Sunday, 18 December 2016

Shutting people up



You will no doubt recall that some time ago I was bewailing the backwardness of Britain when it comes to shutting people up who disagree with me. I think the case in point was in Austria, where the authorities were prosecuting a woman for criticising Islam. Our betters in the European Union have continued to show us the way. More recently we have the prosecution of the Danish historian Lars Hedegaard for claiming that Muslim women are subjected to sexual violence.

Several features of this case show what advances are possible. First of all, they kept on trying him till they got the right result! He was acquitted in January 2011 but we don’t want to let these people get away with this kind of stuff, so he was tried again three months later and convicted. Now that is the kind of justice we need here. Regrettably the Danes have now backslid, since for some purely technical piece of legalistic nonsense the Danish Supreme Court let him off again. Still, progress takes time and eventually the judges will fall into line. They did at least emphasise that criticising Islam is a crime irrespective of whether the claims are true or false.

Indeed, just look at what a great clause they’ve got in their law: Article 266b:: “Whoever publicly or with the intent of public dissemination issues a pronouncement or other communication by which a group of persons are threatened, insulted or denigrated due to their race, skin color, national or ethnic origin, religion or sexual orientation is liable to a fine or incarceration for up to two years.” We can get pretty much everyone on something in there. We can certainly get absolutely anyone who has any religious belief whatsoever, because so far as I can remember a defining characteristic of most religious belief is the denigration  of all the other religions. Other religions are heresy and their believers are therefore heretics (so are thereby denigrated) who are destined for hell if they don’t fall into line: now if that is not a threat I don’t know what is!

Secondly, he was being tried for remarks he had made in private in his own home! No more of this entirely spurious distinction between what is said in private and what is said in public. Why should that matter?
The real advance here, of course, would be if we could get at what people think instead of having to wait for them to say it out loud. Yes, we can make inferences to what they think from the metaphors and code words they use, and of course, if they are foolish enough to make any jokes we can always make that look bad in court (just look at the success we’ve had over the mildest flirtations). So we have a range of valuable tools to use when we just need to get someone banged up for something or other irrespective of whether they’ve said anything literally disagreeable to me.

It does look as if neuroscience holds out some hope here. In some ways it doesn’t matter too much how well it works as long as juries buy it when we need to shut someone up. After all, the lie detector is nonsense (don’t tell too many people) but the US still manages to use it to good effect. Nevertheless, there is a greater good here as well. Reliably being able to get at those who think the wrong things even though they don’t say them would be very valuable. So in addition to its purely prejudicial value in court the neuroscience might help us in this way too. Whether Britain will start catching up with the modern world or stay mired in its sentimental attachment to outdated liberties is, of course, another question.

Originally at http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk

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