislator. There can be laws that limit one right for the sake of another. The phrasing of human rights articles in constitutions and treaties often provides the possibility of such legal limits.

These limits are an almost daily occurrence, even in a perfect system. The system of human rights is not a coherent and harmonious whole.

Libel or expressions of racial hatred, for instance, are often illegal, and with good reason. Expressions of hatred are not only insulting (people should be able to live with insults); they can also lead to discrimination or even physical harm. It is a thin line between aggressive words and aggressive actions.

The problem of course is how to decide between rights. On what grounds do we give priority to one right or the other? Only if we have a rule for this can we distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate limits on rights, or better between limits and violations. Part of the rule could be that some rights are clearly absolute. It seems unacceptable to kill someone, even if doing so would allow us to protect some other right of some other person. Limits on the right to life will then never be legitimate and this right should always have priority and can in turn limit other rights.

However, this rule leaves most problems of conflicts between rights unsolved because most rights are not absolute. One cannot always avoid moral, philosophical and hence contestable reasoning when taking a decision between rights. Some subjective judgment on the harm we would inflict when limiting one right or the other might help. In the case of a journalist who divulges intimate details about the private life of an actor, what would be the harm inflicted on the journalist when we limit his or her right to free speech? Probably less then the harm he or she inflicts when limiting the right to privacy of the actor.

Again, a judgment may not always be as easy as in this example. Deciding between rights remains a difficult matter and one that is better left to professional judges.

Cultural Rights (3): Self-Determination

The right to self-determination is, in the first instance, the right of a state and a people to be sovereign in their territory and the right not to suffer foreign intervention, occupation or aggression. This right is necessary for democracy and human rights, because intervention, occupation and aggression often go hand in hand with violations of human rights and democratic principles. Occupation is incompatible with democracy because the government does not result from the will of the people people. Conquest and consent cannot go together. A democracy can never conquer, because if it does, it ceases to be a democracy. If it conquers, it may of course remain a democracy in its original territory and it may even contribute to the development of democratic institutions in the conquered territories, voluntarily (as with the occupation of Japan by the U.S.) or involuntarily (as with the American colonies of the U.K.). However, even if the latter takes place – and there is no reason why it must take place – we will only see democracy arise in these territories if the people of these territories regain their independence or if they agree to become an equal part of the occupying country.

Of course, self-determination can be used as a shield by tyrants in order to perpetuate human rights violations. Then it has to give way.