The Causes of Poverty (25): The Matthew Effect

The Matthew Effect – a concept invented by sociologist Robert K. Merton – is based on the following extract of the Gospel of Matthew:

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

This statement is intuitively convincing. Those who already have economic resources can use these to acquire even more of them, often if not by definition at the expense of those who don’t have them. It’s easy to see how wealthy people have better information to use their wealth in such a way that they can increase it. How they know the right people, how they can use the education system to their advantage (and to the advantage of their offspring), how they can use the political system to their advantage etc. Conversely, poor people are often stuck in a poverty trap: their poverty makes them sick, and their sickness even more poor; their poverty makes it hard to access education, and their lack of education makes them more poor etc.

You can see at once how this is relevant to the issue of human rights. While income or wealth inequality as such isn’t a human rights violation, it does have implications for human rights. And poverty is a human rights violation. But the Matthew Effect can be observed in other human rights as well. Take for instance the wiretapping that is used in the war on terror. Initially, wiretapping is targeted towards individuals who are suspected of plotting an attack. However, it seems inevitable that those who are authorized to use wiretapping expand the field of their authority. Instead of targeted wiretapping, they go on fishing expeditions: throwing out the nets as wide as possible and see which fishes end up in it. They start to use data-mining, for instance, checking private information of entire populations in order to filter out suspect individuals.

Another example of the Matthew Effect in human rights can be found in hate speech laws. The laws may initially impose limits on the freedom of speech that crack down on cases of hate speech that may cause violence and riots. However, once certain exceptions on the freedom of speech are legal and legitimate, the boundaries may move towards more restrictions. Maybe speech that doesn’t pose an imminent threat of violence but perhaps a longterm threat to the stability of a multicultural society – such as derogatory speech, or blasphemous speech – should also be prohibited. And then you may find yourself on a slippery slope.

I can also mention what I called “searchlight human rights violations” (see this previous post): for example, a certain level of sexual violence against women in a particular society, can teach young men a certain culture, mentality and value system that automatically leads to a wider use of violence.

However, I don’t believe things are as simple as this. While the Matthew Effect is certainly a force that is driving human rights violations, I don’t think there is anything inevitable or mechanical about it. There are other forces at play as well, and some of them go in the other direction. If that wouldn’t be the case, then the Matthew Effect would have landed us in a place where respect for human rights is non-existent, and would have done so a long time ago.

Regarding the particular case of wealth inequality, a simple application of the Matthew Effect would require a vision of the world with limited resources. And although some – important – resources are indeed limited, others – equally important ones – are not. It’s not because one person receives a good education, that another one must receive less education. And when one person accumulates riches, this can benefit others (his or her employees for example).

Limiting Free Speech (25): Does Freedom of Religion Require Limits on Freedom of Speech?

The UN Human Rights Council recently passed a Resolution on Religious Defamation. The main concern of the drafters of this resolution is islamophobia, defamation of Muslims, negative stereotyping of Muslims and Islam, and intolerance and discrimination against Muslims. The main targets are, obviously, western societies where, it is believed, “terrorism hysteria” has caused widespread anti-Muslim feelings.

Of course, no one should accept discrimination and intolerance, and even less islamophobic acts of violence. If there is discrimination and violence, then these human rights violations should be countered, wherever they occur, in the West and elsewhere. However, trying to outlaw defamation and stereotyping is a lot more controversial. While such acts are certainly not helpful in any circumstances, it’s not beyond doubt that they are harmful in themselves or that they are the single most important cause of more harmful acts, such as discrimination and violence.

For the proponents of the resolution, this is beyond doubt. Defamation, stereotyping, derogatory speech, blasphemy etc. are all believed to be harmful enough to justify limiting freedom of speech. The resolution clearly proposes such limits. It talks about

the need, in all societies, to show sensitivity and responsibility in treating issues of special significance for the adherents of any particular faith.

The “provocative or regrettable incidents” it mentions are clearly but not explicitly instances of speech rather than the very rare cases of actual violence and discrimination against western Muslims, namely the Danish Muhammad cartoons, the remarks by Pope Benedict, the Rushdie affair, the attempts of some to equate Islam with terrorism etc. The resolution urges

States to take actions to prohibit the dissemination of… material aimed at any religion or its followers that constitute incitement to racial and religious hatred, hostility or violence,

and says that

respect of religions and their protection from contempt is an essential element conducive for the exercise by all of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

So in these statements, there are two distinct attempts to justify limits on speech that defames and stereotypes Islam:

  1. The first justification is that such speech is hate speech and speech that incites violence and discrimination.
  2. The second is that it restricts the freedom of religion of its targets.

I dealt with the first one before, in this post (where I argued for a very limited possibility to restrict hate speech), so here I’ll focus on the second one. Of course, the second one can collapse into the first one, if the restriction of freedom of religion is supposed to follow from acts of violence that are caused by speech. Acts of violence can indeed restrict freedom of religion, but this argument isn’t valid in the case of Muslims in the West, who have only very rarely been subjected to islamophobic violence and who therefore cannot claim that hate speech and the resulting violence restrict their freedom of religion. If anything, Muslims have more religious freedom in the West than in many Muslim countries.

So something more is meant by the second justification of limits on freedom of speech. It’s not, however, clear what exactly is meant. I haven’t been able to find examples, given by proponents of the resolution, of ways in which speech can restrict an individual’s freedom of religion. These proponents don’t get any further than the general claim that freedom of religion requires laws against defamation, and most likely also blasphemy, and corresponding limitations of free speech.

The question here, of course, is whether freedom of speech can in any way restrict the freedom of religion. If that is the case, then a trade-off has to be made as in all cases in which different human rights come into conflict. But I don’t think that is the case. On the contrary. Freedom of speech is an essential safeguard for freedom of religion.

Now, let’s suppose that there exists, somewhere, a good argument linking defamatory speech and restrictions of freedom of religion, but that I’m just not aware of it (yet). The problem is that, even if defamatory speech can in some obscure way limit someone’s freedom of religion, it doesn’t necessarily follow that in such a case freedom of religion should automatically take precedence over freedom of speech. When two rights come into conflict, it’s often very difficult to decide which one has priority.

Another problem with this undiscovered argument is the vagueness of “defamatory”. Defamation, according to Wikipedia, means the following:

In law, defamation (also called calumny, libel (for written publications), slander (for spoken word), and vilification) is the communication of a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government or nation a negative image. It is usually, but not always, a requirement that this claim be false and that the publication is communicated to someone other than the person defamed (the claimant).

Defamation – also libel or slander – is the offense of bringing a person into undeserved disrepute by making false statements. (I already discussed the relationship between free speech and defamation or libel here).

This definition, however, doesn’t help a lot because it doesn’t make clear what is or is not supposed to be considered as defamatory. What is defamatory differs from one person to another. And this vagueness of the concept may have far-reaching consequences. Suppose we agree that there are good reasons to restrict defamatory speech for the sake of freedom of religion. Is it not likely that those who have to enforce these legal restrictions will be tempted to use them to stifle legitimate criticism of religion instead of real defamation? Where is the border between defamation and criticism? Or between defamation and alternative, non-official interpretations of a religion? I guess that there will be a rapid transition from concerns about religious freedom to their exact opposite, namely policies to punish heresy, blasphemy and apostasy, and to criminalize dissent in general. It’s not defamation of religion that harms but the measures taken to defend religions from defamation – or, better, the measures that are claimed to be taken in defense or religion, but more often than not are taken in defense of power.

Limiting Free Speech (23): Blasphemy Laws

Blasphemy laws are obviously limitations on the freedom of speech, and in my view, unjustifiable limitations. Blasphemy is a disrespectful or insulting statement about a God or a religion. It’s a kind of defamation or libel of God. (I disregard in the current context the act of claiming the attributes or prerogatives of deity, also a kind of blasphemy).

I never quite understood how people can think that an almighty God can be insulted by statements made by unbelievers, and needs to be protected against such statements by blasphemy laws. And I don’t say this because I’m agnostic. I would say the same thing if I was a believer. I think my God would be able to take it, and I can’t understand the concept of a God who can’t take it.

More intelligent proponents of laws prohibiting blasphemy see my point and redirect these laws towards a defense, not of God himself, but of his teachings and his flock. Blasphemy is then a verbal attack on a particular faith or on the followers of this faith. But this is also a sign of weakness and self-doubt. It implies that blasphemous statements can hurt a community of believers, individual believers or elements of a faith. It implies, in other words, that this faith isn’t very strong, either as a system of belief, or as someone’s conviction. So maybe the system of belief is so weak that it needs to be defended by law against criticism, because otherwise it would fall apart. Or maybe the believers need protection so as not to loose their belief. But perhaps the hurt in question doesn’t refer to a teaching or a belief, but is merely a matter of being insulted. And then I refer to a previous post in this series, more generally on the supposed right not to be offended (see also here).

Fortunately, blasphemy laws are more or less defunct in most western democracies. They are common only in theocracies. However, there are calls for their reinstatement in some democracies, especially those with large Muslim communities. It is an unfortunate fact that most of the modern day terrorist attacks are carried out by radical Muslims, and this fact convinces some people that there is a kind of necessary link between the religion of Islam and terrorism. As a result, public discourse in some circles is rife with incendiary remarks about Islam (Wilders is a particularly loud example). No matter how simplistic and unfair these remarks are, they are taken very seriously by many Muslims who seek to stop them by demanding the reinstatement and application of blasphemy laws. Some democratic governments seem to take these demands on board, and consider blasphemy laws to be a good way to accommodate religious and cultural sensitivities, to avoid social divisions, violent protest and radicalization of young Muslims.

However, I think they are wrong. Rather than silencing the debate about Islam and terrorism, governments should allow moderates within and outside of Islam the chance to win it. Blasphemy laws will only encourage islamophobes in their belief that Islam is intolerant and weak, seeking special protection because it is flawed to such an extent that it cannot survive criticism. And they get further encouragement from the often harsh and brutal punishments for blasphemy demanded by some vocal Muslim minorities.

In many countries, blasphemy laws are used as a means of political oppression. When religious leaders are also political leaders, or closely affiliated with political leaders, these laws can stifle dissent and opposition because they recast criticism of politics as criticism of religion. Even a secular leader can use blasphemy laws to decide religious animosity between groups in a way that suits his own purposes.

Blasphemy laws are a symptom of an insufficient separation between state and church. Religious liberty requires equal treatment of all religions, and equal political and legal power for all religions. Otherwise the choice for a religion wouldn’t be a free one. Blasphemy laws typically do not apply to all religions equally.

Cultural Rights (8): Tolerance

Diversity and tolerance of diversity can be very beneficial because they make it possible for us to learn from others, to debate with others and take into account their objections and counter-arguments. Tolerance helps us to come closer to the truth. We can take advantage of diversity and of tolerance of diversity, because diversity means other opinions and criticism of our own opinions. The school of tolerance teaches people to reap the benefits from conflict and difference, and makes people suspicious of all efforts to eliminate conflict or to let it degenerate into violence. Tolerance is more than just a restraint on violence.