Saturday, November 26, 2022

Michael Johnston: Free speech and the decline of religious war

History is replete with war motivated by religious disagreement. One example is the centuries-long clash between the Catholic and Protestant variants of Christianity.

Religion remains a significant driver of conflict in some parts of the world today. But it seems that Catholics and Protestants, at least, have finally learned to live with one another.

Arguably, most westerners just don’t take religion seriously enough to kill and die for it anymore. But free speech may also have contributed to the truce.

Over several centuries, growing acceptance of free speech made it more and more possible for Catholics and Protestants to talk through their differences. Over the same time period, the incidence of armed conflict between them diminished.

Unfortunately, our ability to speak freely on religious matters may be at risk.

In the wake of the Christchurch Massacre, the government sought to extend our hate speech laws. The initial plan was to add a variety of identity characteristics – sex, sexuality and religion – to existing legislation. Threatening, abusive or insulting speech targeted at ethnic, racial and nationality groups has been banned since 1993.

That legislation was withdrawn following concerted opposition. Recently, however, Justice Minister Kiri Allen announced the return of hate speech legislation, albeit in a reduced form. Now, the government seeks only to add religion to the list of protected characteristics.

As hurtful as it is to be a target of hateful comments, there are sound reasons not to criminalise those who make them.

For one thing, ridiculing religious ideas themselves arguably insults those who believe them too. So scornful remarks about religious beliefs could easily run afoul of Allen’s new laws.

For another, the new legislation, if passed, might actually increase the likelihood of violence motivated by or against religion. People who don’t feel free to voice their hateful thoughts may be more likely to act on them.

But there is an even better reason to maintain the ability to freely express ideas, even awful ones. Untrammelled expression, as bruising as it can sometimes be, tends to bring people together in the long run.

Protestants and Catholics once regarded one another as heretics. They sought to censor one another on pain of death. Now, following a long period during which peaceful dialogue has been possible, it is not unknown for them to worship together.

Our legislators would do well to reflect on that.

Dr Michael Johnston has held academic positions at Victoria University of Wellington for the past ten years. He holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Melbourne. This article was originally published HERE


robert Arthur said...

is religion defined? Can belief in and pursuit of co governance be deemed a religion? Is the Flat Earth Society a religous group? Can they be ridiculed?

David Lillis said...

I believe that Michael has got it right here. Some of his assertions are unprovable but could well be true; for example, that people who don’t feel free to voice their hateful thoughts may be more likely to act on them and that untrammelled expression tends to bring people together in the long run. Hard to prove! Having grown up in the Republic of Ireland, I saw sectarian violence and hatred first-hand during the 1970s. It’s much better today, but there’s still plenty of distrust back home, particularly up North.

The main arguments for freedom of speech are that:

1. Suppressing speech can provide greater attention to the speaker
2. Free speech is necessary for self-government
3. The pursuit of knowledge is based on competition among diverse perspectives.

These are sensible arguments in favor of freedom of speech, but in New Zealand do we have a clear distinction between free speech and hate speech?
Don Brash’s Breaking Views article of 5 May 2022 makes interesting reading.


In 2018 the Massey University Vice Chancellor, Jan Thomas, banned him from giving a speech to the University’s Politics Club, ostensibly on the basis of concerns about security. Dr. Brash suggests that, from the tone of her press statement, the real reason for the ban was that she did not like his support for the citizens of Manawatu and Palmerston North in voting down proposals to create race-based wards. Further, Dr. Brash tells us that what was revealed later (from a request under the Official Information Act) is that for several weeks the Vice Chancellor had been “anguishing” on how best to achieve banning Dr. Brash. Indeed, “security concerns” do seem a poor excuse, but who knows?

Potentially, we can stifle anyone if we apply a simple label – “hate speech”. Indeed, the labels - “hate” and “haters” - are used very frequently in the US and elsewhere as offensive weapons, particularly by the Progressive Left. Such labels are indeed highly effective in discrediting anyone who holds a dissenting view from your own.

Dr. Brash reminds us that Section 61 of the Human Rights Act of 1993 states the following:

“It shall be unlawful for any person –

(a) To publish or distribute written matter which is threatening, abusive, or insulting, or to broadcast by means of radio or television or other electronic communication words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting; or

(b) To use in any public place…., or within the hearing of persons in any such public place, or at any meeting to which the public are invited or have access, words which are threatening, abusive or insulting.”

Who decides whether or not a person's words are threatening, abusive or insulting and, if so, how serious is the problem and what to do about it?
David Lillis

Robert Arthur said...

The HR Act quoted seems incredibly restrictive.If taken literally would seem to have endless scope, and society would become even more ignorant and humourless than it already has. To me persons advocating decolonisation, co governance are very threatening, but it occurs daily in all the media. I suspect any outsider at a public event on a marae would hear plenty that infringed the rules. Are real facts not permitted? ie stating that maori culture is from the stone age recently, that the musket wars killed tens of thousands, that modern te reo is largely contrived etc etc