Why Do We Need Human Rights? (31): Or Maybe We Don’t? – Exploring the “Dark Side” of Human Rights

Do human rights have a “dark side“? There are some specific complaints about the nefarious or even evil consequences of certain particular human rights, and there are complaints about the harmful consequences of human rights in general. The former complaints are a lot easier to deal with, and I’ll start with those.

Complaints about particular human rights

Freedom of expression is believed to be harmful because it protects pornography, which in turn leads to gender based violence and gender discrimination. Furthermore, it implies the free dissemination and reproduction of hate and it therefore fosters violence, racism and different kinds of “phobias”. And, finally, it allows blasphemy and hence it encourages religious tensions and violence.

Those human rights that guarantee a fair trial, and more particularly the rights of defendants, make it more difficult to have an effective criminal justice system. As a result, it becomes more likely that dangerous criminals return to society. Also, the right to life makes it harder to justify capital punishment, with the same result.

The right to privacy can support gender subordination and make it more difficult to tackle domestic violence.

Some human rights can even bring us to the edge of destruction (a ban on torture makes it impossible to deal with ticking time bomb terrorists).

Such specific complaints against particular human rights can be countered rather easily. Most if not all of the harmful consequences of rights are violations of other rights. If we grant that rights are limited by other rights, then we can balance rights against each other. Or one can argue that the supposed harmful consequences of some rights will (almost) never occur, or that they aren’t really harmful at all. For example, if we don’t torture we won’t make terrorism more likely. And some forms of pornography or hate speech aren’t really very dangerous.

Complaints about human rights in general

A lot harder to answer is the challenge that there’s something wrong, not with particular human rights, but with human rights as such. This challenge can take different forms.

Human rights are supposed to be the fig leaf of international intervention and modern imperialism. The anti-Taliban intervention in Afghanistan, for instance, was partly a reaction to 9-11 but it was also justified by reference to the brutal rule of the Taliban. It may be a meager defense, but if we were to reject everything that can be abused we wouldn’t have much left. The question then becomes one of degree: are human rights more likely to be abused for imperialist reasons, or more likely to serve the beneficial goals for which they are intended? And what is the probable balance of good and bad that will result from those different uses of human rights? I think the good that comes from human rights clearly outweighs the bad, and that the bad will happen anyway, whether or not people use the excuse of human rights while making it happen.

There’s a similar claim about the inherent cultural imperialism in human rights. Human rights, even when they’re not used to justify war, military intervention or territorial occupation, are still imperialist because they imply the imposition of western values on other cultures. Human rights are then believed to be a form of cultural aggression and part of a neocolonial effort to extend the individualist, secular and modern culture of the West elsewhere in the world, destroying the indigenous cultures in the process. This claim, however, is based on some rather shaky foundations: that human rights can only be found in the West, that intercultural transmission is necessarily aggressive, one-sided and involuntary, that human rights express a culture, that human rights are individualist etc.

Then there’s the claim that the abstract nature of human rights removes the personal and the specific from cases, and removes therefore the things that make us care about cases. I dealt with this complaint before, so I won’t repeat myself. The core of the reply would be that one approach – an abstract one – doesn’t exclude a more contextualized and specific one. For instance, one can talk about the abstract desirability of the right not to be tortured and about the errors in reasoning of those arguing for exceptions to this right, and at the same time one can talk about specific cases of torture.

Another complaint is the classic marxist one: the individualism of human rights spills over into egoism and capitalist greed. Again, I refer to an older post for a detailed reply. Suffice it to say that human rights as claims on others can indeed lead to divisiveness and a lack of social harmony, and that human rights as claims for your rights can promote selfishness. These tendencies, however, are canceled by the more communitarian nature of other uses of rights (religious liberty, tolerance, freedom of association etc.).

Still another complaint is about the victimization inherent in human rights. Focusing on people’s human rights violations means focusing on their status as victims, and talking about people as victims is somewhat infantilizing. Human rights activists do indeed often view non-whites, non-males and non-westerners as passive victims, incapable of agency, waiting to be rescued by do-gooders. This obviously reinforces their subordination. (More on self-defeating human rights policies here). This complaint is more about the way people act when trying to promote human rights than about human rights as such.

A final complaint about human rights is that they give people false hope, at least those people in the poorest countries of the world. What is the point of having a right when you don’t have the means to realize that right, when there’s no way of securing the things you have a right to? For billions of people all over the world, the right not to suffer ill health, poverty or homelessness is just a sick joke. Why should we have rights when there’s no way to make them real? Good luck going to a judge in a famine infested country and asking him to respect your right to food. And even if we can make our rights real, it’s better to use politics, science and economics than abstract rights that don’t tell us how to move forward. The reply to this complaint would focus on the benefits of having rather ambitious goals, even if the complete realization of those goals is not yet possible. At least one can measure progress. And it would also focus on the realistic nature of most human rights goals. For example, it’s simply not true that poverty eradication is utopian.

More posts in this series here.

What Are Human Rights? (35): Freedom of Expression is Freedom of What Exactly?

Another way to frame the question in the title of this post is: what falls under the header of “expression”, and what not? Only if something is justifiably called expression can it enjoy the protection of the right to free expression. I’ll argue below that “expression” covers more actions than the ones we intuitively classify under that concept. Hence, freedom of expression protects more than we think it protects.

And yet, it’s not because something is expression that it automatically enjoys protection. Some actions which we readily classify as “expression” are not and should not be protected by freedom of speech. In other words, freedom of expression covers more and at the same time less than we think.

The obvious type of action that is covered by the right to free speech, and the type that represents the large majority of expressive actions, is speaking and writing in day-to-day language. Such actions enjoy a prima facie protection by the right to free speech. Nothing special about that. However, the right also applies to other expressive actions, ones that do not involve speech or writing in ordinary language:

  • some non-linguistic means of expression, such as visual art
  • some forms of protest such as the burning of a draft card, a flag or a cross
  • pornography
  • the display of symbols (e.g. a swastika)
  • etc.

These types of expressive actions can also claim protection in certain circumstances.

So, some things which are not readily identified as speech are nevertheless considered as speech acts and receive some form of protection from the right to free speech.

On the other hand, some actions that are unmistakably speech – such as hate speech, incitement etc. – are often justifiably excluded from the protection of the right to free speech.

Free speech therefore covers at the same time more and less than a cursory examination would conclude. However, the broad definition of speech that expands speech beyond mere linguistic acts does create a problem. Non-linguistic expressive actions are hard to delineate. All actions can include an expressive component, and it’s often difficult to determine when an agent intended to convey a message through her actions. So the concept can become too broad, and we risk, as a result, that freedom of speech covers all actions and becomes indistinguishable from freedom tout court. That can’t be the purpose.

Notwithstanding this problem, it’s obvious that not all linguistic or non-linguistic expressive actions should enjoy protection by the right to free speech. Terrorism is certainly an expressive action, but no one would claim that it should be protected by freedom of speech.

Beside the “freedom of what?” question, there’s another interesting one: “freedom from what?” Usually, freedom of expression, like many other type of freedom, is believed to be primarily or exclusively a freedom from government interference with speech. While that’s an important dimension of freedom, it’s not the only one. Rights have a horizontal as well as a vertical dimension: citizens can also violate each others rights, and hence freedom of expression for example is also a freedom from interference by fellow-citizens. More on the dimensions of human rights is here. More on free speech here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (20): Does Polarization Invalidate Freedom of Speech?

(Perhaps it’s best to read this post together with a previous one dealing with a similar topic).

One of the justifications of the right to free speech is an epistemological one: free, equal and massive participation in public discourse produces better decisions and opinions because it allows for

  • the appearance of a large number of arguments and perspective and
  • widespread criticism and examination of possible decisions and opinions.

Looking at possible decisions and opinions from a variety of perspectives and listening to a maximum number of critical arguments for and against, improves the quality of decisions and opinions. Freedom of speech is not, in theory, necessary for this improvement, since a single talented individual can, in isolation, imagine perspectives and counter-arguments. However, better than to trust the imagination and the limitless neutrality of an individual, it is better to use the resources of the crowd, and there is no better way to do that than to protect freedom of speech as an equal right for all. This idea has been called the marketplace of ideas.

An added advantage of involving the crowd in public discourse is that individuals will anticipate criticism and will therefore make better use of their imagination and improve their arguments even before entering the quality enhancing public discourse. (I’ve made a somewhat more profound version of this argument here).

Intuitively, one would expect that this marketplace of ideas, protected by freedom of speech, should result in some convergence: bad arguments and weakly argued opinions and decisions would lose support in public discourse, because they are publicly shown to be bad or weakly supported. The majority of people should then gravitate towards the better opinions. However, we often see the opposite, namely polarization, i.e. increasingly sharp divisions in society with groups having extreme opinions that are strongly held and that aren’t thoroughly examined. Often, the strength at which those opinions are held bears no relation to the strength of the arguments in favor of them. That’s the marketplace of ideas equivalent of harmful but popular products.

We then have to ask ourselves which of these two statements is true:

  • Polarization is the result of an insufficient or inefficient functioning of freedom of speech and public discourse. In which case we can hold on to our epistemological justification of that right.
  • Or polarization happens notwithstanding freedom of speech. In which case we seem to lose a possible justification for freedom of speech.

“Both” is probably the best answer. Freedom of speech facilitates public discourse and improves the quality of it, but only if it is used. If people decide not to use freedom of speech, and decide not to listen to opposing views or to argue with opponents, then this freedom can’t improve public discourse. Yet the absence of a proper use of this freedom does not invalidate the freedom itself. It does make it harder to justify this freedom as something beneficial. If many people don’t use freedom of speech to improve public discourse it becomes more difficult to argue that we should protect freedom of speech because it improves public discourse. And yet, this doesn’t undermine the theoretical or philosophical argument that freedom of speech can – in theory – improve public discourse. So the inherent desirability of free speech remains, even if the practical desirability is weak. (Note that there are other possible justifications for freedom of speech, some of which have nothing to do with the topic we’re discussing here).

Also, we often see that polarization is the result of an insufficient or inefficient functioning of freedom of speech and public discourse. Cass Sunstein, for example, wrote about the “law of group polarization” and showed that polarization is to some extent the result of exclusively intra-group deliberation (climate change deniers who discuss their views only with fellow-deniers tend to come out of these discussions with an even stronger version of their initial opinions).

And finally, we should be careful in our estimates of polarization. Some high profile cases of polarization can give the impression that polarization is rampant. But people disagree about the extent of polarization. It all depends what topic you’re dealing with, and things differ from country to country as well. Also, the political class can make polarization look more common than it is among the general population. If polarization isn’t as widespread as we think it is, then its impact on freedom of speech is also smaller.

More on polarization here.

Freedom of Expression and the Internet

The internet is undoubtedly a huge boost for freedom of expression, and not only a quantitative boost. It has certain qualitative characteristics that older media don’t have, which make it particularly beneficial for free speech.

A first reason why the internet promotes free speech is its relative cost: it has made speech much less expensive. You even don’t need to own a computer since you can, with relative ease, use a public one. And even the cost of a computer pales compared to the cost of many older media.

Another reason is that governments find it much more difficult to censor speech on the internet. Speech is no longer bound to a particular carrier which can be easily confiscated or destroyed, or to a particular territory where a state can exercise its power. People can publish on websites in other countries without being there. Of course, governments do retain some considerable censorship power over the internet, as is demonstrated by the case of the Great Firewall of China, but it’s safe to say that this power is relatively weak compared to government’s powers over traditional media, precisely because of the international character of the internet.

Unfortunately, we see that private actors sometimes replace the government as censors. The discussions on net neutrality for example result from some cases where internet providers have blocked access to competitor sites or favored access to friendly or related sites (see the case of Telus blocking access to a labor union website). One could also claim that Google, for instance, despite the good it does for free expression, also in a way limits it, since it systematically channels people towards speech that already has much exposure and freedom, and “buries” all the rest (read more about this here). There is still domination and inequality on the web; the question is whether on average the internet has done more to limit it or to advance it. I believe the former.

A third reason why the internet promotes free speech is the gradual disappearance of middle men. You don’t need editors, publishers or peer review to publish your views. In traditional media, these middle men normally filter out a lot of speech, often to the benefit of the public but never to the benefit of speech.

So these are three reasons (among many others) why the internet expands the amount of speech and promotes free speech in a quantitative way. But it can also be argued that the internet has improved speech in a qualitative way. That may be a counter-intuitive claim, given the amount of bullshit that’s present on the web, and yet I think it’s true for many pockets of the internet. Because the internet creates a quantitative boost for speech, it also produces a qualitative one. The internet has allowed more people to speak, listen and discuss, and it’s a common argument in philosophy that widespread participation in discussions tends to improve the quality of people’s opinions, under certain ideal circumstances. I won’t make the detailed argument here, since I’ve done that many times before. In a few words, the argument boils down to this: the freedom to speak, the equal freedom to speak, and massive use by large numbers of people of this freedom, result in the appearance and confrontation of a large number of points of view and of perspectives on issues. It means that a proposal or opinion or policy is subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism. If it survives this, it is bound to be of better quality.

Limiting Free Speech (41): Crush Videos

In its irresistible march toward the deification of the First Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has again decided in favor of free speech absolutism. (And it’s not like I don’t care about free speech). In United States v Stevens the Court ruled that a federal law criminalizing the commercial production, sale, or possession of so-called crush videos was an unconstitutional abridgment of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The movies in question are depictions of cruelty to animals, used to satisfy a particular “sexual fetish”. They feature the intentional torture and killing of helpless animals, often by women wearing high-heeled shoes who slowly crush animals to death while talking to them in a dominatrix voice (source).

Let’s assume that cruelty to animals is universally considered a crime. If we can agree on that, we can – I think – also agree that filming a crime and distributing the movie is not, by definition, a crime in itself. On the contrary, it can help solve the crime. Think of the Rodney King video for example. However, if a crime is filmed, and the makers of the film fail to notify the authorities, then they can be considered as accomplices or guilty of criminal neglect. The crime then is the failure to notify the cops, not the act of making a video. The video itself should not be banned or criminalized, only the failure to report a crime.

But we can go one step further. In the case of crush videos, the video of animal cruelty is not contingent to the act of cruelty itself. In other words, the act of cruelty – the crime – would not have taken place had it not been filmed. The precise purpose of the act of cruelty is its videotaping and the subsequent sale of the videotaped cruelty. There would have been no crime had it not been filmed. So, we can reasonably assume that the act of cruelty, the filming of it, and the distribution of the film are in fact one and the same act. It’s therefore wrong to claim that we are dealing here with a simple case of free speech. The speech part of the act – distributing the film – is inseparable from the other parts of the act – cruelty and filming. If you care about the enforcement of anti-cruelty laws, you should make the distribution of such movies illegal and carve out an exception to free speech. If, on the contrary, you allow the distribution, then you provoke, condone or at least accept the existence of cruelty. In the words of Alito – dissenting:

criminal acts … cannot be prevented without targeting … the creation, sale, and possession for sale of depictions of animal torture.

If you enforce anti-cruelty laws, you de facto limit freedom of speech. So, either you take an absolutist position on free speech and you have to allow animal cruelty and violation of the law, or you don’t want to allow that and then you can’t take an absolutist position.

Anyway, free speech absolutism isn’t a widely held position, not even in the Supreme Court. Many kinds of speech have historically been granted no constitutional protection by the Court (“well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem”):

However, in this case, the Supreme Court was not inclined to add an exception for another type of speech, even though the harms caused by animal cruelty perhaps outweigh those caused by obscenity for instance. This disinclination is even less understandable when you consider that in United States v Stevens, Justice Roberts – for the majority – cited the older rationale for prohibiting child pornography, namely that it’s a special case because the market for it is intrinsically related to the underlying abuse. How is the same rationale not applicable in the case of animal cruelty? It seems to me that both child pornography and depictions of animal cruelty fall within the Court’s longstanding jurisprudence that “speech or writing used as an integral part of conduct in violation of a valid criminal statute” (source) is a valid exception to the general rule of freedom of speech.

Limiting Free Speech (40): The Chilling Effect of Political Correctness

A few days ago, a senior US journalist by the name of Helen Thomas expressed the view that Jews needed to “get the hell out of Palestine” and return to their countries of historical origin (she named Germany and Poland, as well as “America”) (source).

Subsequently, a lot of folks expressed the view that she should resign or else be fired (source). She swiftly agreed. Now, forcing someone to resign because of an opinion, however stupid or disgusting this opinion may be, is likely to have an adverse effect on free speech, not only the freedom of speech of the person in question but of anyone else who may believe – rightly or wrongly – that his or her livelihood may be at stake because of certain opinions.

The forced retirement of Helen Thomas is further proof, if any were needed, that it’s still unacceptable, in public discourse, to be wrong in one’s opinions. I find that sad.

Thomas gave voice to an opinion which she then, almost immediately, retracted; no one, in the subsequent debate, defended the substance of her remarks. She was wrong; everybody, including Thomas, agrees on that point, and no real harm was done to anyone but Thomas when the video of her remarks surfaced.

But if you turn out to be wrong, even temporarily, even only once, on a hot-button issue, that’s enough for effective excommunication from polite society. That, to me, is chilling. (source)

(More on the chilling effect and on political correctness). A social chilling effect produced by political correctness may be as effective as state imposed censorship.

Of course, given her age (89), Helen Thomas may in fact not suffer any serious consequences from her forced retirement. But what happened to her can happen to others, and the mere risk of such a thing happening may be enough for some people – those with more to lose – to think again and decide that it’s perhaps better to shut up.

Now, none of this defense of Helen Thomas should be understood as a defense of what she actually said. Here’s a good quote explaining what exactly is wrong with what she said, if that isn’t immediately clear:

why the big deal over batty Helen Thomas? What is so especially offensive about her comments (comments that now seem to have gotten her fired)? I think the answer is fairly obvious. While it is one thing (not a good thing, of course) to argue in euphemism for the destruction of Israel by invoking the so-called one-state solution, it is quite another to advocate for the “return” of Israeli Jews to their German and Polish homelands, not merely because such advocacy is almost comically absurd and cruel (or, at the very least, stunningly ignorant of recent European history) but because this argument denies to Jews what Helen Thomas, and people like Helen Thomas, want to grant the Palestinians: Recognition that they comprise, collectively, a nation.

The Jews, of course, are an ancient nation, a nation whose history took place in a sliver of land called Israel. Helen Thomas’s argument, if you can call it an argument, centers on the pernicious belief that Jews are strangers in a place called “Palestine.” Palestine, of course, is the name that was given by the Romans to the Land of Israel precisely in order to sever the connection between the Jews and their homeland. Helen Thomas, and people like her, are thus soldiers in a (Roman-inspired) war against history. This particular war is not as offensive to most people as the war against the memory of the Shoah, but it is rooted in the same grotesque motivation: To deny to Jews the truth of their own history. (source)

One additional remark: none of this should be interpreted as implying that people’s free speech rights entail a right not to be fired for what they say. More posts in this series here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (13): Why Do We Need Freedom of Expression?

Here’s a list of some of the traditional rationales for the right to free speech (Eric Barendt for example has identified some of these in his book “Freedom of Speech“):

1. Freedom of speech serves the search for truth

There’s a long tradition in philosophy claiming that freedom of speech and the equal right of everyone to express himself or herself in public on any possible topic improves the quality of opinions and knowledge. Rawls, Mill and Kant for example have fleshed out this claim. In the words of Alexander Meiklejohn:

Just so far as, at any point, the citizens who are to decide an issue are denied acquaintance with information or opinion or doubt or disbelief or criticism which is relevant to that issue, just so far the result must be ill-considered, ill-balanced planning for the general good. It is that mutilation of the thinking process of the community against which the First Amendment to the Constitution is directed. (source)

Or in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Abrams v. United States (dissenting):

The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

2. Freedom of speech serves individual self-fulfillment

People who can express themselves freely are better placed to develop their personality and identity. When you can say what you think and believe, you can better give shape to your thoughts and beliefs. Also, thoughts and beliefs depend heavily on the possibility to receive information, which is something that in turn depends on free expression. On top of that, persuasion is an important element of wellbeing: people who can persuade others feel better about themselves. And when they can persuade others, they can form communities and associations, and belonging is another important aspect of wellbeing and self-fulfillment. Finally, when the right to free expression is respected, people can better enjoy culture, education and other things that improve wellbeing.

3. Freedom of speech improves the functioning of democracy

Even for a minimal democracy (regular, free and fair elections for representatives) freedom of speech is very important. Candidates have to be able to advertise themselves and their policies and argue amongst themselves. Lobbyists should be allowed to make their case (publicly and transparently, of course). Etc. But democracy should be more than that. Ideally, democracy requires deliberation among the people on the best possible policies. It’s obvious that this deliberation requires free speech. More on democracy and free speech here.

4. Freedom of speech is a check on the corruption of power

People have to be able to receive information about the functioning of government. Free speech is a necessary prerequisite of government accountability. Freedom of information acts are just as much an element of free speech as a free press, and both are required to counteract corruption and abuse of power. At the margin, elements of free speech such as freedom of information, a free press and the right to protest can make the difference between freedom and tyranny, but they also limit the risk of lesser evils such as administrative corruption, betrayal of election promises, covert government activities etc.

5. Freedom of speech is a right that is required for the protection of other rights

Historically, it has been the case that other rights have depended on freedom of speech for their full protection. The civil rights movement and the struggle against racial discrimination in the U.S., for example, would have been impossible without freedom of speech (which doesn’t mean that the right to free speech of the proponents of equal rights was never restricted). Equally, the feminist struggle for equal voting rights for women was made much easier by freedom of speech. And finally, the right to religious freedom cannot be separated from freedom of speech. And there are many other examples.

6. Freedom of speech serves prosperity

Without freedom of speech there is less innovation and less trade. Scientists who develop new products or services need freedom of speech, and business people have a lot of difficulties trading or advertising without it. Hence, it can be said that economic growth is fostered by free speech. But free speech doesn’t only promote prosperity in general (on average); it also benefits the poor. The squeaky hinge gets the oil. If the poor aren’t able to make their case, they won’t get help.

More on freedom of expression.

Limiting Free Speech (39): From Hate Speech to Hate Crime, the Case of Rwanda

Although I take human rights, and especially freedom of expression, very seriously (I wouldn’t be writing this blog otherwise), I also believe that hate speech can produce hate crime. It’s a thin line between hateful words and hateful actions. Impressionable people can be led to violent crimes by hate speech. This is called incitement to violence. I do understand the problems with this justification of limits on freedom of speech: it can be abused by those who want to muzzle their opponents. If people react violently to criticism, ridicule or insults, then they may claim – wrongly in my view – that the responsibility for the violent acts lies with those making “incendiary remarks”. You can read my objections against this type of argument here.

Nevertheless, I think there are other cases in which hateful words can turn into hateful crimes. The classic example is Radio Mille Collines, the Rwandan hate radio that called for the extermination of the Tutsi ethnic minority population before and during the 1994 Rwanda Genocide (it infamously swept up the Hutu’s to start a “final war” to “exterminate the cockroaches”):

During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) broadcast anti-Tutsi propaganda and called for violence against Tutsis, which many experts believe significantly contributed to the violence. An interesting new job-market paper by David Yanagizawa seeks to determine the precise role that RTLM played in the genocide. Yanagizawa relies on “arguably exogenous variation in radio coverage generated by hills in the line-of-sight between radio transmitters and village” to determine the causal effects of RTLM. He finds that RTLM played a significant role in the genocide: full village radio coverage increased violence by 65 percent to 77 percent. The effects are larger in villages with a large Hutu majority and in villages without access to other information sources i.e. villages with lower literacy rates. In total, Yanagizawa calculates that the radio station’s broadcasts explain 45,000 deaths (or 9 percent of the total death toll). (source)

If this is correct, it’s difficult to maintain the doctrinal position that freedom of speech is always and absolutely beneficial and worthy of protection without exception. Unless of course you claim that freedom of speech is more important than the right to life. I refer to an older post on balancing different human rights.

Don’t get me wrong, freedom of speech is absolutely vital, for many different reasons (some as fundamental as thought itself, see here), and no regular reader of this blog can say that I’m ambivalent about it. But what I do object to is the school of thought that believes free speech is the uppermost value, trumping all others in all cases and all circumstances. Maybe this quote from Isaiah Berlin can help to get my point across:

I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments. I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps” — each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false. But I do believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ. There is not an infinity of them: the number of human values, of values that I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite — let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 26, but finite, whatever it may be. (source)

This description of Berlin’s value pluralism is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

According to Berlin’s pluralism, genuine values are many, and may—and often do—come into conflict with one another. When two or more values clash, it does not mean that one or another has been misunderstood; nor can it be said, a priori, that any one value is always more important than another. Liberty can conflict with equality or with public order; mercy with justice; love with impartiality and fairness; social and moral commitment with the disinterested pursuit of truth or beauty; … knowledge with happiness; spontaneity and free-spiritedness with dependability and responsibility. Conflicts of values are “an intrinsic, irremovable part of human life”; the idea of total human fulfillment is a chimera. “These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are”; a world in which such conflicts are resolved is not the world we know or understand. … “we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realisation of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others”.

Limiting Free Speech (38): Cheering on a Criminal

Can bystanders who cheer on a criminal invoke their right to free speech, or can the government prosecute them and hence limit their right to free speech? An infamous example is public rape, a particularly horrendous crime in which a man or group of men rapes a woman in a public space, for example a bar, while being loudly encouraged by a group of bystanders, most of whom will probably be sexually aroused by the spectacle. The movie “The Accused” offers a classic depiction of such a crime, and is based on a real-life public gang-rape.

The case of cheering bystanders and their right to free speech is similar, although not identical to some other cases that I discussed previously, such as hate speech, speech that teaches the methods of illegal activity, death threats, and incitement to violence. These cases are similar because it’s assumed that all these forms of speech can produce violence or can make violence more likely.

Eugene Volokh, normally very hesitant to allow restrictions on free speech, says that prosecution should be possible

on the grounds that the cheering tends to encourage the criminal and thus constitutes “abett[ing].” “An aider and abettor is one who acts with both knowledge of the perpetrator’s criminal purpose and the intent of encouraging or facilitating commission of the offense.” People v. Avila, 38 Cal. 4th 491, 564 (2006). (source)

In some circumstances, the bystanders are even strict accomplices in the sense that they aid the criminal in his or her actions: their cheering may make it impossible for others to intervene because they seal off the crime scene, or the cheering can include precise instructions. One can also imagine cases in which the criminals wouldn’t have acted if not for the cheering. But even if the bystanders are not strict accomplices in any of these senses, they are surely guilty of criminal failure to assist persons in need. Instead of cheering, they should have called the police. So, in all these cases, the bystanders help the crime occur, even if all they do is vaguely encourage someone. Hence they cannot claim that their right to free speech should protect them against criminal prosecution.

Limiting Free Speech (37): Incitement to Murder and Death Threats

Should a joke about killing the president be protected by the right to free speech and the First Amendment? Or a poll on Facebook asking if Obama should be assassinated? Or a rap song about “killing a cop”? Or do such things cross a line beyond which the government can intervene, can limit the freedom of speech of those involved, and can punish them for having committed a crime? I would say: it depends.

In US jurisdiction, the Brandenburg v. Ohio case stipulates that abstract advocacy of violence is protected speech under the First Amendment. However, it is equally acceptable, also according to Brandenburg v. Ohio, that speech which incites imminent, illegal conduct – including violence – may itself be made illegal:

The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.

So, advocacy of violence can only be prohibited when there is clear incitement of an imminent violent act, as well as the likelihood that this incitement produces or helps to produce such an act.

In the specific case of death threats, the Supreme Court case is Watts v. United States (1969). There it says that only true threats aren’t constitutionally protected; mere hyperbole, humor or offensive methods of stating political opposition are protected. What is a “true threat? According to Virginia v. Black (2003),

a statement can’t be a punishable threat unless it’s made “with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.” Thus, following Black, a statement is a punishable threat only if a reasonable listener would understand it as a threat of attack and the speaker intended that the listener get that impression. (source)

Personally, I wouldn’t place too much weight on the second clause in that last sentence (after the “and”). I think it’s sufficient that the listener gets the impression of a threat and that the threat produces reasonable fear, even when the person stating the threat didn’t really mean it and was just joking (hence no real “intent”). So a joke about a bomb while on an airplane shouldn’t be protected, while a joke on the radio about killing the president should be protected, because the president or anyone else would probably not take it very seriously. The context of the threat is important. Even when there is clear intent and therefore not just a joke, but no likelihood of the threat being carried out, I would also propose to protect freedom of expression. The main focus is on the reaction of the reasonable recipient and the risk to which he or she is exposed (this focus contains a subjective and a factual element: perception/reaction and factual risk).

Limiting Free Speech (34): Pornography and Sexual Violence

In this older post I mentioned the possibility that pornography causes sexual violence, and that this violence could be one of the justifications for prohibiting or limiting pornography, and hence for limiting one form of free speech. (The physical integrity rights of the victims of pornography induced sexual violence outweigh the rights to free speech of pornographers and their clients). I also cited some scientific research corroborating the link between pornography and sexual violence.

Now I came across some evidence pointing in another direction. Large increases of internet use of the last years, together with a proliferation of websites offering free porn, should, in theory, lead to a large increase in the numbers of rape. But that isn’t the case.

The rise of the Internet offers a gigantic natural experiment. Better yet, because Internet usage caught on at different times in different states, it offers 50 natural experiments. The bottom line on these experiments is, “More Net access, less rape.” A 10 percent increase in Net access yields about a 7.3 percent decrease in reported rapes. States that adopted the Internet quickly saw the biggest declines. And, according to Clemson professor Todd Kendall, the effects remain even after you control for all of the obvious confounding variables, such as alcohol consumption, police presence, poverty and unemployment rates, population density, and so forth. Steven E. Landsburg (source)

Another study:

A vocal segment of the population has serious concerns about the effect of pornography in society and challenges its public use and acceptance. This manuscript reviews the major issues associated with the availability of sexually explicit material. It has been found everywhere it was scientifically investigated that as pornography has increased in availability, sex crimes have either decreased or not increased. (source, source)

So it seems that the opposite is true: more porn = less rape. Maybe porn is a substitute for rape. In which case, one of the justifications for restricting the free speech rights of pornographers collapses. However, I mentioned in my old post that sexual violence isn’t the only possible reason to limit the rights to free speech of pornographers. Pornography can, for instance, perpetuate discriminatory gender roles. And the quote below shows that there is some evidence that pornography increases the likelihood of re-offending:

In this study, we examined the unique contribution of pornography consumption to the longitudinal prediction of criminal recidivism in a sample of 341 child molesters. We specifically tested the hypothesis, based on predictions informed by the confluence model of sexual aggression that pornography will be a risk factor for recidivism only for those individuals classified as relatively high risk for re-offending. Pornography use (frequency and type) was assessed through self-report and recidivism was measured using data from a national database from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Indices of recidivism, which were assessed up to 15 years after release, included an overall criminal recidivism index, as well as subcategories focusing on violent (including sexual) recidivism and sexual recidivism alone. Results for both frequency and type of pornography use were generally consistent with our predictions. Most importantly, after controlling for general and specific risk factors for sexual aggression, pornography added significantly to the prediction of recidivism. Statistical interactions indicated that frequency of pornography use was primarily a risk factor for higher-risk offenders, when compared with lower-risk offenders, and that content of pornography (i.e., pornography containing deviant content) was a risk factor for all groups. The importance of conceptualizing particular risk factors (e.g., pornography), within the context of other individual characteristics is discussed. (source)

Freedom of Expression, or a Duty of Expression?

I often have the impression that people transform the right to free expression into a duty to free expression. And I don’t think that’s a good thing. For example, Muslims in western countries are often told that they should distance themselves from the more violent members of their religion. We require them to speak out against Muslim terrorism.

Another example: politicians, especially in the U.S., are required to speak out on a number of subjects, e.g. abortion, same-sex marriage, their faith in God etc. As if it would be a disaster to elect a politician who happens to doubt about abortion. After all, many people do (myself included).

A somewhat exaggerated view on democratic transparency is undoubtedly a small part of the explanation for this. Democracy can’t function without public knowledge of politicians’ opinions, or without some sense of what our fellow citizens believe (part of democracy is group formation, and group formation is based on discussion and persuasion; and you can’t persuade someone if you don’t know what he or she believes).

But the most important cause of this “duty of expression” is, I think, the manichean nature of contemporary politics. Every issue is painted in black and white, good and evil, for or against. We force people to express themselves on issues so that we can see if they are with us or against us. And if someone expresses him or herself in a nuanced way we automatically assume that he or she takes a position opposite from our own. For example, if Muslims reject Islamic terrorism but at the same time point to the situation in Palestine, we assume that they really think terrorism is OK, or justifiable given certain circumstances. We can’t accept muddled or nuanced middle ground positions, or positions which change according to the circumstances. Gray isn’t an option.

Clarity, simplicity and certainty are important human objectives, but often they aren’t appropriate in thinking. Of course, sometimes manicheism is the only possible position: you either believe the holocaust is a fact of history or you don’t; there’s no middle ground, and those who don’t believe in it are either stupid or evil. But when it comes to political or moral opinions (rather than facts), those who really think about them often find themselves occupying a gray, complex and uncertain position.

I suspect that the difficulty to let go of manicheism and to accept uncertainty and nuance has something to do with the nature of democratic politics. It’s hard to vote for nuance, and easy to vote for or against a clear and simple proposition. And simple propositions get more attention, sell better and make it easier to mobilize large constituencies (see the cartoon below). But then again, when we look at political reality, manicheism is much more common in autocratic societies. The public debate on issues which is made possible by democratic societies forces nuance to appear.

The difficulty to let go of manicheism also has something to do with the fear of the other extreme: the paralysis that follows from endless nuancing and thinking. Politics is a realm where decisions have to be taken, contrary to philosophy where thinking is unending in principle.

However, it doesn’t follow from this that decisiveness has to be manicheism. Decisions can be based on nuanced thinking. The risk of paralysis is averted by the realization that our decisions, often taken under the pressure of urgency, are necessary yet provisional, based on the best thinking available at the time, and open to revision when time has improved our thinking.

Limiting Free Speech (30): The Heckler’s Veto

Should someone in an audience – or an entire audience for that matter – have the right to silence a speaker by way of hostile and loud reactions? Or is this a case in which the right to free speech of an audience or someone in an audience can be restricted? In the U.S., “heckling” as it is called does not violate the right to free speech of the speaker who is being heckled. The First Amendment only protects speech from government infringement, not from private infringement (“Congress shall make no law…”). In this case, the heckler is presumed to be a private person, and his or her actions therefore cannot violate the First Amendment.

I believe that this is an American anomaly, and that people’s right to free speech should be protected against both government and private infringement. Private individuals can also violate someone’s right to free speech.

Still, let’s return to the case of heckling in the U.S. Audiences have a right to heckle, as they should have. The leading judicial decision here is In re Kay of the Supreme Court of California. This decision overturned a 4 month prison sentence for hecklers who had shouted and clapped during a speech by a member of Congress.

The Court granted the right to heckle and stated that this is a legitimate part of the “cacophony of democracy”. Even though heckling and booing and shouting and other types of disruption may be uncivilized, impolite and often stupid, it’s free speech and it should be protected.

But at the same time, the Court allowed the state to punish hecklers when their disruption results in the impossibility to continue a meeting or a speech. The right to free speech of the hecklers has to be balanced against the right to free speech of the heckled. One right shouldn’t be allowed to destroy the other right.

Freedom of everyone to talk at once can destroy the right of anyone effectively to talk at all. Free expression can expire as tragically in the tumult of license as in the silence of censorship. In re Kay

I think the Court got this one absolutely right. And it seems that there’s a recognition that the state isn’t the only threat to free speech.

What is Democracy? (43): A System Characterized by Free Speech

The principle of the freedom of speech springs from the necessities of the program of self-government. It is not a Law of Nature or of Reason in the abstract. It is a deduction from the basic American agreement that public issues shall be decided by universal suffrage. A. Meiklejohn (source)

Democracy is a power struggle. The participants in this struggle have to be able to express themselves, to present themselves to the electorate, to create a distinct profile for themselves, and to make the electorate familiar with their political program. That’s one reason why democracy needs freedom of expression. The participants in the power struggle also have to be able to organize and associate in a group that is free from government control, because this allows them to gather strength and have a more influential voice. So they need the freedom of association and the separation of state and society. And for the same reasons they have to be able to meet and demonstrate. So they also need the freedom of assembly. If they want to organize, associate and assemble, it’s because they want to convince new people to join them. And they can’t do that without free speech.

Without the guaranteed right of all citizens to meet collectively, to have access to information, to seek to persuade others, as well as to vote, democracy is meaningless. Democratic rights, in other words, are those individual rights which are necessary to secure popular control over the process of collective decision-making on an ongoing basis. David Beetham (source)

The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) as well has long recognized that the facilitation of self-government is one of the main goals of free speech and the First Amendment. Take, for example, Mills v Alabama:

Whatever differences may exist about interpretations of the First Amendment, there is practically universal agreement that a major purpose of that Amendment was to protect the free discussion of governmental affairs. (source)

Or Brown v Hartlage:

First Amendment [is] the guardian of our democracy. That Amendment embodies our trust in the free exchange of ideas as the means by which the people are to choose between good ideas and bad, and between candidates for political office. (source)

Or Roth v United States:

The protection given speech and press was fashioned to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people. (source)

There’s also Justice Louis D. Brandeis famous (concurring) opinion in Whitney v California, in which he described the democratic function of freedom of speech. According to Brandeis, every citizen has the right to

endeavor to make his own opinion concerning laws existing or contemplated, prevail. (source)

Brandeis believed, correctly I think, that free speech is necessary for democracy in three ways:

  • to inform the people about the workings and policies of the government (a free press being an important part of freedom of speech)
  • to inform the government of the the will of the people (an election – or “vote” – being the voice of the people)
  • to allow the people to deliberate, to discuss government policy and the merits of representatives.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (9): Free Speech, Democracy, Socrates and the Search for Truth

Just a few additional remarks on the way in which the equal right to free speech, and democratic deliberation based on this right, improve the quality of “knowledge” and of political decisions. (Continuing where this and this post left off).

Of course, “knowledge” and “truth” not in any absolute or objective sense, but in the sense of the best kind of thinking a given society at a given time can achieve.

Before arguing how Socrates is relevant in this discussion, allow me to cite a few 20th century thinkers. Justice Louis Brandeis, in his concurring opinion in Whitney v California, stated that the

freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth. (source)

Alexander Meiklejohn:

Just so far as, at any point, the citizens who are to decide an issue are denied acquaintance with information or opinion or doubt or disbelief or criticism which is relevant to that issue, just so far the result must be ill-considered, ill-balanced planning for the general good. It is that mutilation of the thinking process of the community against which the First Amendment to the Constitution is directed. (source)

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Abrams v. United States (dissenting):

The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

The freedom to speak, the equal freedom to speak, and massive use by large numbers of people of this freedom, result in the appearance and confrontation of a large number of points of view and of perspectives on an issue. It means that a proposal or opinion or policy is subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism. If it survives this, it is bound to be of better quality. Unfounded opinions or opinions that are open to sound criticism are not likely to survive this process. Free speech in general, and free speech as it is implemented in democratic decision procedures, initiate such a process. That is why opinions in a free society and political decisions in a democracy have what we could call an epistemological advantage. They are of better quality. At least as long as we contemplate the ideals. Real free societies and real democracies may fall significantly short of this ideal.

Again, epistemological advantage doesn’t equal “truth” and “knowledge”; just the best thinking we can get. Unfortunately, I’m not being very original here. This is obvious when we return to the Ancient Greeks. The Athenians especially believed that democratic deliberation (which for them was the same as free speech) was essential for wise decisions because it sheds the light of diverse opinions and criticism on policy options. Pericles, in his Funeral Oration, as recorded by Thucydides, said:

Instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.

None of this is limited to highly participatory systems of direct democracy such as the Athenian democracy, or to politics. The process can occur in modern, representative democracies and in any setting, political or non-political, guaranteeing free and equal speech. The scientific community for example heavily relies on peer participation. It’s fair to say that freedom of speech is essential for any collective search for of or advancement towards truth. In fact, the word “collective” is superfluous here, because the process is by definition collective. No one thinks more or less correctly in isolation.

We normally assume that an ideally conducted discussion among many persons is more likely to arrive at the correct conclusion (by a vote if necessary) than the deliberations of any one of them by himself. Why should this be so? In everyday life the exchange of opinion with others checks our partiality and widens our perspective; we are made to see things from their standpoint and the limits of our vision are brought home to us … Discussion is a way of combining information and enlarging the range of arguments. At least in the course of time, the effects of common deliberation seem bound to improve matters. John Rawls

I know, I know: “what about Socrates!”. Well, the Socratic method is a type of discussion with adversaries which is intended to expose the adversaries’ pretensions, prejudices, dogmas and conventional beliefs. In other words, it targets opinions which are accepted as such, without having first passed through a process of examination and criticism. Socrates is a one man democratic agora, launching different criticisms and counter-arguments at an opinion, and shining the light of many perspectives.

Hate (5): Why Do We Need Hate Crime Laws?

We punish the crimes of murder, kidnap, and battery. Why isn’t that enough? … It strikes me as weird that the mere utterance of a racial slur during a violent act automatically makes it worse. Ta-Nehisi Coates (source, part of this quote is actually Coates citing someone else)

Doesn’t the concept of hate crime imply a punishment of expression and thought? And isn’t it therefore essentially a thought-crime, and as such objectionable to people who cherish freedom of thought and speech? Shouldn’t someone’s convictions and expressions be immaterial to their punishment? And shouldn’t we just focus on what someone did rather than what he or she was thinking or saying when he or she did it?

Not really. Intent, motive and state of mind have always been crucial to punishment, hence the difference between premeditated murder and manslaughter. Killing or hurting someone because of race, gender or sexual orientation is worse than mere killing or hurting, and should incur a more severe punishment because it is meant not only to harm the victim but to terrorize an entire community.

Limiting Free Speech (24): Political Correctness

Political correctness (or PC) is a form of speech that is characterized by the willingness to avoid offense to certain groups in society, often groups which have a history of suffering and rights violations.

It is a form of speech that excludes certain concepts and phrases that are thought to be expressions of hatred, discrimination and rights violations. Such expressions, it is believed, serve to keep these violations alive and well, and protecting human rights therefore requires the exclusion of these expressions. Examples of these expressions and concepts or phrases are “nigger”, “women should play the main role in the household”, “black people are genetically less intelligent than white people”, “affirmative action is discrimination of whites”, the systematic use of “he” to describe a person, or of “man” to describe a member of the human race etc.

Hence, political correctness is a limitation of free speech that is believed to be necessary in order to protect other rights. Politically incorrect speech is a strategy in the continuation or reinstatement of rights violations, for example discrimination of women, racism, or unequal opportunities. Language determines the thoughts, mentalities and actions of both the speakers and listeners. For example, convictions regarding negative stereotypes are facilitated by the availability and widespread use of pejorative and stereotypical labels. A user of these labels will be confirmed in his or her believes, and a target of these labels will suffer a loss of self-esteem and will, as a result, find it difficult to escape from his or her unequal position in society. Hence, using politically incorrect stereotypes contributes to the continuation of inequality. On the other hand, “outlawing” such stereotypes forces people to think about how they describe other people and forces them to focus on individual characteristics rather than stereotypes.

Proponents of PC believe that language should be used for good purposes rather than bad ones. They don’t want language to be a tool to oppress. They seek cultural change through linguistic change, but this has an impact on the freedom of speech: certain types of expressions, phrases or concepts are off limits according to the proponents of politically correct speech, and other types are mandatory. Speech should be as inclusive and neutral (gender neutral, race neutral etc.) as possible. Hence constructions such as “s/he”, “African-American”, “holiday season” instead of Christmas etc.

PC can be criticized in several ways. I just pick two types of criticism that seem most convincing to me. Politically correct speech is a kind of orthodoxy or an example of dogmatic thinking or group thinking, which is why the concept of PC is mostly pejorative. Politically incorrect speech on the other hand can be seen as rebellious, original and individualistic. It can be very useful in identifying hidden assumptions, prejudices etc. Of course, political incorrectness can become a prejudice in itself, obscuring the need for real debate on some human rights issues.

Whether or not PC is justified depends on the effects of language on rights violations. There is certainly some effect. Especially in the early, formative years, people can be influenced by speech, and can grow up to become persons with mentalities that are inimical to human rights. And they will certainly act on these mentalities. But I believe that the proponents of PC overstate the importance of the causal link. It’s not true that sexist or racist language always and necessarily produces sexism and racism. These rights violations have a myriad of causes. Hence it is dangerous to identify certain forms of speech as the main causes, and consequently “outlaw” them, perhaps not legally but morally. This can result in cultural communism, a totalitarian and intolerant “regime” censoring and punishing dissent and “heresy”. It is not unheard of that people lose their jobs and/or reputation because of a sin against PC.

By the way, one particularly funny instance of political correctness are the annual arguments about Christmas. Christian traditionalists and PC people who think that a Christian holiday may be an insult to other religions, outdo each other in silly talk.

Limiting Free Speech (14): Religious Education in Public Schools

There can be nothing wrong with educating children about religion. And I say this as an agnostic. But religious education must include information about all the world’s main religions, and about atheism as well. And it also shouldn’t avoid mentioning some of the problems caused by religion. Children benefit from seeing all sides of the coin.

Even public schools, i.e. schools instituted, organized and funded by the government, should provide this kind of religious education. Banning religion from public schools is wrong, but not because it would be a limitation on the freedom of speech of religions, as some religious activists claim. It’s not because you’re not allowed to speak in a certain place that you’re not allowed to speak (freedom of speech does not include the right to say anything anywhere; if it would, then newspapers would be forced to print everything everyone asks them to print). Such a ban is wrong for another reason: it would be stupid and a disservice to children.

It would be politically and legally wrong to have public schools teach only one religion, or emphasize one religion. The separation of church and state does not allow agencies of the state – such as public schools – to be hijacked by a particular religion, even if it is the religion of the majority of citizens (I would even say, especially when it is).

If this were allowed, then a religion could then use its privileged position to compete unfairly with other religions, and the result would be the abolition of religious freedom. The choice of religion would then no longer be a free one. Children would be led to one religion. Rather than complete information on all religious options, necessary to make an educated choice between religions, children would have a one-sided view on religion.

For the benefit of their students, private schools are of course also advised to teach all religions. But since many of these private schools are religious schools, it is only fair to allow them to focus on their own religion. It would indeed be an unjustified encroachment on religious freedom if religions and churches were not allowed to organize their own system of education according to their own rules (even if it includes teaching that Darwin was wrong and that Dinosaurs and men walked the surface of the earth together – but evidently they wouldn’t do their pupils any favors).

As long as parents have a choice to send their children to such a religious school or to another, public school, then there is no problem. But this must be a real choice of course. If the public schools are of inferior quality, or difficult to reach, then there isn’t really a choice.

School prayer is quite another matter. Praying is not learning, and the demand of inclusiveness mentioned above does not appear to work in the case of prayer. Starting lessons with different prayers of different religions seems awkward. Hence, school prayer in public schools looks like the kind of hijack that is contrary to the separation of state and church.

Limiting Free Speech (9): Religious Monuments and Symbols in Public Spaces, and “Killing Christmas”

The U.S. is obviously a very Christian country, but also one which values religious liberty and pluralism. Government authorities in the U.S., and especially local governments, sometimes allow displays of the Ten Commandments, nativity scenes or other mainly Christian religious monuments or symbols to be placed in public parks or buildings.

However, when doing so, they often invite demands to allow a different religion’s display as well. And many of them refuse, either because the people who decide are themselves Christians, or believe that Christianity is inextricably linked to the national identity of the U.S.

The problem is that such a refusal violates the First Amendment, and does so in two ways:

  • It harms the freedom of speech of other religions.
  • And it violates the rule of the separation of state and church and the Establishment Clause.

Religious monuments and symbols presented by a government authority in government buildings or spaces don’t imply that the government in question establishes a religion, prohibits the free exercise of religion and coerces people in religious matters. Onlookers can avert their eyes, and the government doesn’t force people to look, let alone accept what is written on the monument.

However, government sponsored religious displays do establish religious preference and religious discrimination by advancing one religion and inhibiting another. There can be soft pressure if governments link themselves to one religion in a way which is at first sight relatively harmless, as is the case in this context. Other religions, which do not benefit from government affiliation, are, at least in the long term, at a disadvantage. As a result of their “non-official character”, the choice of religion is no longer a free choice but one which is influenced by the fact that the government and, by analogy, the rest of society, favors one religion. Religious liberty is threatened in such circumstances.

Another problem is that people of other religions or non-believers can be forced by such monuments to feel like outsiders, as people who are out of the mainstream, who believe things that are wrong and sinful and who need to be converted for their own good, by the government no less. This “cultural violence” (dixit Galtung) can result in (self-)exclusion and low self-esteem, and in general polarizes and divides a society.

Hence, displays of religious symbols or monuments in public spaces should follow the “all-or-nothing” rule. Public property must be open to all religions on an equal basis – or open to none at all. Since the first option – open to all – would quickly lead to an absurd clutter in spaces which are, by definition, limited, the second is the only realistic option.

Others would say that this second option – prohibitions of all religious displays in public spaces – violates the right to free speech of the government agency and the adherents of the religion which would find a government agency willing to display its symbols and monuments. However, a ban on religious displays can only cover public spaces. There are plenty of places on private land where the Ten Commandments and other symbols can be displayed without the need to include the symbols of other faiths. Freedom of speech in general is a universal value, but that doesn’t mean that everyone can speak everywhere. Everyone can speak and say what they want, but not everywhere. For instance, we can’t all claim equal airtime on national television, or demand a right to speak in parliament.

A ban on religious displays should be enforced only for the purposes of religious freedom and religious equality. Dismantling Christmas trees because they might offend non-Christians is stupid political correctness. Not giving offense is not a sufficient reason for banning religious displays. The only possible reason is religious freedom. (And regarding Christmas, one can easily make the case that this is much more than a religious festival, and hence there are good reasons not to ban displays of it in public spaces).

Another point: atheists shouldn’t see bans as a vindication of their beliefs (I’m not pronouncing myself on the merits or demerits of atheism here). A ban doesn’t amount to the installation of official atheism. It’s just neutrality. Atheist expressions fall under the same ban, since atheism is also a religious belief (there’s no way to prove that God doesn’t exist, as there is no way to prove that He does). The government doesn’t pronounce itself. Not on a religion, but neither on atheism. If you have to give it a name, you could say that a government that tries to respect the First Amendment in this way, is an agnostic government. You couldn’t call it an atheist government.

What is discussed here should also be distinguished from other controversies such as bans on head scarfs, overly prominent minarets etc. Head scarfs and mosques are normally in the private, non-government sphere and are not religious symbols used by government authorities on their land and space. In such cases, we don’t have a government linking itself to a particular religion by way of symbols or monuments, but governments banning religious expressions. This is also a problem of religious freedom, but a different one. Rather than a government associating itself with a dominant religion, there is active persecution of minority religions, fed by fears of religious colonization by migrants, a willingness to protect cultural homogeneity etc.

Limiting Free Speech (2): Holocaust Denial

In the introductory post of this series, I summarized the dangers of limiting free speech while at the same time granting that such limits are necessary in some cases. One case is Holocaust denial, or Holocaust revisionism as it is referred to by its supporters.

What is Holocaust denial?

Holocaust deniers only rarely claim that the Holocaust didn’t take place or that no Jews were killed by the Nazis. Rather, they claim that either or all of these facts are lies:

  • The Nazi government of Germany had a policy of deliberately exterminating the Jews
  • Over five million Jews were systematically killed by the Nazis
  • The extermination was carried out with tools such as gas chambers.

Instead of outright negation, there is trivialization. Moreover, Holocaust denial claims that the holocaust is a deliberate Jewish conspiracy created to advance the present-day interest of Jews and Israel.

Most historians and scholars reject Holocaust denial as a pseudo-science that fails to respect the rules of historical evidence and that is grounded in hatred rather than the pursuit of knowledge. Holocaust denial is characterized by the distortion or falsification of historical documents and the selective use of sources.

Holocaust deniers are mainly far-right, neo-nazi types and antisemites, but there are also far-left deniers, islamic deniers etc.

How can we justify the limits on free speech inherent in laws prohibiting Holocaust denial?

Nothing that went before is in itself sufficient to justify laws limiting the right to free speech of Holocaust deniers. According to the rules set forth in the introductory post in this series, one has to show that some rights are violated by Holocaust denial, and that this violation is worse than the violation of the rights of Holocaust deniers which would result from Holocaust denial laws.

There are a few possible kinds of justification:

1. Antisemitism

There is antisemitism inherent in Holocaust denial, although it is not necessarily obvious or immediately apparent. It is often implicit rather explicit antisemitism: the Holocaust is an invention of Jews, a tool to make them look like victims instead of criminals, and thereby gaining some sort of immunity for their vicious acts. Or a tool to make financial claims on Germany.

However, the mere antisemitism of Holocaust denial is not a sufficient reason to prohibit it. Antisemitism as such should enjoy the protection of the freedom of speech. Only when antisemitism explicitly incites to violence against or discrimination of Jews can it be forbidden. And Holocaust denial is rarely this explicit.

The offensive nature of Holocaust denial does undoubtedly inflict harm on Jews, especially the survivors of the camps, but no harm in the sense of rights violations. One could claim that Holocaust denial perpetuates and encourages antisemitism and therefore increases the likelihood of antisemitic attacks on individual Jews. But it would be a tough job establishing the causal links.

One could also claim that Holocaust denial perpetuates negative stereotypes in society, and thereby contributes to the marginalization of Jews. Again, difficult to prove.

In general, Holocaust denial is such a marginal phenomenon that it’s difficult to claim that it makes a substantive contribution to violence and discrimination. But in some countries or subcultures, the balance can be different.

2. Offensive speech

Justifying the prohibition of Holocaust denial merely on its offensive nature, would open the floodgates to a massive number of possible limitations of free speech, especially in the field of blasphemy. This would lead to an excess of political correctness and ultimately to “thought police”.

3. Libel

A justification based on the harm to the reputation of Jews would make Holocaust denial similar to libel. However, libel is traditionally designed to protect an individual’s reputation, income, and honor against abusive and harmful accusations. I fail to see how Holocaust denial can be directly harmful to individual Jews. Group defamation is highly controversial and could lead to the same problems cited in the previous point.

4. Democratic self-defense

Sometimes limits on rights are necessary to protect a rights-supporting community against anti-democrats who use democracy against democracy. A democracy is a particularly vulnerable form of government. The freedom it delivers can easily be misused by those who want to take it away. Anti-democratic and illiberal forces are free to use rights, freedoms and democratic procedures for the promotion of tyranny and oppression. The purpose of many holocaust deniers is the resurrection of Nazism, and a condition for this resurrection is the denial of the Nazis’ greatest crime. There can be no hope for acceptability of far-right policies as long as the Holocaust stands in the way. German Nazism, of course, is notorious for the way in which it misused the imperfect Weimar democracy.

Seen in this light, the criminalization of Holocaust denial is a self-defensive act of democracies in their struggle against extremism. Holocaust deniers use the freedoms of democracy in order to overthrow it. One cannot reasonably force democracies to abstain from self-defense. No system can be required to cherish the seeds of its own destruction.

To the extent that Holocaust deniers aim to overthrow democracy, they are hardly in a position to complain about limitations of the freedoms they would like to destroy:

One has no title to object to the conduct of others that is in accordance with principles one would use in similar circumstances to justify one’s actions towards them. A person’s right to complain is limited to violations of principles he acknowledges himself. John Rawls

You should not ask something for yourself that you are planning to deny to others. This, according to me, is the strongest justification of Holocaust denial laws, even in those countries were the revival of Nazism of highly unlikely. It may be unlikely precisely because of measures such as Holocaust denial laws.

5. The defense of Israel

Some extreme Islamists use Holocaust denial in their campaign against Israel. They hope that when they negate the Holocaust, they can remove one of the moral foundations of the state of Israel (as a refuge for the survivors). This negation, they hope, can help their efforts to destroy Israel.

However, whereas this justification may be useful in some circumstances, it is difficult to use it for an outright, worldwide prohibition on Holocaust denial since Holocaust denial outside of the Middle East can hardly be linked to the possible destruction of Israel.

6. The special case of Germany

In Germany, there may be an additional justification available. Holocaust denial laws can there be seen as part of a package of reparative justice, a kind of “sorry” issued by the state, a public acknowledgment of responsibility.

7. The interest of historical truth

Whereas truth is very important, it seems wrong to use laws to enforce the truth. Truth should be based on proof and sound argument, and using the law to punish “lies” only encourages those who believe the lies. They, and others as well, will think that there must be something wrong with the “truth” if it needs the law for its protection.


There is a case to be made for Holocaust denial laws, but one should be very careful and limit the prohibitions to cases and circumstances that really require them. Not all forms of Holocaust denial is equally pernicious, and not all circumstances are equally dangerous. Moreover, one should take into account the counterproductive effects of stigmatizing a certain group: persecution by the law can encourage them, can increase the number of sympathizers, and can give them more publicity than they would otherwise receive. Ignoring Holocaust deniers rather than criminalizing them could often be the most successful strategy. And some justifications should be avoided because they can create a dangerous precedent.

Countries with laws against Holocaust denial

Holocaust denial is explicitly or implicitly illegal in 13 countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Switzerland (source: here or here).

Limiting Free Speech (1): Introduction

I’m a strong defender of human rights in general and of free speech in particular. But I’m also convinced that the system of human rights is not a harmonious whole and that some rights can conflict; some rights may harm other rights, in which case one right has to be limited for the sake of the other. If you feel the urge of yelling “Fire!” in an overcrowded room, this expression of yours will cause panic and will therefore harm the right to life and bodily integrity of the people in the crowd.

This example is taken from a famous quote by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. (source)

I don’t claim that the choice for one right over the other is always as clearcut as in this example. Indeed, it can be a difficult and controversial choice, better left to impartial judges. But those choices have to be made. Here’s a previous post on the limits of human rights. NO OTHER LIMITS on rights are acceptable. Rights can only be limited by and because of other rights, not because of prudishness, political correctness, insult, humiliation or whatever.

This blog series examines some of the existing or proposed limits on the right to free speech, such blasphemy laws, hate speech laws, holocaust denial laws, pornography, derogatory speech laws, libel laws etc.

Free speech is an extremely important human right. You can check out this post on the importance of free speech for thinking and correct thinking according to Kant. In the same post you can find the argument by John Stuart Mill in which he correctly states that permitting the expression of errors or even lies encourages us to revisit the grounds of our own beliefs and thus strengthening those beliefs.

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. John Stuart Mill

When we are confronted with opposing and controversial views, we benefit from having to justify our own views.

Given all this, any proposed or existing limitations on free speech should be strongly argued and the benefits of limitations should clearly and not marginally outweigh the harm. Any limit should also be very specific and not general. He or she who proposes a limit should prove that no other measures short of limiting rights can provide the same result. Limits can only be necessary for the protection of other rights or the rights of others. No other reasons are valid.

When two rights come into conflict, and a decision has to be made to limit one or the other right, one can look at the value that is being protected by either right. A journalist’s right to free speech can conflict with a politician’s right to privacy. If the expression by the journalist does not serve any important value, such as accountability, exposure of corruption etc. then the decision will be in favor of the right to privacy. If, on the other hand, the politician is corrupt, his privacy will be outweighed by the public interest of having a political class that does not engage in corruption.

When proposing a limit on rights, one should also be aware of the fact that this will probably not be enough to solve the problem that one is facing. Making the use of a right in a certain way a criminal act is not always enough to make that use go away. Racism, for example, will not disappear by making racists who engage in hate speech shut up. The underdog effect may even make them stronger. One should also try to do something about the causes of racism (poverty, education, etc.). The suppression of those who use rights against rights must be combined with the identification and elimination of the reasons why these people use rights against rights. Healing the symptoms but not the disease is inefficient, but some symptoms are so bad that something must be done, without losing sight of the causes of the symptoms.

Religion and Human Rights (7): What is Religious Liberty?

Religious liberty or the freedom of religion and belief is a human right. It is the right to be protected against coercion in matters of religion, to be free to practice and profess a religion of your choice, in private as well as in public, to change your religion, or to practice no religion at all.

Legal rules on religious freedom

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

This right is closely linked to the right to free expression and the right to free association.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It protects the freedom of religion in the US. It’s made up of two parts. The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from passing laws that will establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another. The courts have interpreted the establishment clause to accomplish the separation of church and state and have held that the clause extends to the executive and judicial branches as well.

The Free Exercise Clause prohibits the government from interfering with a person’s practice of his or her religion.

Importance of religious freedom

Religious liberty is an important value because it protects religious diversity and plurality and hence counteracts religious persecution and coercion. It makes a monopoly of one religion impossible – except when culture and demography are such that there is a de facto monopoly which is not contested – and it guarantees the coexistence of different and publicly competing beliefs. In this way, it also guarantees publicity, debate and diversity in general. If there is publicity, debate and diversity on the level of religion, then why not on other levels? On top of that, religious liberty guarantees tolerance: if people can be tolerant – or are forced to be tolerant – in the field of religion, then they will probably be tolerant in other fields as well.

This shows that religious liberty can be of interest to non-religious persons, not only because it protects them from the imposition of a religious belief, but also because it allows them to live in a world of tolerance, publicity ad diversity. Religious liberty is therefore an integral part of a democratic society and a system of human rights.

Problems with religious freedom

However, there is a downside to the concept of religious liberty. Anyone can call their personal insanity a religion in order to try to get government protection. There is no easy answer to the question of what is or is not a religion in the proper sense of the word, but it is obvious that any belief or practice which is part of a religion or claimed to be part of a religion, and which provokes violations of human rights, should not be protected under the right to freedom of religion. Every human right is limited and has to be balanced with other rights.

Freedom of religion is no exception. In particular, the right to absence of discrimination, although closely connected to religious liberty (one should not be treated badly as a consequence of one’s religion), can be a problem if everything can be labeled a religion and if every imaginable theological ideology can enjoy an absolute level of protection granted by the freedom of religion. The equal rights of women should be balanced with the right to practice a religion which provokes discrimination of women. Limiting one right for the sake of another is a normal practice in the field of human rights. This is even more evident in the case of terrorism based on religion.

Separation of state and religion

Religious liberty implies that the state (but not only the state) should not interfere with the religion of its citizens, should not favor or discriminate a particular religion or religions, and should not attach benefits or penalties to any religious affiliation or lack thereof. Religious liberty therefore limits the power of the state and creates a difference between state and society by granting some measure of religious independence to society.

However, religious liberty not only means that the state should avoid interfering in religious matters. It also means that the state should be absolutely neutral as regards religion. There has to be a separation between state and religion (but not necessarily between politics and religion) in the sense that there can be no official state religion. The state should not link itself to a particular religion but should stand above the plurality of different religions. One and the same person cannot be both head of state and head of a church (or an important functionary of a church).

Without this kind of neutrality, certain religions as well as atheists and agnostics will be worse off compared to the adherents of the official religion, if they are allowed to exist at all. Religious liberty means religious equality and the equal treatment of all religions. This equal treatment is impossible if there is some kind of link between the state and a particular religion. If adherence to one religion brings more advantages than adherence to another – and this can be the case when the former is an official state religion or is in any way favored by the state – then there is no real religious liberty. The choice for one religion rather than another will not be a free choice. Even if non-official religions are not actively persecuted or discriminated against, they are worse off when there is no separation between the state and religion because they have less means to influence the public as the official state religion. They are not as free as the official religion.

Another reason why religious liberty implies the separation between state and religion is the need for an impartial judge to mediate between different religions. If different religions are allowed to exist together, we need a non-religious law which regulates their coexistence. It is very unlikely that people adhering to one religion will accept laws which are inspired by another religion. The fact that a religiously neutral state with its religiously neutral laws allows many different religions to exist and to coexist, makes it acceptable to many people. A state which only allows one religion or favors one religion, will only be accepted by the adherents of that particular religion.

The historical fact that religious communities tend to become more and more intertwined within the borders of states, will enhance the attractiveness of this kind of state. A democracy is by definition such a neutral state, because a democracy respects human rights. Once you respect human rights, you also respect religious liberty, and religious liberty leads to religious neutrality on the part of the state.

Just as the state is kept out of religion, religion is kept out of the state. The claims of religion are restricted. A particular religion cannot claim to be the religion of the country in order to take possession of the state or the law and thereby achieve more power than other religions and impose itself on individuals. The state, for its part, is not allowed to prohibit, persecute, discriminate or impose a religion, and it should also avoid using a religion as a means to enhance its authority, as a kind of transcendent confirmation. If you stand close to something glorious, you may hope that something of the glory shines on you as well. You may even hope to become godly, which, historically, has been an enormous advantage to states in pre-modern times. The representative of God on earth is godly as well, and he who is godly is eternal and escapes contestation, which is of course anti-democratic. It is equally unacceptable for a state to use certain religious texts to justify or enforce authoritarian measures.

Separating state and religion may cause some problems. It will for example make it more difficult to universalize human rights. Many cultures, for example Muslim cultures, see this separation not as an advantage but as a problem because religion – unified religion, not the freedom of religion – is still very important in their societies and is considered to be the foundation of politics.

However, state neutrality in religious matters does not imply that democratic politics is necessarily a-religious or atheistic. A democracy executes the will of the people and not the will of God, but if the people believe that their will equals the will of God, then this does not pose a problem as long as the religious rights of the minority are respected and as long as the religion of the majority does not acquire unjustified privileges and does not become the official state religion.

Separation of politics and religion?

This already indicates that the separation of state and religion is not identical to the separation of politics and religion. Religion does not have to remain silent when it comes to politics. It can be a source of inspiration for politicians and it can enhance ethical consciousness and behavior. Therefore, it should not be excluded from politics. It is important to make the distinction between politics and the state. The fact that freedom of religion and the separation of state and religion do not imply the separation of religion and politics can make it easier to impose religious liberty and state neutrality. Religious people obviously and justifiably fear the separation of religion and politics.

The religious neutrality of the state does not necessarily lead to a religious neutrality of politics. A religion is not allowed to infiltrate the institutions of the state, otherwise it would acquire more power than other religions and therefore destroy religious liberty (a choice for a religion is not free if one religion has more power of persuasion than another). But a religion is allowed to try to convince a majority, at least as long as it respects human rights and the liberty of other religions.