Hate (8): Tolerance and Hate Speech

Jeremy Waldron claims that tolerance is more than merely the absence of violent assault on people who have adopted beliefs and practices we don’t like, and more than simply abstaining from persecution and legal sanction. He says that tolerance also implies the absence of hate speech and a legal prohibition of hate speech. Members of minority groups whose beliefs and practices are strongly disapproved of by the rest of society, have a right to go about their lives without the threat of constant hatred, vilification, insult and humiliation. They have a right to visit the shops and restaurants they want to visit, and to generally interact with others without being treated as pariahs.

And, indeed, that sounds quite reasonable. People undoubtedly have and should have such rights. But others have rights as well: hate mongers have a right to free speech, and racist shop keepers and restaurant owners have a right to ban whoever they want from their private property, under certain circumstances.

When the rights of the haters and the rights of despised minorities come into conflict, the different rights have to be balanced. I argued before that the right of private property of racists, or the freedom of association of prejudiced groups wanting to exclude homosexuals for example, should no longer be protected when these racists and bigots have become so numerous and authoritative that the objects of their racism or bigotry no longer have any alternative options and risk having their own rights violated. In the Jim Crow era, for example, it was very difficult for blacks to move around, find decent housing etc. because there were so many transport companies and landowners discriminating against them that their options were seriously diminished. Hence their rights were violated, and violated to such a degree that limitations on the rights of their tormentors were justified.

Similarly, in our current example, hate speech should only be banned and the right to free speech of hate mongers should only be limited when there’s an impact on the rights of their targets. Claiming, as Waldron seems to do, that a tolerant society generally requires such bans and limits will not do. That’s just not enough as a justification. For example, writing blood libel on an obscure blog that nobody reads should probably not be prohibited. On the other hand, burning crosses in the front yards of black people and forcing them to move elsewhere is a violation of their right to freely choose their residence. The same is true if people dare not walk the streets because of the risk of being constantly cursed at. These two cases of expressions of hate speech can and should be banned because they result in rights violations. Other expressions of hate speech should be protected. A general claim that tolerance requires not just constraints on coercion and violent persecution but also a general respect for people’s dignity and a social atmosphere free of hatred, insult and defamation, goes too far. It would be nice if the world was free of hate and if respect for dignity was the normal attitude, but there’s no right to such a world. Nor should there be.

If we were to adopt such a right, we’d run the risk of terminating debate altogether. If tolerance includes a general ban on hate speech it’s likely that it will also imply banning vehement discussion of other people’s supposed errors. You don’t need to engage in hate speech in order to have a vehement and lively discussion and criticism of others, but a lot of such criticism can be readily understood and perceived by its targets as an expression of hate and an insult to dignity. These targets can then use the power of law to shut down the debate, and that’s not something we want. Ideally, specific instances of speech should not be judged as inadmissible instances of hate speech and proper objects of legal sanction simply on the basis of the feelings or perceptions of the targets, but only on the basis of the objective consequences for the rights of the targets. Tolerance that includes a ban on all hate speech is a tolerance that in the end may silence us all.

More on tolerance, hate speech, defamation and insults. More posts in this series are here.


Limiting Free Speech (50): Harassment of Funeral Mourners

The Phelps family and their Westboro Baptist Church – notorious nutcases and media whores – won an important Supreme Court free speech case. In Snyder v Phelps, the Court decided that the First Amendment protects public protestors insulting dead soldiers during their funeral (“thank God for dead soldiers” was one of the insults directed at the Snyder family).

And indeed, free speech rights do and should include the right to be offensive, obnoxious, insensitive, indecent, disturbing and plain stupid, even if being so causes sincere and predictable discomfort for some. Moreover, the Phelps’ were in a public space and were “discussing” a topic of public interest (the war in Iraq and the permissibility of homosexuality). Those facts make the Court’s decision look inherently sound.

However, things look entirely different when we take some other facts into account. There’s for example the mourners’ right to privacy. Westboro’s picketing was a clear violations of this right. There’s nothing as private as mourning at a funeral, and the mourners are definitely captive: they can’t just go an mourn elsewhere in order to avoid the protest. Westboro on the other hand can easily stage their protests elsewhere: they can for example respect a decent distance. Their speech is not directed at the mourners anyway, but rather at the general public, so speaking outside a buffer zone around the cemetery would not, at first sight, limit their speech. An effort to balance both rights – speech and privacy – should therefore, at least in this case, come down on the side of privacy because the cost to privacy of permitting speech is much larger than the cost to speech of respecting privacy. (And rights have to be balanced; speech is not the most important right but rather one among many equally important rights).

Still, Westboro may disagree. It’s likely that they see their speech as inherently connected to their lack of decency: it’s precisely this lack that creates the controversy and that gives their speech the impact that it wouldn’t have outside of the buffer zone. The problem with this argument is that it confuses the right to freedom of speech with a right to maximum impact speech. And the latter right does not and should not exist. We have a strong right to free speech but no right to maximize the impact of our speech at the expense of other people’s rights.

Limitations of free speech in cases such as these can be argued, not just on the basis of the right to privacy, but also on the basis of the right to health. It’s not outrageous to assume that distress of the type caused by Westboro can lead to health problems such as anguish, depression etc. Again we have a conflict of rights, and again it’s a case in which limitations of free speech would impose a smaller cost – given the alternative forms of speech available – than the health cost imposed by the lack of such limitations.

All of this proves that we are dealing here with a case that’s about more than mere offense. But perhaps it’s also about more than privacy and health. Free speech does not include the right to use other people as mere instruments of your speech. And instrumentalization of this kind is clearly what Westboro is all about. They don’t give a damn about the mourners and use them as a stage for venting against homosexuality (they see dead soldiers as God’s punishment for allowing homosexuality in the U.S.):

the outrageous disturbance of a military funeral is newsworthy precisely because it is such an abhorrent and extreme act.  In essence, the speakers are using the mourners and their vulnerable and sympathetic position as a stage prop to get their message out to a different audience. (source)

And although there is no right to be treated as an end rather than a means, this does seem to be a solid moral principle.

Go here to read about the similar case of residential picketing. More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (45): Is There A Right To Do Wrong?

Absolutely, there is. People have a right to vote for incompetent politicians; to express hatred; to organize hate groups; to insult and mock people; to burn books etc. All of these things are wrong in most plausible conceptions of morality, and yet they are part and parcel of human rights, and should be, to the extent that they don’t cause rights violations. Does this make human rights wrong? Objectionable? No it doesn’t, at least not necessarily. Human rights are objectionable if they have bad consequences, but only bad consequences in the sense of rights violations. Hence human rights are objectionable if they produce violations of other rights or the rights of others.

Some of the examples I just gave of the use of human rights may result in bad consequences. Hate speech can harm people’s rights. However, it’s often extremely difficult to measure the consequences of rights. For example, bad consequences can produce good consequences: e.g. allowing people to produce hate speech can convince a lot of people of the unattractiveness or disadvantages of certain ideologies.

Still, no matter what the consequences of the human rights are, we’ll still be stuck with differences between human rights and morality because some of the consequences of some rights will be clearly immoral. The two will probably never completely overlap. Some of the uses of human rights will produce outcomes that are a net negative from a moral point of view, even in the long run. So how should we react to people exercising their rights in an immoral way and in a way that produces immoral outcomes? It’s difficult, at first sight, to contemplate the use of morality to tell them to stop, since they are exercising their rights. However, rights are seldom absolute and can be limited if necessary. It depends on the nature of the immoral outcomes of the use of human rights. When we’re talking about an outcome that is immoral because it offends or hurts the feelings of people, the justification to do something about it is a lot less strong than when we’re talking about an outcome that is immoral because it violates the rights of people. In the latter case we should act and try to find a balance between the rights of different people, namely those people exercising their rights in an immoral way and those suffering the consequences of this exercise. In the former case, our actions should probably be limited to persuasion, education etc.

Another argument in favor of a right to do wrong does not focus on consequences. Rights entitle us to make our own choices, and making your own choices is a moral good in itself. If this moral good leads to immoral choices and these choices are immoral because of the negative consequences for other people, then it’s not necessarily those consequences that are most important. If we force people to do the right thing, we’re taking away their right to make their own choices, and we’d also be acting immorally. Hence, there’s a conflict between two moral maxims, and it’s not obvious that the maxim that says we should limit negative consequences for others is always the most important of the two. It depends on the harm done by those consequences, and the degree of choice limitation that would result from trying to avoid those consequences.

No matter what we do, there will always be cases of rights that result in wrongs, just as there are moral wrongs without corresponding rights (keeping promises is moral but not a right; the same is true for telling the truth, helping friends, being faithful to your spouse etc.). Of course, many actions are both morally wrong and a violation of rights, or both morally right and respectful of rights, so we shouldn’t make too much of an issue of the right to do wrong. But still, it is an issue and it’s good to know that it’s an issue.

Does the existence of a right to do wrong imply that rights are divorced from morality? Well, it makes it a bit harder to argue that rights are merely a subset of morality. But it doesn’t mean that we should go to the other extreme and say that rights are an exclusively legal matter separated from moral concerns. That extreme would land us squarely in the territory of legal positivism, or the theory that states that we only have those rights that are recognized in law. And that’s not a pleasant territory since it makes it impossible to challenge deficiencies in the rights recognized by the law. In order to challenge those deficiencies, you need a notion of moral rights, rights that are not yet (fully) recognized by the law (there wouldn’t have been a Martin Luther King in the land of legal positivism for example). But in order to have moral rights, rights have to belong to morality, and it seems that a right to do wrong makes this belonging problematic. However, we can anchor rights in morality by arguing that morality is more than the teaching of what we should or shouldn’t do. We just stipulate that rights talk belongs to morality, and conflicts between elements of morality – in this case rights and wrongs – are nothing unusual.

More posts in this series are here.

Limiting Free Speech (23): Blasphemy Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limiting Free Speech (20): Flag Burning and Flag Desecration

Flag burning (or other types of desecration of national flags) is a form of speech. It may not be a very refined or profound expression of opinions or ideas, but it is an expression nevertheless. Flag burning expresses disgust and hatred for a certain country or a country’s government and policies. It’s typically a very emotional form of speech, devoid of rational argument and reduced to simplistic slogans, and most often used in a setting of mass protest.

Given that it is a form of speech, it should, a priori, enjoy the protection of the right to free speech. However, in certain exceptional circumstances there’s a rationale for prohibiting it. It is a form of hate speech, and the rules governing limitations of hate speech apply here as well. In a nutshell: hate speech can be prohibited when it incites violence.

Now, it’s not impossible to imagine cases where flag burning can incite violence (burning the flag of Israel in front of a surrounded Jewish enclave when a pogrom is imminent, for example), but I guess that most cases of flag burning are much less harmful. So a general law forbidding flag burning doesn’t seem justifiable. There have been several attempts in the U.S. Congress to vote for an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to allow a ban on flag burning:

On June 27, 2006, the most recent attempt to pass a ban on flag burning was rejected by the Senate in a close vote of 66 in favor, 34 opposed, one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to send the amendment to be voted on by the states. (source)

Much of this is of course political posturing of politicians trying to be the most patriotic. Given the rarity of flag burning in the U.S., it’s also a typical example of a solution in search of a problem.

Those who would burn the flag destroy the symbol of freedom, but amending the Constitution would destroy part of freedom itself. Richard Savage (source)

The fact that patriotic people are offended by flag burning isn’t a sufficient reason to ban it. (I’ve argued here against a right not to be offended).

Limiting Free Speech (18): Lèse Majesté

Lèse majesté (a French expression but originally from a Latin expression meaning “injury to the Majesty”) is a legal rule making it a crime to say or write things that offend or insult a king or queen, or violate his or her dignity.

Fortunately, this kind of limitation of freedom of speech has become extremely rare. Most countries have done away with the archaic institution of the monarchy and hence also their lèse majesté rules. Or they have relegated their monarchies to the domain of symbolism and celebrity. Absolute monarchies or monarchical dictatorships are the exception nowadays. Oppression has become a distinctly “republican” affair. (Some of the remaining absolute monarchies are Brunei, Qatar, the southern African Kingdom of Swaziland, and Saudi Arabia).

Most of the monarchies that continue to exist have no strict practice of limiting free speech on the grounds of lèse majesté. They may have some legal rules, but they aren’t applied rigorously. So, on a global level, it’s difficult to claim that lèse majesté is a big problem for freedom of speech. However, some monarchies do impose the rule and thereby violate the right to freedom of speech to a large extent. I’m thinking of course of Thailand. The law there states:

The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action. Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen or the Heir-apparent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years. (source)

Moreover, a precise definition of defamation of or insult to the king is lacking, making the net very tight. As a result, the law has shown itself very useful for political vendettas. There have been numerous cases of censorship, self-censorship and imprisonment, often as a consequences of rather ridiculous faits divers:

Frenchman Lech Tomacz Kisielwicz refused to switch off a reading light on a Thai Airways flight he shared with two Thai princesses and was jailed under lèse majesté for two weeks after his flight landed in Bangkok. He was acquitted after apologizing to the King. (source)

But the consequences of many cases have been much more serious than the causes. Writers and academics have been jailed, thousands of internet sites are blocked, books and magazines such as The Economist have been banned etc. It’s not impossible that the site you’re reading now will suffer the same fate.

Thai law goes well beyond protection of the royal family. It has been used and abused to protect and justify an entire ruling elite, an autocratic and conservative social system, and even military coups.

Other monarchies are much more tolerant. It’s worth mentioning that some non-monarchies also have rules prohibiting insults to heads of states. In October 2006, a Polish man was arrested in Warsaw after expressing his dissatisfaction with the president and prime minister by farting loudly (see here).

Lèse majesté laws in one form or another, especially in countries where the beneficiaries of such protection are relatively powerful, is undemocratic. They can stifle large areas of political journalism and debate, and make it impossible to expose official wrongdoing and corruption.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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