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Hate speech or no speech?

Thu 14 Oct 2004 In: Features

There's nothing quite like a hate speech enquiry to send PC-conspiracy theorists over the edge. Have you ever noticed how it's the ones who are often guilty of vilification that are the first to be concerned about a possible law against it? They'd also be the first to say their opinions aren't hate speech - that's ok. Denial is another symptom exhibited by PC-phobes. Anyhow - rant over. The government's administration select committee is going to look into whether we need hate speech laws. This would put us in line with several other countries who have laws against vilification speech, including Canada, various Scandinavian territories, and parts of New South Wales in Australia. Of course, each jurisdiction differs on what they class as hate speech, and drawing the line seems to be the most difficult part of it - that is, if you agree that a line should be drawn at all. A good generalized definition of hate speech would be dialogue that depicts certain classes of people in society as being "inherently inferior", to borrow a phrase from our country's Censorship Act for films, videos and publications. In an attempt to cut through the various issues surrounding hate speech legislation, I spoke to two gay men with opposing perspectives on it. Jim Peron is the executive director of the Institute for Liberal Values, and a frequent contributor to; he's vehemently opposed to the idea. Peter Saxton is a researcher at Massey University's Shore Centre, and is in favour of hate speech law. "Freedom of expression has to be defended very jealously, and it is one of the most fundamental rights in society, but it's not foolproof," says Saxton. "Because there are demonstrable harms caused by certain forms of speech, you've got a conflict of two rights. One is the very fundamental right of freedom of expression, the other is the right to be free from discrimination." But with hate speech law, we'd be putting the administration of those rights into government hands. Can we trust them? Definitely not, says Jim Peron. He believes proponents of hate speech law rely on an assumption that the government will always be sympathetic to one's own worldview. "It's very naïve to think that government power will not bite you in the ass sometime later on," he says. "For decades in the United States, people promoted ideas that the government school system should be used to promote sexual values under the guise of sex education courses. Now George Bush is in charge of those programmes, and they're being used to promote fundamentalist Christian values." Saxton shares concerns about hate speech law being a double-edged sword, and says we need to find a way of distinguishing between speech which is dehumanizing, and speech which is merely offensive. Much of the commentary from Destiny Church, he feels, would probably fall into the latter category. There's also the question of whether it's actually advantageous to have odious opinions about homosexuality out in the open. "The threshold that has to be passed for any hate speech law has to be extremely high," he says. "As we've seen with the recent Destiny Church comments, and even the Bishop Vercoe 'world without gays' comments, the marketplace of idea metaphor where ideas are debated openly and in the public sphere has actually worked quite well. I think the response to those events has been relatively positive." Those events certainly were a kick up the backside for the largely apathetic gay and lesbian population in New Zealand. But there's concern that if we had a hate speech law, reactions to so-called hate speech could also be censored. "We should have the right to be as critical as we want of the fundamentalist Christian right without having to worry that they can use legislation to charge us with hate speech," says Peron. He reckons that gays who want to be protected from fundamentalist hate speech are just as fundamentalist themselves. In order to protect ourselves from something which we perceive to be causing harm, we advocate for massive state control of it. Just as gays wish to be protected from fundamentalists, fundies feel they need to be protected against homosexuals. Saxton says that's ignoring the difference in effect between certain forms of rhetoric. "It's important to acknowledge that vilification about Christian people doesn't generally result in Christians getting bashed in the street, in the same way that vilification of gay people often results in gay people being bashed," he says. "It's an important distinction that some forms of rhetoric and some forms of hate speech are much more powerful, either because of the imagery they create or invoke, or because of the position of that particular minority in society." It's the potential implications of what Saxton outlines above that some Christian rightists have been dining out on. In America, this has even extended to smear campaigns against the Democrats - a vote for the left is a vote for restrictions on freedom of speech, they've prophesied, even when no such law has been proposed. Some Christians even think the Bible may be banned. Saxton says that's not likely. "A good law would not only provide a threshold for publications to be deemed to be hate speech, or regulated, it would also have a contextual clause which forced the lawmakers into reflecting on the context in which an expression is made," he says. Our current censorship Act has a series of checks and balances which requires publications to be judged in context, and any hate speech law would have to give due consideration to this, even if a certain discourse is deemed objectionable on the surface. Sounds a little tricky, though, doesn't it? There are already cases in the United States where people claim to have been incited into violence based on the Bible, not to mention numerous films that have been blamed for copycat crimes over the years. What exactly is the difference between someone who kills a gay man, and someone who kills a gay man because the Bible said he should? Who is to blame, the killer or the Bible? Or both? Despite the difficulty in determining blame, Saxton says we can't ignore the harm that is being done by certain forms of hate speech just because it's a difficult area to administer. "It's one thing to have a negative idea about a minority group, it's another thing altogether to be encouraged into acts of violence against a minority group," he says. "It's a little bit disingenuous to say that just because you encourage people into acts of violence that you shouldn't be held responsible if violence is committed against that group." When we start to legislate towards opinion and not action, however, Peron says we're on the slippery slope. "The most important freedom in any society is the right to be wrong," he says. "Everybody supports anyone's right to do what's right - that's easy. The difference of course is that they all disagree on what's right. They want to determine what the right things are, and I'm saying that this type of legislation is the same mentality that the fundamentalists have. Regardless of who's doing it, the dangers are very high." While some may find the option of hate speech legislation unpalatable, Saxton finds the other option - doing nothing about the harm being caused by it - equally unpleasant. "This isn't a hypothetical question, we're not dealing with hypothetical debates. Whether you regard things that are being said as hate speech or not, no-one can deny that the sorts of rhetoric that are circulating at the moment are very negative discourses about homosexuality; the second point is that the homosexual community experiences a great deal of harm, and harm that's disproportionate to many other minority communities." These are two basic issues which Saxton finds some people - including gay and lesbian people - failing to grasp. "United Future leader Peter Dunne was saying in the NZ Herald a few months ago that most New Zealanders would not buy into hate speech, and there's no harm caused as a result of it. Now, he's never subject to hate speech as far as I know, neither does he ever have to bear the burden of hate speech in terms of harm. That's true for many members of the gay community as well." Well, Peron has an answer to that - and it's a message that the amorphous blob that we call the gay community may not like hearing. "There's an awful lot of gay people that have an awful lot of spendable income, they just don't want to put it into gay political causes," he says. "That the fundamentalist Christians are willing to take their income and put it into radical think tanks, and the gay community is not - that's not a discrepancy in power. That's the apathy of the gay community. And state legislation can't replace apathy." So what's the answer to countering the rhetoric? Come out, says Peron. Get that ass out of the closet. "A lot of antigay attitudes exist because the people who believe them don't know anyone who's gay which counters the attitude that they hold." We'd like to think that's true, but is it? A recent study of high schools in America by the Gay Lesbian Striaght Education Network (GLSEN) found that although 72 per cent of students know someone who is gay or lesbian, and 65 percent identified their personal experiences with gay people as an important factor in shaping their attitudes; 66 per cent of them still use homophobic language, and 83 per cent of the time nothing is done by staff to intervene. Closer to home, the surprising revelation that National MP Brian Connell, one of the more virulent Parliamentary critics of the Civil Union Bill (he described it as the "hard sell of the homosexual lifestyle" by homosexual activists who were seeking "converts"), had a lesbian sister-in-law. His answer to his apparent hypocrisy? His homophobic rhetoric didn't apply to her, as she was the exception to the rule. "What he's interested in is the politics of it and not the truth," says Peron. "Politics is a terrible way of determining what is true and what is false, and that's one of the reasons I don't think we should be turning over control of people's opinions to politicians. There's all sorts of political compromises, and you have people who take positions simply because they think it's a good idea politically." Regardless of whether Connell's a good example or not, coming out en masse is simply not a realistic option in our society today. It's not going to be safe or feasible for every gay man or lesbian woman to do it. Perhaps Peron is the ultimate idealist - but then, with Saxton imagining a world where we can minimize (or perhaps even eliminate) dehumanizing rhetoric, that makes him one too. And for all us cynics in the middle, it's heartening to know there's still some hopefuls left, even if they don't agree with each other. Chris Banks - 14th October 2004    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Thursday, 14th October 2004 - 12:00pm

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