Maybe There’s a Paragraph Missing
Had lovely fishing trip. Caught a shark, a couple of eels, a sting ray, and an otter that seems to have been dead for some time. All made a very nice bouillabaisse, served with aioli and a hearty pain de compagne and some Chef BoyArDee canned ravioli. That’s the best meal I’ve had in awhile!
But life is not all holiday. Back to the dear old religious hatred bill. Frank Dobson does a not very compelling job of arguing for it in the Guardian, it seems to me. Maybe I’m missing something.
Do you believe that anyone should be allowed to incite hatred against other people on the grounds of their religious belief? I don’t, even though I have no religious belief myself. That’s because I believe that nobody should suffer assaults, or live in fear, because of their religious beliefs.
So – Mr Dobson – do you believe that people should suffer assaults, or live in fear, because of something other than their religious beliefs? Do you believe that people should suffer assaults, or live in fear, because of their fashion sense, or taste in fish soup, or nail-biting? Probably not – am I right? Don’t you just kind of think people shouldn’t suffer assaults, or live in fear, at all? Don’t you generally tend to think that assault and threatening ought to be against the law? Don’t you think they in fact are against the law? If so, what is the force of your question? What is that ‘because’ doing there? You might as well say, ‘Do you believe that people should be robbed at gunpoint because of their opinions on Star Trek? I don’t, even though I have no opinions on Star Trek myself. That’s because I believe that nobody should suffer assaults.’ See – the thing about opinions on Star Trek is completely superfluous. It’s not necessary. You don’t need it. Assault is already illegal, and adding ‘because of their religious beliefs’ to the end of it doesn’t make it any more so.
I’m not saying there is no argument for laws against incitement to hatred. I tend to think there is, especially in view of what happened in for instance the Balkans and Rwanda lately. I’m saying Frank Dobson didn’t make that argument, and doesn’t seem to have noticed that he didn’t make it. He just jumped right over it. He does more jumping.
If the proposed new law were widely drawn, it could in effect extend the blasphemy law. But it isn’t. It is narrowly drawn, confining the offence to expressions or behaviour intended or likely to stir up hatred. It wouldn’t outlaw The Satanic Verses or Jerry Springer – the Opera, just as the existing protection for Sikhs did not cover the play Behzti in Birmingham.
And that’s that. On to the next item. That is – incredibly enough – all he says about that issue. You may notice a certain emaciation about it, a certain lack of corroborative material, a certain absence of elaboration or explanation. That surplus ‘because’ in the first paragraph would have come in handy in this one, but it isn’t there. The law wouldn’t outlaw The Satanic Verses because – why? He doesn’t say. He doesn’t say! He just says it is so, and leaves it at that. Well – since that’s the very point that’s at issue, that doesn’t really cut it!
Not to mention that blithe assumption that it is obvious what ‘confining the offence to expressions or behaviour intended or likely to stir up hatred’ means – which it decidedly isn’t. Again, that’s the whole point – so just saying ‘it’s not a problem’ and nothing further is not really adequate, is it. But that’s all he says. Is this really the best they can do?
And that brings us to the next objection – that comedians won’t be able to make religious jokes, and clerics will not be able to promote their beliefs or attack the beliefs, teachings and practices of other religions. This isn’t true either. To fall foul of the law, offenders must use threats, abuse or insults that are intended to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their religion, or are likely to do so. If threats, abuse and insults alone don’t break the law, jokes certainly shouldn’t. Surely no comedian needs the right to stir up religious hatred. Nor does any cleric.
Here we are again. Err – yes, we know offenders must use threats, abuse or insults that are intended to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their religion – we know that, because that’s what this whole thing is about. Just keeping on repeating it isn’t going to answer our objections. How do you know when threats, abuse or insults are intended to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their religion and when they’re not? How do you tell the difference? What are the criteria? And when are you planning to explain them to the people who will be subject to this new law? Ever?
Changes in the law bring about changes in behaviour, partly by acting as a deterrent and partly by declaring that something is wrong. We know the law against incitement to racial hatred has had that effect. Incitement to religious hatred is just as wrong, so the law should declare it wrong. If we fail to change the law, we are declaring that we are prepared to tolerate religious hatred. That can’t be right.
Again – yes, we know. Again, that’s the problem – we don’t want to change our behaviour, we don’t want a deterrent. You seem to be utterly convinced that you know religious hatred when you see it and that it’s not things like jokes or novels or plays, or articles or essays or tracts – but we’re not convinced, noisy disrespectful atheists that we are, and we’re even less convinced now you’ve shown us that you can’t even seem to see that there’s anything to be said on the subject. Nothing but ‘it won’t be a problem because it won’t be a problem.’ Not an encouraging sign, this level of obtusity.