Pandaemonium

WORDS AND DEEDS. AND THE SPACE BETWEEN

I have had a lot of responses to the extracts from my interview on hate speech and the law, many of which argue that speech that does not directly incite violence but creates a climate in which such violence becomes more probable should be banned. As one respondent put it in a comment thread:

If I say that all Moslems, Catholics, homosexuals, vegans, and so on, are terrorists and a danger to the nation, I’m not inciting DIRECTLY to violence, but indirectly I’m justifying it.

The idea of ‘indirect incitement’ is one that policy makers have enthusiastically adopted in recent years. As I’ve noted in an essay for Index on Censorship, ‘Over the past decade, the government has used the law both to expand the notion of ‘hatred’ and to loosen the meaning of ‘incitement’. This expansion has become ‘One of the most pernicious means by which restrictions on free speech have grown tighter.’

‘Indirect incitement’ is a dangerous concept because it erodes the distinction between words and deeds. Or, rather, it attempts to create a link between words and deeds that in most cases does not exist. Once you argue that words should be banned not because they directly incite an action but because they create a climate within which others may act in a particular fashion, then you are on dangerous ground. It was, after all, the very argument used during the controversy over the Danish cartoons. While Islamists argued that the cartoons defamed the Prophet, many liberal secularists argued that they should be banned because they created a climate of hostility towards Muslims.

The problems created by eroding the distinction between words and deeds is something I explore in From Fatwa and Jihad:

In the debate about The Satanic Voices, many suggested that Salman Rushdie was fomenting hatred by using abusive words about Islam.  Shabbir Akhtar called Rushdie’s novel ‘an inferior piece of hate literature’. The distinguished American academic, and liberal Muslim, Ali Mazrui compared The Satanic Verses and Mein Kampf. Both books, he wrote, ‘are works of alienation and basically divisive in intent and in impact’. Both are ‘anti-Semitic but directed at different sections of the Semitic people.’  And if, in Mazrui’s eyes, the giving of offence was indistinguishable from the creation of hatred so, it seemed, was also the fomenting of hatred from the inciting of violence. ‘A book can be a lethal weapon’, wrote Mazrui. ‘A pen writing three provocative paragraphs in London could let loose a flood of dangerous consequences a world away. When is a writer guilty of manslaughter? Could it conceivably be at the moment of writing itself?’

Few would take seriously the comparison of The Satanic Verses and Mein Kampf, or would genuinely entertain the idea that Rushdie might have been guilty of manslaughter. Nevertheless in a more restrained fashion both these ideas have become worked their way into British culture and legal system.  The police investigation of Iqbal Sacranie for his comments of homosexuality shows the legal blurring of the ideas of giving offence and fomenting hatred (though in this case, it would be hard even to argue that Sacranie was being offensive).  Sacranie’s is not the only such case. The very idea of hate speech has become a way of rebranding obnoxious political arguments as immoral ones, and hence, rather than challenge such sentiments politically, to seek criminal sanctions to outlaw them.

When Mazrui suggests that Rushdie might be guilty of manslaughter because his words inflamed rioters in India, he is obscuring the relationship between words and deeds. Rushdie had no intention of causing violence and the rioters were acting on their convictions, not on Rushdie’s words. ‘One of the things that the free speech and censorship issue raises’, the psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips observes, ‘is can we control the resonances, the interpretations, of our words? And the answer to that is: we can’t.’

There is usually, in other words, no direct relationship between words and deeds. How people respond to words depends largely on the individuals themselves. They are responsible for interpreting the words and translating them into actions.  Most people would accept that, and yet in the post-Rushdie world the law often acts as if there is no space between words and actions. ‘Words are deeds’ Aesop wrote in his fable Trumpeter Taken Prisoner.  And this is how it appears to the law. Muslim protestors who chant ‘bomb, bomb Denmark’ or ‘behead those who insult Islam’ may be moronic and offensive.  But the idea that they are inciting murder is equally moronic and offensive to our intelligence. People do not respond to words like robots. They think and reason, and act upon their thoughts and reasoning. Bigots are, of course, influenced by bigoted talk.  But it is the bigots who must bear responsibility for translating talk into action. In blurring the distinction between speech and action, incitement laws blur the idea of human agency and of moral responsibility.

(From Fatwa to Jihad, pp 188-190)

Free speech depends upon maintaining the space between words and deeds. The more that space becomes squeezed, the easier it is to crush free speech. That is why the idea of indirect incitement is so dangerous.

3 comments

  1. Hakan Lindgren

    I definitely agree with you here. Blurring the distinction between words and actions works both ways – if we believe that words cause as much pain as violence, it becomes understandable to respond to words with violence, such as burning an embassy.

    I would still like to hear what you say about Julius Streicher. As the editor of the nazi paper Der Sturmer he did his best to make the Germans hate the Jews, and was hanged for crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trial. In the Swedish debate about these things, Streicher has been used as an example to blur the distinction between hateful speech and violence: “words can sometimes kill”.

  2. Floyd

    Words dont kill people..people kill people. Sounds like a banal point but it is nonetheless true. In the Rushdie case, you had authritarian countrys around the world (inc South Africa) banning the book at the behest of resident muslims.

    I think we would all agree that by adhering to such demands did not all of a sudden make those regimes liberal and progressive.

    Norrowing the social space of whats allowed or not is not some vauge ideological discussion. Rather it is a sign of just how far we are willing to travel down the authoritarian road.

    Indirect incitement is a very clever tag though by the establishment. It allows them to say, by doing this we are preventing FUTURE harm.

  3. Maxim

    Is this a symptom of the faltering confidence in the Enlightenment? You have dealt with this in your books, would you consider writing another text that looks at this topic specifically?

    The best treatment I’ve seen so far is Michel Houellebecq.

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