In a recent post, I said:
I’ve never been much of a fan of racial and religious vilification laws, despite my strong hatred of racial and religious vilification. Suing someone doesn’t change what is in a person’s head. I think the best answer is to be vocal against conduct which is perceived as vilification, to rebut factual inaccuracies and to try to get people to withdraw incorrect statements, and to try to change societal perceptions of such conduct.
On further thought, I think I need to qualify this statement somewhat. I still think the Court of Appeal was right in Catch the Fire Ministries Inc v Islamic Council of Victoria Inc. The purpose of the Pastors’ sermons was not primarily to incite hatred or violence against Muslims; it was to incite people to convert Muslims and show them the “error” of their ways. It may have been patronising and offensive, but I still don’t think it’s vilification. Although, as I’ve said previously, I’m not a fan of proselytisers: some might argue that inciting conversion is almost as bad as inciting hatred.
However, where someone advocates violence towards a particular group of people, or suggests that a particular group of people are less than human or a particular group should be removed from society, I think this is where vilification laws serve a very important purpose. When these sort of things start being thrown around, I can’t help thinking of various genocidal events – as skepticlawyer noted in a post on Catallaxy the other day, genocide is often preceded by an organised campaign to dehumanise the victims in the eyes of the public. By prosecuting people who vilify others in this way, we are giving a message to society in general that such conduct is unacceptable.
Sheikh Feiz Mohammed’s recently reported comments about Jews on the Death Series DVD are clearly vilification. One of the problems I have with some Muslim clerics is that they complain about Islamophobia, but are then overtly anti-Semitic or anti-Christian…you have to practice what you preach, guys! If you want others to take you seriously and treat you with respect, you have to treat others with respect. But then there are also some horrific comments flying around the blogosphere about Islam: see some of the anonymous comments on Irfan Yusuf’s blog for examples. As I said in comments on Irfan’s blog, people who want to kill all Muslims or expel them from Australia are doing exactly what Osama bin Laden wants. He wants to cause dissension and strife between Muslims and the West, and thereby create jihad.
“Regular Reader” commented that she would like to see homophobic vilification outlawed. Where somebody encourages others to be violent towards gays and lesbians, or suggests that gay and lesbian people are less than human, or that gays and lesbians should be removed from society, I think that vilification laws should definitely come into play. No one should have to suffer that kind of conduct.
Unfortunately, however, I still don’t think vilification laws are going to “fix” prejudice. As a friend noted when we were debating this the other night, a successful prosecution may prevent others from vilifying a particular race or religion or group. From this point of view, it serves a useful need. But it doesn’t alter the way in which people think.
I’m a cynic. Perhaps it’s because I’m a bit of a rara avis, and thus I’ve found people don’t always react well to people who are a bit different. I think that human beings have a compulsive need to distinguish between “my tribe” and “that other mob over there”. Discrimination is an inbuilt instinct. Look at the “blue eyes, brown eyes” experiment – the choice of the characteristic on which the discrimination was based was arbitrary, but everyone in the class started abiding by it. It may as well have been who had sandwiches with brown bread or white bread. The important thing is to recognise that we do have such instincts, but to try give everyone a chance on the basis that race, sexuality, religion or the like doesn’t matter – it’s what kind of a person you are, and how you treat others.