About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Peter Singer on "defamation of religion"

Another 50 Voices of Disbelief contributor, Peter Singer, has published this article in The Guardian, in defence of freedom of speech. This is what we need to see: the world's major intellectuals taking a stand for our most fundamental liberties.

Part of the motivation of the countries that form the Organisation of the Islamic Conference is their wish to suppress speech that links terrorism with Islam. But, as Singer replies, "To demonstrate that it is wrong to associate Islam with terrorism, the OIC might begin to compile statistics on the religious affiliations of those who engage in terrorism. By contrast, suppressing the freedom of speech of Islam's critics merely gives rise to the suspicion that evidence and sound argument cannot show their arguments to be mistaken."

Singer's main concern, however, seems to be a recent case in which the highest court in Germany ruled against the right of the animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to use campaign posters juxtaposing photographs of Holocaust victims against those of animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses. The posters concerned say, "To Animals, All People are Nazis."

This was forbidden on the basis that PETA's campaign made "the fate of the victims of the Holocaust appear banal and trivial" and was thus, supposedly, an offense against human dignity.

Singer quite correctly points out that PETA was not suggesting that the fates of the Holocaust victims were either banal or trivial. Rather, it was relying on the acknowledged horror of the Holocaust to suggest that something equally horrible happens to factory-farmed animals that we use for food. Whether or not we agree with that, Singer is correct that "A free society should be open to discussing such a claim." Even if this speech offends some people, that is not the test. Generally speaking, no one has the right to be protected from mere offence.

I'm not an absolutist about freedom of speech. Note the "generally speaking" above - sufficiently high-impact images may be so revolting (even inducing physical nausea) that the effect shades into harm. There may be a role for the state in protecting us from having to see such images against our will, and thus for regulating the times and places in which they can be displayed or the manner in which they can be displayed. Images that are likely to produce physical nausea should not, for example, plaster the internal walls of trams, where commuters cannot easily avoid seeing them, or be broadcast during children's television shows. But there is nothing to indicate that the case against PETA was argued along such lines, much less decided in that way.

While there are always nuances, free speech is our most important political liberty, and no encroachments on it should be taken lightly. Kudos to Singer for coming out in its support.

1 comment:

stuart peace said...

No images or advertisements should be on trams, or any public space!