Hate speech

Free Speech and Hate Speech

Last week we were very concerned to hear that an Auckland imam, Dr Anwar Sahib, had been preaching divisive and derogatory messages about Jewish people and women during his sermons.

It was a disturbing incident coming at the end of a disturbing few weeks in politics.

Not long before, ‘Bishop’ Brian Tamaki decided to simultaneously undermine human rights, human decency – and geophysics – by claiming that gay people and deviant behaviour were to blame for earthquakes affecting the South Island.

We are all aware of the dangers in giving people who spout hate more air time than they deserve. These latest incidents were newsworthy because, generally speaking, they are not terribly common occurrences in today’s New Zealand.

But in the wake of the U.S. election, it seems to be even more important to reaffirm our commitment not to stand by as some people fan the fires of hatred to suit their own purposes.

The world will always have those with hate-filled opinions of others. But when people in positions of some authority – the imam, the bishop or the presidential candidate – use inflammatory language and spread insinuations and lies about other people, it legitimises and emboldens those disturbed individuals who share those opinions.

Pretty much any member of the queer community will tell you about violence perpetuated on them or their friends.

Attacks on Jewish people and institutions have risen in New Zealand in recent years.

Violence against women is still an unbelievably common occurrence.

And there is significant evidence coming out of the U.S. of verbal and physical attacks on Muslims, Latinos and other minorities in the weeks since Donald Trump successfully completed his vitriolic campaign for the Presidency.

So it was really good to see the strong stance taken by the Federation of Islamic Associations in standing down Dr Anwar Sahib from his role in the Association. Having been on the receiving end of a lot of discrimination themselves, New Zealand’s Muslim community don’t need him providing grist for the Islamophobes’ mill.

It was also really pleasing to see the overwhelming condemnation of Bishop Tamaki’s hateful and thoughtless sermons. His detractors, both inside and outside the Christian community, far outweigh his supporters.

These incidents are a reminder that the right to free speech is a delicate one.

Many advocates of extreme positions seem to feel that the principle of free speech gives them the right to say whatever they want – without any consequences.

But it doesn’t work like that. My freedom to say what I think is mirrored by your right to say that I’m talking rubbish, or – as in the case of the imam – to reject what I say and ensure that there are consequences. (Sadly, Destiny Church won’t dismiss Brian Tamaki, because, well, he owns it.)

The right to free speech is grounded in the principles of equality and justice.  The right to speak your mind needs to be accessible to anyone, or it ceases to be a right.

Hate speech which denies the basic humanity of a particular group or individual chips away at the basic foundations of equality. It’s very difficult to speak your mind if you’re surrounded by people spreading lies and hatred about you, or a group you belong to.

Like any right, free speech comes with responsibilities. The events of the last few weeks are a reminder that religious and political leaders need to take responsibility for the impact that their words can have on the lives of others. And if people forget that and propagate hate speech, it’s the responsibility of all of us to exercise our right to condemn them for it.

Further reading