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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 19, 2012

Kenan Malik interviewed on hate speech

This is a long interview - but it's a very interesting one, worth having a look at and reading right through. Malik argues the case for banning only speech that, in the circumstances, creates an immediate danger of physical harm.

The meaning of ‘imminent danger’ clearly depends upon circumstances. What constitutes imminent danger in, say, London or New York, where there exists a relatively stable, relatively liberal society, and a fairly robust framework of law and order, may be different from what constitutes imminent danger in Kigali or even in Moscow. And the meaning of imminent danger for a Jew in Berlin in 1936 was clearly different from that for a Jew – or a Muslim – in Berlin 2011. At the same time, in those times and in those societies in which particular groups are being made targets of intense hostility, this debate becomes almost irrelevant. In a climate of extreme hatred, as in Rwanda in 1994, or in Germany in the 1930s, it may be easier to incite people into harming others. But in such a climate, the niceties of what legally constitutes “imminent harm” would, and should, be the least of our worries. What would matter would be to confront such hatred and prejudice head on, both politically and physically.

What I am wary of is that in accepting the commonsense view that what constitutes danger is dependent on circumstances, we should not make the concept so elastic as to render it meaningless. Whether in London, New York, Berlin, or Kigali, speech should only be curtailed if such speech directly incites an act that causes or could cause physical harm to others and if individuals are in imminent danger of such harm because of those words. What is contextual is that in different circumstances, different kinds of speech could potentially place individuals in the way of such harm.


steve oberski said...

I have to agree with his basic premise that attempts to limit speech are really attempts to legislate a particular morality and pretend that the underlying issues can be made to disappear by government fiat.

I'd be interested in hearing Kenan Malik's thoughts on legislative "feature creep", where various non legislative bodies such as advertising standards bureaus and human rights tribunals become the agents of censorship under the guise of truth in advertising or defamation of a religion.

Kirth Gersen said...

I worry about the "bully effect" -- namely, that any group willing to commit violence over trivial speech in effect receives more protection, not less, under the law, and can then use this power to further limit what speech is considered "hate speech." For example, if drawing a cartoon of Mohammed is banned because it incites radical Muslims to violence, those same people can then easily threaten to riot if anyone says the word "pork," for example. It quickly becomes a race to the bottom.

Shatterface said...

He's really rather good, isn't he? One of the best essayists of his generation.

Christ knows why he ever associated with the fruitbats at Sp!ked.

Felix said...

"if drawing a cartoon of Mohammed is banned because it incites radical Muslims to violence"

I am not clear as to whether that would count as incitement since the 'speaker' and the 'aggressor' are on different sides of the issue.

Does taunting and teasing count as incitement? I would suggest not thought it may be considered a mitigating factor at any trial (IANAL)

Clearly the Cleric who whipped up the mob to act against the cartoonist would be open to charges of incitement.

March Hare said...

Felix, incitement doesn't have a requirement to be ideologically aligned. It can often be more emotionally engaging (and violence producing) to go against the sensibilities of the crowd - a tactic used by both opponents of the movement (esp. if it has been peaceful up to that point) and supporters to focus the crowd or push them to more aggressive acts.

Taking that into account I am worried about the 'race to the bottom' Kirth mentioned where Muslims get Comedy Central to censor a cartoon of Mohammed but PZ Myers can openly skewer a communion wafer. Catholics already have Fatwa envy, the last thing they need is to have such behaviour protected and encouraged in law.

"Clearly the Cleric who whipped up the mob to act against the cartoonist would be open to charges of incitement."

Clearly nothing of the sort. What if the Cleric pre-emptively whipped up the mob? Then the cartoonist is the one who (potentially) incites the mob into violence by producing a cartoon whereas with no cartoon there is no violence hence the Cleric has done nothing wrong (depending on how the law is drafted).

steve oberski said...

@March Hare

PZ can "openly" skewer a catlick cracker because xtianity has been largely detoxified by few centuries of enlightenment values informing secular (largely), democratic (decreasingly) societies which in the main was driven by the increasing ability of citizens to "openly" criticize ideas.

Cast your mind back to the time of the recently declared "heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians" Saint Thomas Moore who tortured and burned other Englishmen for "openly" reading their bible in English.

I'm always perplexed by the (hopefully) unaware condescension involved in absolving Muslim theocrats and their sheep of any blame in their violent reaction to criticism of their ideas and shifting the blame back onto those who "openly" criticize them.

Presumably you think that they are not mature enough to handle any form of criticism and that the poor dears are just children in adult bodies who must be protected from themselves at all costs.

All you really accomplish is to enable ideological thugs to play the "hurt feelings" and "we'll run amuck if you say that" cards with increasing effectiveness.

March Hare said...

@steve, the conversation was around Malik's ideas on what limits there should be on free speech. The, on the face of it, sensible idea that speech that is likely to cause imminent harm should be the only banned speech would lead to anomalies like the one I mentioned, and create a dangerous incentive for groups to engage in faux outrage and violence to pre-emptively silence critics.

With most laws I feel a 'reasonable person' test is useful, but with this one it is hard to know how applicable it would be - a reasonable person wouldn't murder someone for money, but a criminal boss should be arrested for offering money (or gratitude) for someone's death as his audience are not 'reasonable people'. But then the religious leaders are talking to (at least some) crazies so it is reasonable to assume that a minority might act upon any violent rhetoric.

It can be difficult, but I tend hard towards the right of free speech and personal responsibility for actions. Perhaps too much for public safety, but hasn't all controversial speech been deemed dangerous to the state, from "no taxation without representation" to anti-slavery meetings to the Suffragettes to anti-Bush speech?

steve oberski said...

@March Hare

My apologies for misunderstanding and misrepresenting your position.

I think if we look down the causal chain far enough there are any number of anomalies that can occur which usually come to light in retrospect and if taken to their extreme would have the effect of paralysis.

A similar situation applies to a "reasonable person" test for free speech.

It is the motives that one personally finds most unreasonable that need the full protection of free speech, per your example I'm sure that abolitionists and suffragettes were considered very unreasonable in their time.

Kirth Gersen said...

March Hare understands my point exactly. Any law intended to prevent violence, but which potentially creates a feedback loop that encourages violence, should probably be re-thought. For example, in saying speech that incites violence is banned, one creates a very real incentive for fringe groups to react violently to otherwise legitimate speech for the purpose of banning it. Regardless of how foolish we all agree the people who would go along with that must be, there are in fact any number of such. After the Mohammed Cartoons incidents, for example, I quickly lost count of the legions of mooncalves who were idiotically blaming the Jyllans-Posten for the violence committed against its employees.