Rethinking vilification

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.



Filed under freedom of speech, islam, judaism, law, religion

2 responses to “Rethinking vilification

  1. Aimee

    Just a quick comment. I generally agree with your views re this case/issue but I’m not so sure about this tacked on comment: “some might argue that inciting conversion is almost as bad as inciting hatred”

    As a practicing christian I feel obliged to put in at least a mild defense to that one. If you know that something another person is doing is harmful, for instance that their habit of smoking is bad for their health, that the relationship they are in is destructive or that they are missing out on something because of their own limited thinking – say, they don’t think of themselves as the kind of person who will ever ‘get’ maths, so they just put it away, focus on arts subjects and quietly drop that idea they had about being an engineeer… If you saw this in someone else’s life and you cared – wouldn’t you want to say something? Wouldn’t you want to suggest alternatives, give phone numbers of support agencies, put yourself on the line and offer to help, share something that got you over a similar problem?

    For some reason it seems more acceptable to care about social, educational, health and career aspects of other people’s lives, than it does to care about their spiritual lives. I know that evangelism can be done manipulatively, for wrong reasons and counterproductively, and that that has been the case throughout history. Yet, much as I often wish I could ignore this facet of my religion, it’s impossible. Christians are commanded to share their faith, to always be ready with an answer if anyone asks you for the reason for your hope (but do this with gentleness and respect! – 1 Pet 3:15).

    It can’t automatically be a bad thing to tell other people about something that so enriches your life and gives it meaning, can it? Don’t you tell people about books and music that affected you? Why is it that people want to quarantine sharing about a personal experience of God from social discourse? Is it simply because of the bad way it is done, or is God himself a taboo subject?

  2. Legal Eagle

    Yeah, that line probably was a bit below the belt. I guess I have a very negative perception of people trying to convert me to all sorts of things (religions, pyramid selling, political parties) when I really don’t want to be part of whatever it is.

    As background, an RE teacher told me my parents would go to hell when I was seven years old, and this scared me horribly and turned me off Christianity and religion in general for many years.

    I guess I should have distinguished between telling people about something which enriches your life (fine by me) and forcing something down someone’s throat (not fine by me). The problem with some evangelists is that they take the latter option (forcing it down your throat and making you feel pressured). I don’t object to discussions about spirituality and God in a non-pressurised and frank environment.

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