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David Matas

 
David Matas: Distinguishing between hate speech and blasphemy when combating antisemitism

by David Matas, May 18, 2015

 

(Remarks prepared for an international seminar hosted by the Kantor Center, Tel Aviv University, 11 May, 2015)

 

In my view, incitement to hatred should be prohibited and blasphemy should not.  I do not intend here today to argue either position in isolation, but rather the two together. If you want to know why I think hate speech should be banned, I invite you to read Bloody Words: Hate and Free Speech,[1] a whole book I have written on the subject.

 

I reject the notion that, if I am against the prohibition of blasphemy, I must also be against the prohibition of hate speech, or that, if I accept the prohibition of hate speech, I must also accept the prohibition of blasphemy.  My purpose here today is to try to convince you that advocating prohibition of incitement to hatred and opposing the prohibition of blasphemy are consistent positions.

 

The two positions are different first because they deal with different forms of speech.  There are some free speech absolutists who will say that anything goes - whether it is fraud or plagiarism or threats of murder or defamation or child pornography.  For those who accept that some restrictions on speech are justifiable, the issue becomes which ones. 

 

Prohibiting some speech does not mean prohibiting all speech. There is no inherent contradiction in principle between saying that the right to free speech should prevail over the right of to be free from blasphemy and that the right to be free from incitement to hatred should prevail of the right to free speech.

 

A prohibition against blasphemy is meant to protect the believer from insult and to protect us from a breach of the peace that the outrage from the insult may provoke in the believer.  A prohibition against incitement to hatred is meant to protect us from those incited.

 

A prohibition against incitement to hatred protects people.  A prohibition against blasphemy protects texts, doctrines.

 

A prohibition against blasphemy is as wide as all outdoors, because religion is any spiritual belief.   A prohibition against incitement to hatred is more limited, because what is prohibited is the incitement to hatred against identifiable groups, groups which are currently or have traditionally been disadvantaged.

 

Blasphemy encompasses a far broader range of expression than hate speech.  Publications which expose a religion to ridicule, which belittle the religion or otherwise affront the dignity of the religion would be blasphemy.  In contrast, publications which expose a person to ridicule, which belittle the person or otherwise affront the dignity of the person on the basis of his or her religion is not hate speech.

 

This issue was actually litigated in Canada in the Whatcott.[2]  William Whatcott was held by a Saskatchewan Human Rights Tribunal to have violated the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code for circulating anti-gay literature.  He was held to have violated the prohibition against publications which expose to hatred, ridicule, belittle or otherwise affront dignity of persons on basis of a prohibited ground. 

 

The Supreme Court of Canada held that a prohibition which "ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity of" any person on the basis of a prohibited ground is not a reasonable limit on freedom of expression. The words were held to be constitutionally invalid and severed from the statutory provision.  The remaining prohibition of any representation "that exposes or tends to expose to hatred" any person on the basis of a prohibited ground remained as constitutionally valid.

 

One reason we protect freedom of expression is to arrive at the truth.  The prohibition of blasphemy impedes the search for truth.  To take one example, Galileo was prosecuted in the seventeenth century for blasphemy for his findings that the earth revolved around the sun. If we had global effective blasphemy laws from the seventeenth century till today, we might still today be prevented from saying that the earth revolves around the sun.

 

Incitement to hatred serves no similar truth seeking purpose.  It is an absurd position to say that maybe racial slurs are true, that Jews control the world, that blacks are less intelligent than whites and so on.  The mere suggestion that these utterances might be true gives credence to them, something we would not want to do.

 

Sometimes we get a better sense of what is true by hearing what is false.  Blasphemy can serve this purpose.  A mischaracterization of any religion becomes an opportunity to explain what that religion truly is.

 

Hate speech serves no similar purpose.  For example, we do not need to hear Holocaust denial to better understand the existence of the Holocaust, to hear that a minority controls the world to become more keenly aware of the disadvantaged situation of minorities.  We do not heed to hear hate speech to keep our belief in equality alive.

 

More generally, we protect freedom of expression to explain our ideas, or to communicate information.   Blasphemy can serve this purpose, developing religious thought.  What is blasphemy for one religion is doctrine for another. Prohibiting blasphemy means stultifying the development of spiritual discussion. 

 

Prohibiting hate speech imposes no similar obstacle.  Prohibiting hate speech does not block discussion about hate speech.  A discussion about hate speech is not hate speech; a discussion is not propaganda.

 

Prohibition of hate speech is embedded in the concept of human equality.  Hate speech is a denial of this equality.  Equality of humanity is a human rights principle.  Equality of religions is not.  To say that one religion is better than another is different from saying one group of persons is better than another.  The first could be permissible even where the second is not.

 

The very nature of religious belief sits uneasily with equality of belief.  A believer would, at least for him or her, believe that his or her religion is better than others or he or she would not be a believer.  In principle, unlike the belief of inequality of groups of people, there is or should be nothing wrong with that.  The problem is not the belief in inequality itself, but rather the foisting of that belief in inequality on others. 

 

Some believers, in an effort to inflate their own importance, inflate the importance of their beliefs beyond reason.  Blasphemy is an antidote, a deflater, a pin prick in

 
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