Posted by: Chris Cole | February 28, 2009

Free speech for all… unless you don’t like islam of course…

A bunch of predominantly non-democratic countries, most of them members of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), are currently trying very hard to have an existing non-binding UN resolution converted to a binding one. This means that instead of being a bit of a “we think members nations should observe this rule” sort of thing, it will become a “this is legally binding and we expect member nations to abide by and enforce this rule” affair.

Resolution 62/154 has been around for a few years now, was officially adopted by the UN in 2007, and has been given the nod every year since as it comes up for re-consideration. It essentially is a form of affirmative action. Despite being introduced initially in 1999, the argument advanced by its more moderate proponents since 2001 have centred around selling it as a necessary restriction to help prevent unwarranted bigotry and hatred directed towards muslims because of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Such supporters of the resolution argue that since muslim people are likely to be the specific targets of such abuse, they should be offered special protection under the law. This is not entirely dissimilar to affirmative action legislation, which seeks to offer special protection or assistance to members of specific groups identified as being collectively at some disadvantage with respect to the general population.

On a brief technical note, every newspaper article, blog entry or other report I have found on the internet pertaining to this topic refers to the resolution as “Resolution 62/145”. This is incorrect. Resolution 62/145 is in fact a document dealing with and condemning the use of mercenaries. Albeit that the error involved is only a simple typographical one (the correct document is Resolution 62/154) it is perhaps salutary to note just how little original research (if you can call spending five minutes using Google and the UN website “research”) is embarked upon by the average so-called journalist these days. “Hey, if someone else published it, it must be true! Let’s just copy what they said. What? Check the facts? Find out for ourselves? That’s sooooo 20th century.”   Sad, but I digress.

The correct document can be found here:  http://www.undemocracy.com/A-RES-62-154

The document is only 4 pages long, and I urge you to read it for yourself. The basic thrust of it can be narrowed down to a few points, however, and these I have summarised in my own way below:

  1. Physical attacks on individuals, businesses and places of worship are a Very Bad Thing ™.
  2. Incitement to religious hatred by extremeist groups or governments is a Very Bad Thing.
  3. Using any media outlet, including the internet, to achieve #2 is a Very Bad Thing.
  4. Member states should take action to prevent religiously motivated hostility & violence.
  5. Public officials should not discriminate against people based on their religious beliefs.
  6. Basic education should be available for all boys and girls, without discrimination of any kind.

All of these are sensible, reasonable assertions that I think it unlikely anyone reading this would disagree with. I certainly agree with all of these sentiments. Interestingly, given that this resolution was strongly pushed by theocratic islamic nations, I am curious to see the extent of the adoption of item #6 on my list. Perhaps it is an example of them bending over backwards to concede a seemingly smaller point in the interests of securing a larger, more important one in their favour. Having seen a very brief precis of the more benign and sensible parts of the resolution, let us now move on to some of the statements that are perhaps not quite so readily acceptable:

1. Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism.

Oh really? When did a Christian, a Buddhist or an atheist last perpetrate an act of terrorism? When was the last Mormon suicide bombing? Did I miss the news coverage of the mildly agnostic scientist who flew a plane into a building full of innocent civilians? Perhaps I haven’t been watching enough of the news. As for human rights violations, perhaps some enlightening and accurate information in this regard could be obtained from a woman living in an islamic nation? Oh, sorry, she wasn’t allowed to go to school and so can’t write her story down for us, the burka she is wearing would probably interfere with a microphone, and in any case she’s busy at the moment being involuntarily “circumcised” or beaten by her husband for accidentally exposing a centimetre of bare skin on her ankle.

2. Lumping together of “defamation of religion and incitement of religious hatred” in at least 5 separate clauses.

These are two separate acts, but the resolution is repeatedly worded in a way that demonstrates that for practical purposes the Human Rights Council views them, and wishes to treat them, as much the same thing. It is a very different thing for me to say “Man, the idea of Jesus coming back to life three days after he died as such a crock of shit” than it is for me to say “People who believe that Jesus was resurrected are all assholes who should be spat on in the street”, or worse. Disparaging the religious beliefs of others is capable of leading to the incitement of religious hatred, but only via the intolerance of those whose beliefs are being disparaged. It is a simple but important point and cannot be overstated. Commenting about a religion, or a particular religious belief, is not, and cannot be, in itself an incitement to religious hatred. To become so relies absolutely on the reactionary intolerance of others. Voicing one’s opinion about an idea (a religion or ideology) is just not the same as voicing an opinion about what one thinks should be done with or to those who subscribe to that idea.

It is worth pointing out what the word “defamation” actually means, too. Definitions vary from dictionary to dictionary, however a common factor is that for any statement or comment to be defamatory, it must be false. It must be untrue. It must be a lie. To qualify as defamation a statement needs to be both damaging to the reputation of the subject (in this case religion or particular religious beliefs) and untrue. It is not defamatory to say on the front page of the newspaper that McDonald’s is dangerous both to your waistline and your health if you eat too much of it, but it most certainly is defamatory to say on the front page that McDonald’s don’t keep their kitchens clean and hygienic (unless you can specifically prove it!).

3.  Everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference, and the right to freedom of expression…. BUT… the exercise of these rights carries responsibilities and therefore these rights may be subject to limitations under the law….

The first part sounds great, and is universally agreed (in non-theocratic nations) to be a basic human right. Civilised nations do not, as a rule, have “thought crime”. You can think, and usually say, what you like, even if you’re a total bloody weirdo according to everyone else. The problem comes with the second part. It sounds quasi-reasonable; rights tend to come with certain responsibilities. Most of us would perhaps be just a little nervous about where this line of reasoning could lead to, however, and apparently with just cause, on consideration of the following third part of the UN statement, which goes on to explain the reasons that free speech might “need” to be limited:

(a) to respect the rights of others

(b) to respect the reputations of others

(c) the protection of national security and/or public order

(d) the protection of public health

(e) the protection of public morals

(f) to respect religions and beliefs

It’s difficult to know where to start with such a list, so let’s just take them in turn. The first item is absolutely reasonable; one of the most basic definitions of freedom is the opportunity to live without the rights or actions of others interfering with your own rights. This sounds a little self-referential or circular, but is recognised as a fundamental basis of human rights almost universally, in theory at least, if not in practice. I have the right to private enjoyment of my home and yard, with the limitation that I may not impinge on the exact same right of those around me. To give a trivial example, my neighbour’s idea of private enjoyment of his house might be the ability to meditate quietly, or sleep, at 1am in the morning. Having ear-damagingly loud music playing at my place could reasonably be said to interfere with his right. I can exercise my rights to do what I like in my house, but there are limitations imposed by the expectation of non-interference with the identical rights of others.

The rest of the list is, quite frankly, patently absurd. A person’s reputation is entitled to be protected from false assertions – defamation. No such protection is deserved when the assertion is true. A potentially damaging assertion, whether true or false, can be refuted most simply by using one’s own right of free speech to counter such claims, and if it is indeed false, then legal remedy should be (and in most civilised nations, is) available. National security and public order require no protection from free speech. Again, incitement to violence or public disorder is very different from simply voicing an opinion. The same goes for public health – the population’s health could suffer if, for example, a media story caused everyone to stop immunising their children, however this sort of problem can again be countered by simple exercise of free speech on the part of health authorities, doctors and scientists who can logically demonstrate why the first statement was flawed or incorrect. No legal protection is necessary. It is difficult to know what was even intended when they wrote that free speech might need to be limited to protect public morals. Morality is our sense of right and wrong. It is hard to know how one’s opinion, regarding anything at all, could ever be said to be damaging to the morals of other people. It is easy to say something that other people find at odds with their own morals, and they may be offended by the idea, but that is not the same thing; protecting one’s morality is quite different to protecting oneself from exposure to an opinion that transgresses one’s morals. I’ll come back to this again shortly after dealing with the last item on the list of reasons the law may need to limit our right of free speech.

Resolution 62/154 asserts that along with the fundamental right of freedom to express our opinion, comes the requirement to legally suppress that expression if the opinion in question fails to respect religion and religious beliefs. This clause presupposes that religions and religious beliefs actually deserve respect, in the same way that my neighbour’s rights deserve respect. This is wrong. While it is true that most societies, and that certainly includes the so-called western world, have traditionally accorded religions, religious beliefs, and their practitioners and exponents a very great deal of respect, I would argue (though I won’t here; see Prof. Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” for an excellent treatment of the subject) that such respect is grossly disproportionate, undeserved, and in more modern times inspired more by fear of violent reprisal than by any intellectual respect for the ideas themselves.

Human beings deserve respect. The beliefs they hold do not, except on their own intellectual merit, if any. People have the right to hold whatever beliefs they wish. What they most certainly do not have, is the right to censor other people’s opinions of those beliefs. If one wishes to live in a functioning society, one simply cannot claim the right to not be offended. If one’s beliefs are so fragile that they can somehow be harmed by the mere opinions of others, are they really worth holding onto, anyway?

If you persist in believing irrational fairy tales into adulthood, sooner or later someone is going to point and laugh, or become upset and take appropriate (non-violent) action when your belief in your particular fairy tale impinges on the rights of others. You deserve no protection from this. You may make whatever arguments you like in favour of your fairy tale. We reserve the fundamental right to make whatever arguments we like about your fairy tale, too. We will not threaten you, or commit violence against you for talking about anyone’s beliefs, be they yours or someone else’s. We expect the same courtesy to be extended to us when we talk about your beliefs. None of us have, nor should ever have, the right to not be offended.

In any case, as it is worded, even if the resolution becomes binding international law, it is only defamation if it is damaging and not true. As most rational discourse on religion is entirely supported by scientifically verified evidence, and basic logical thought, there is little scope for saying or publishing anything which can be objectively demonstrated to actually be defamatory. Objective demonstration of a fact or truth has never been a particularly sizeable arrow in the quiver of the religious mind, however, and one can only wait to see whether this latest development tests the legal framework of many nations, or simply adds weight to the perception of the UN as an increasingly ineffective and irrelevant organisation.

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