Criticism And Free Speech

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Our group Resisting Hate come under a lot of flak for the stand we take against hate speech. We regularly butt heads with defenders of free speech who feel we have a pro censorship agenda and who believe we want to silence the voices of those with differing views to us and to eliminate all criticism of minority groups.

The answer with which I usually respond when challenged is: Hate speech is not Free speech. But while this statement is certainly true it does not fully explain our position on criticism and the fact we actually believe it to play a valuable part in our society.

Most of the debating on this subject is concerned with religion and the perception held by some that there are religions who believe they should be above criticism. I would challenge this. A strong faith is not weakened by questions. If anything a faith is enhanced by questions that force introspection and analysis of strong beliefs. My faith is not above criticism and your faith is not above criticism. If we have confidence in our Gods and what we believe to be true then any challenge to those beliefs will only help us define and sharpen them.

Criticism opens dialogue, it gets people thinking, it begins debates and discussions, it facilitates education and by doing this it helps overcome prejudice. The best way to challenge preconceptions about other religions is to get concerns out into the open and talk about them freely. Criticism is not a threat to religious beliefs, it is a tool that will lay the foundations for a deeper understanding of others and a more integrated society.

It is therefore entirely appropriate to hold an opinion on other religions and there is no reason why this opinion cannot be publicly expressed.

Where Resisting Hate and others find a cause for concern is not the fact that criticism exists but how the criticism is expressed. This is where the boundary of free speech ends and the grey area of hate speech begins. To be clear – It is acceptable to say you disagree with the beliefs of another, it is acceptable to say you believe the holy scripture of another religion is invalid. It is acceptable to question the morality, ideals and doctrine of another religion. It is acceptable to express truths about a religion, even if those truths are unpalatable. This is free speech. You have a right to your view and you have a right to question the views of others.

What you do not have the right to do is abuse other people when expressing your opinion.

You do not have the right to tell lies about other faiths or spread incorrect information that will skew the views of people encountering your untruths.

You do not have the right to deny historical facts and dates.

You do not have the right to extrapolate from the acts of the minority to make sweeping assumptions about the majority.

You do not have the right to make threats against individuals or community groups.

You do not have the right to desecrate the holy books and artefacts which have sacred meaning to others. This is not expressing criticism, this is expressing hate.

Nor does the right to free speech entail you have any right to be listened to or give you any right to a platform from which to share your views. The far right were up in arms recently when Katie Hopkins parted company with LBC as they perceived it as infringement of her right to free speech. But this was not censorship. Mrs Hopkins has the right to her views but she has no right to a radio show (or a newspaper column for that matter) from which to share those views.

It is important we do make a distinction between the right to free speech and the rights of others not to be abused, threatened or lied to. Constructive criticism and questioning play a positive role in our society. Hate does not.

Roanna is one of the founder members of Resisting Hate. She is the author of the majority of our articles, and also publishes a blog on Huffington Post UK
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7 thoughts on “Criticism And Free Speech

  1. Oh my what a tangled web! Enjoyed reading this-food for thought. Playing devils advocate…free speech isn’t free if it excludes any kind of speech? Defining it as you have done is your definition. I think religion is a red herring, it seems to me that some people (why?) have a hatred that means they fixate on anyone seen as different & therefore vulnerable. Generalising from the particular a favourite ploy. Sorry-rambling. I support your work 100% 😍.

  2. I can find nothing to disagree with in this article. I think it mirrors my own views. As a Muslim I tell people that I am happy to answer any question about my faith provided you are genuinely prepared to listen and providing you leave preconceived ideas at the door.
    I am a founder member of an interfaith network in my town where we debate any and all subjects but from a basis of mutual respect. I have learnt a lot about other religious groups and also had to change my views of some.

  3. Interesting article on a topic which I have been contemplating recently given so much debate on free speech, so late me have a ramble.

    My view is that free speech must have limits, people can’t have a right to just say anything they want just as they don’t have a right to anything they want; who today would condone Hitler’s rally speeches? But whilst hate speech and, if not one in the same, speech which incites violence are beyond the limits of free speech, the key is always defining what falls within that boundary.

    I, for one, have never had that difficulty with the hate speech I have seen RH intercepting. I have never considered it as being even relevant to free speech, it is just vile poison which is hateful and dangerous and which instinctively needs to be resisted. I cannot see any justification for anyone even contemplating the act of censorship although, in the spirit of free speech, I guess people entitled to ask the question. Luckily you have robust answers.

    Your point about hate preachers being denied platforms is not the same as denying them free speech is powerful and very relevant, just as Hopkins does not have a right for a job at LBC no matter how she might feel. But equally, denial of a platform should not be considered the sole remedy, the speech itself must at some stage be resisted which is where the law comes into play; whilst most of Europe has laws against hate speech, which is good, I wonder how effectively these laws are really prosecuted.

    Finally, like your distinction between hate and criticism, two very different concepts, one based on emotion and subjectivity and the other in rational analysis and objectivity. I see many RW groups are adopting a more nuanced approach in their propaganda, pretending to adopt reasoned, open and friendly approaches, luring the unsuspecting into a darker world where the unwitting recruits become indoctrinated. Most obvious example to me, recently, was Tommy Robinson’s UK Against Hate march which seemed to gather some innocent followers unaware of the Robinson background and EDL connections.

    But I digress, so to conclude I would like to thank you, RH, for your great work. I think you are spot-on with your tactics, you call the hatred out for what it is. You take a balanced approach to all hatred, you debate a bit, you suppprt others who debate a bit, and you report appropriately. I don’t believe any reasonable person would view what you do s censorship although I do recognise that others will.

    Keep up the good work.

    • “speech which incites violence are beyond the limits of free speech”

      Many religious texts are full of such speech.

      You would need to clear out half of Tower Hamlets islamic library and most of the Old Testament .

      The test is more along the lines of “imminent call to violence” but why is it any different if that call is towards a “protected group” or towards any other person. isn’t everyone equally entitled to be protected from an imminent call to violence, regardless of who they are

      Protected “hate” categories” miss out all kinds of traits and groups.

      Call me an old fashioned liberal but i prefer “one law for all”.

  4. But here we run into the problems and this explains why a pro-censorship agenda “on the basis of protected categories” may be inferred – no one is arguing against laws covering ‘abuse/threats per se’ whoever the target of harrassment; it is rather more what happens when you define special categories and attempt to embed a “limitation framework” around that without censoring ideas and opinions and the rights of others. Lets go through your points.

    “What you do not have the right to do is abuse other people when expressing your opinion.”

    No, you do not have the right to target and harrass and bully an individual. the thresholds are determined well enough in criminal law anyway. the perception of “abuse” is subjective to some extent. and what one person regards as “upsetting” probably isn’t enough to qualify statements or language as abusive. The bar should be very high if it is only a matter of language. I would say it requires real invective and targeted cruelty. Something like that. be clear that the bar should be very high.

    “You do not have the right to tell lies about other faiths or spread incorrect information that will skew the views of people encountering your untruths.”

    I’m sorry but in the majority of academic matters there is disagreement on the actual facts. This is what academic debate is for. You cannot set any council up as arbiter and judge on what certain facts are, because it all depends on sources and arguments. If a person perceive things which you consider to be false and can argue ot be false, then argue it. “spreading lies” in the eyes of a religious believer would be saying anything contradictary to their religion – even if the entire religion is false.

    Since these matters are likely to receive input from “minority groups”, those groups will always tend to state that matters contrary to their own beliefs are “lies” or “misrepresentations” or “insinuations” or “unfair” or “racist” – even if they are true. And within the framework of “respecting one another’s viewpoints” tehre is a very good chance that people determining “what is a lie” will not critically challenge. And in any case, how can they ever prove their critical assessment is the truth? They can’t. In academia this is determined by peer review, never censorship.

    it should be no different in wider society. You argue your case, you don’t presume to be able to assemble facts and arguments “more certain” than others. Therefore you have no authority to make rulings regarding “lies” or “misrepresentations” on behalf of historical or religious narratives.

    “You do not have the right to deny historical facts and dates.”

    See above. There are always two sides to the story. Prevailing viewpoints with a certain bent or emphasis arise quite frequently, and often involve significant academic shortcomings, when viewed from a broader perspective; the only way to settle is with debates, and evidence. Nothing in history is ever above scrutiny. Its just that some things are more certain than others. You will never be able to settle where the line is drawn, without presuming superior knowledge to the rest of humanity. Since the academic community has never done this, neither should you.

    “You do not have the right to extrapolate from the acts of the minority to make sweeping assumptions about the majority.”

    I’d agree with this one to an extent, but would caution against ruling against links that are drawn between groups and facts about statistically significant proportions of groups. It would be useless for example to adopt “blindness” to social issues arising within groups, as with a limited state budget, you cannot then allocate resources correctly. For example, would MI5 be right in allocating equal monitoring resources to “all groups” including, for example, elderly ladies?! therefore you must be able to draw inference when it is statistically significant. Or else you cannot address genuine issues. the rational, statistical framework is the best of all. In the case of religion, tenets which “must be followed” will also tend to result in blanket similar views and behaviors across a very large proportion of a group. so that it becomes not unreasonable to talk in terms of the group as a whole, as per the distribution of ideas in that group being very different to the mainstream. Similarly, there is no concrete distinction – beyond awarding status and other laws – between political ideology and religion – both are based on collections of texts and ethical principles and scholarship, etc . yet, as a society, we tolerate blanket terms in discussion of political systems. All of journalism is full of sweeping statements about “left” and “right” wing, etc. Why is religion “more protected” than other types of ideas?

    “You do not have the right to make threats against individuals or community groups.”

    But unfortunately religious source texts themselves include this kind of hate speech. Teh bible and qu’ran are full of sweeping statements made against groups. So if society must be destricted, including those with no faith, etc, then all of the religious books requires a commentary to be added to explain the context and sign post that it is not a general “hate statement”. there are far too many examples of “blanket statements” being made in religious organisations about “everyone else”. So unless they are subjected to the same requirements, this methodology cannot work, without giving religion elevated speech rights compared to everyone else.

    “You do not have the right to desecrate the holy books and artefacts which have sacred meaning to others. This is not expressing criticism, this is expressing hate.”

    so what about if someone says that their “religion” is Main Kamf and finds that “sacred”. Who decides what is sacred. And is it excluded even in the case of “art”? If it is purely to gain shock on the internet, then that’s a type of trolling, so fair enough, restrict views. But are there literally no purposes at all where it is valid? Suppose a group of religious believers was responsible for killing a person by burning them – such as a witch in Christian ghana, or a homosexual in pakistan. Would a relative living here in the UK not be allowed to burn the religious book which caused the murder?

    Protecting the very book which caused that murder to occur. That is morally wrong. It’s a type of fascism.

    Finally, there are other things that people finds “sacred” – for example remembrance day poppies, or perhaps their national flag. These things have a great deal of emotional significance for people. I don’t believe they are any less emotive than “sacred texts”. But they are usualy never considered as needing to be “protected” by “hate speech laws”. Yet, a lot of people are offended. If a person’s religion is their attachment to land, then why should they have to be exposed to offense, shock, trolling, emotional cruelty, or protest, on items like poppies and flags – in ways which are guaranteed to “spread hate”. I never here a defense of these things from anyone on this progressive wing of politics. It seems completely arbitrary to me. You are protected some feelings rather than others. And ultimately that is not democratic. It is not fair. It is not right.

    so this whole area of the law, which has only been in existence for some 15 years, and not without great controversy already, seems to me to need a lot of thought if it is going to even out the issues. In its current form it is simply not satisfactory.

    Yes, we should protect people, ALL people, from bullying and cruelty. You don’t need groups for that though. You just need to define situations which amount to bullying.

    Finally, please bear in mind that some “banning” amounts to a “blasphemy law” being reintroduced. for a “progressive” society to make blasphemy illegal, the very same thing that the most religiously fundamentalist and totaletarian religious states makes illegal, is extremely strange. even in Pakistan, they find it hard to “criticise” religion because people cry blasphemy – and alleged “blasphemers” are regularly killed by a mob, etc. Yet you are seeking to criminalise a similar kind of protest – a protest against religion. A right not to be controlled in a fundamental way – the right to express rebellious and angry thoughts in public. On any topic whatsoever.

    In any event the bars must be high in every single case, but personally, i think these frameworks are biased and serve no genuine benefit or purpose other than to drive up mutual suspicion and resentment more. Like, “i was fine with this religion, until suddenly i found i could not criticise it, and now i hate it”. Did you consider such laws actually … create hate?! If they are simply badly framed, illogical, and unwanted, additions to free societies!?

    • Brilliant. couldnt agree more. Hate laws can create hate and resentment particularly when they can be, and are manipulated to suit individual purpose or opinion. Particularly insidious is the law that, if a person perceives a phrase, a comment, a speech to be racist or hate speech it can be reported to the police as such, no witness or evidence required. How can this be so when nuances, expression and tone of voice all play their part in interacting in conversation. Also how do we separate factual words or opinions from speech. if someone declared “I don’t like seeing men in ladies dresses” Is that a fact or an opinion. However if someone take offence at such a comment, concluding that it is hate speech against a particular group it could possibly lead to prosecution. I dont know the answer but generally speaking there is unrest below the surface because people feel that free speech is being chipped away. I admit for me it is a tangible fear for the future of my grandchildren. If it is a creeping danger where does it end. ? Militant people have recently contrived a situation to force their agenda. this resulted in prosecution and a small business was bankrupted by the court costs because they lost the case. Laws used in this way against a small Christian family business are totally abhorrent as are the judges that failed to apply commonsense but stuck to the letter of the law despite the fact that they knew it was a planned and contrived situation with a particular agenda.

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