Just about anyone with a moderate sense of humour has been the subject of friendly verbal jabs concerning their tribe or place of origin. Since every group of people has its own special characteristics that set it apart from the other people, there is always something to make fun about each of them. And so long as it is retained in the sphere of social interaction and comedy, these jokes are healthy and allow us to laugh at ourselves and sometimes re-evaluate our behavior.
But these harmless remarks can be a dangerous tool in the mouth of any anarchist. They can be used to degrade, embarrass and intimidate members of any grouping of people or to excite negative passions against them. When remarks acquire this characteristic, they are known as “hate speech” and often attract legal sanction. The dangers of hate speech were possibly not apparent until the Nazi regime in the 1940’s.
The Nazi regime preached hatred against all Jewish people and blamed them for all the problems that had beset the German people over the years. What followed was the holocaust in which 6 million Jews are alleged to be exterminated. Closer home, hate speech was used in Rwanda to excite passions against the Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The result was the extermination of more than 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus within a few days.
After the holocaust, some European countries immediately passed laws against hate speech and particularly targeting he holocaust. These laws had two limbs. One was called anti-revisionism or holocaust denial laws that made it criminal for one to revise the fact of the holocaust and cast doubt about it. It was claimed that holocaust denial was part of neo-Nazi propaganda and was meant to cover up the ills committed. In any event, it was believed that to allow revisionism was set to open up the possibility of inadequate response to hate speech in the future and bring about the likelihood of another holocaust.
The second limb was to outlaw hate speech. Initially aimed at protecting racial and ethnic minorities, these laws have over the years been expanded to cover speech against any person or group of people based on race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preferences, disabilities, political views, religious persuasion etc.
Today, almost every developed country has a law against hate speech and it has come to be accepted as a necessary safeguard against abuse of the rights of others, particularly vulnerable minorities. But hate speech laws have also raised very fundamental questions regarding the protection of other freedoms. Human rights activists are dismayed at the speed and willingness with which governments are adopting hate speech laws, raising suspicion whether this may not be a ruse to enable governments stifle free speech.
Europe, currently laboring under racial intolerance and other forms of neo-Nazi philosophies, is a fertile ground for anti-hate speech laws with the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe recommending to member states to combat hate speech. Some countries have become so enthusiastic at passing and enforcing these laws that they have become a real threat to freedom of expression.
The greatest challenge is how to classify “hate”. At what point do you call criticism hateful? Through whose eyes do we look at the speech and evaluate the amount of hate and whether the amount is sufficient to make that speech criminal? And what if the criticism, though exciting hatred, is based on truth, is it still illegal? But how can we know the truth of something if we are not allowed to talk about it in the first place?
Surprisingly, Christian preachers have found themselves on the wrong end of anti-hate speech laws. Christians in Canada have complained that hate speech law had turned the Bible into illegal hate literature after homosexuals were added into law as a group to be protected from negative speech. Any Christian preacher evangelizing against homosexuality became liable to be jailed for up to five years. But it is not just in Canada that hate speech laws are becoming a threat to other freedoms. In Philadelphia, USA, 11 preachers were arrested, charged and jailed for taking their evangelical mission to a gay rally. In Holland, it is hate speech to criticize fornicators and adulterers. Every group that wants to make its agenda protected is now running to hate speech laws to stifle any criticism towards it. Both Christians and Muslims have increasingly become the leading advocates against hate speech laws as they no longer have the freedom to preach against sin without offending the feelings of a group of people.
Currently, there is a big debate in the US regarding a proposed legislation by which the federal government wants to force individual member states to be tough on hate speech. The government will even give money to states to enable these laws. The Local Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act 2007 has attracted the wrath of Christian churches in America who feel that the level of liberalism promoted by these laws would eventually criminalise Christian evangelism.
A letter from a group of pastors protesting the proposed bill says: “As pastors, we are concerned about the potential of being charged with a crime as the result of actions of someone who may have attended our church or heard our sermons. We do not preach hate, but love and repentance… but the bill could curtail our speech.” Another protested:” A homosexual can claim emotional damage from hearing scripture that describes his lifestyle as an abomination. He can press charges against the pastor or broadcaster…”
Kenya is about to walk into this minefield with the proposed law against hate speech. Many difficult questions have to be addressed before we even draft the first clause. It is easy to draft laws having only one thing in mind. It is the resulting interpretations that reveal to us that we had not thought through it in the first place.