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The freedom to hate March 3, 2011

Posted by laïcité in International, Religion.
Tags: , , ,

As someone who firmly believes in the freedom of speech, I am sometimes forced to take sides with very unpleasant views. Take for example, Pastor Rony Tan’s insensitive comments about Buddhists and Taoists last year. As much as I disagreed with his views, I could never condone censorship of such opinions. Whatever “peace” or “harmony” that is achieved from the censorship of hate speech or insensitivity is not worth the violation of an individual’s rights to express his opinions in a peaceful manner, nor does it do anything to prevent the undercurrents of unexpressed intolerance.

Likewise, today I find myself grudgingly agreeing with the Supreme Court’s ruling to protect the rights of protesters from Westboro Baptist church to assemble at military funerals and hold up hateful picket signs.

In case you are not familiar with the antics of Westboro Baptist church, its followers are (in)famous for picketing at the funerals of soldiers who died in combat, holding up signs saying that those solders deserved their death as god’s punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality.  Any decent human being, regardless of his views towards homosexuality, would agree that such actions are appalling. The utter lack of sensitivity and hatefulness behind those actions simply cannot be condoned.

And yet, despite the awfulness of such behaviour, assholes still have every right to be assholes, as long as they remain peaceful. If we try to curb their protests in an attempt to stop “hate speech”, then are we not as bad as religious theocracies that implement anti-blasphemy laws? After all, in essence what they are simply doing is censoring views that they don’t agree with. Whether or not we agree with the opinions of others is not what matters. What matters is what comes out of it: condemnation, dialogue, understanding, maturity.

And perhaps what is more powerful than the law is the support (or lack of support) by the community. When a group expresses an extreme, hateful, morally reprehensible view such as anti-Semitism, or homophobia, or sexism, or racism, censorship or punishment is not going to change their minds; they may even see themselves as martyrs for their hateful cause. This is where public condemnation comes in. If we trust ourselves to react with maturity and reason, we will ultimately have the upper hand.

When neo-nazis attempted to stage a far-right march in Dresden only a couple of weeks ago, they weren’t stopped by guns or the police or by the law. They were stopped by a chain of 10,000 peaceful anti-neo-nazi protesters.

When anti-gay stickers started appearing in east London (together with a quote from the Koran), it was the condemnation by the angry residents, the Muslim Council of Britain and the East London Mosque that would bear more weight than any action by the police.

Call me a hopeless optimist, but I still believe that when it comes to dealing with hate speech, the power of peaceful, rational, mature human beings is more potent than any attempts to censor it.



1. LCC - March 3, 2011

“I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — Voltaire

Indeed, although a state may be able to keep things stable and peaceful in the short term by choosing to censor, it may hinder society’s maturing and ability to handle controversial issues in a peaceful and rational manner in the long run.

Just as how parents cannot protect their children forever from stuff which they deem as “bad influences”, a paternalistic state perhaps also cannot always protect its citizenry from controversial issues through censorship

2. SN - March 9, 2011

Oh, all right.

You’re a hopeless optimist.


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