On the spectrum

Dr James Kierstead
Insights Newsletter
3 February, 2023

For all those who were hoping that the state would finally get tough on hate, the government’s dialling down of its ambitious hate speech reforms must have come as a crushing disappointment.

All is not lost, though. Justice Minister Kiri Allan recently issued a legislative statement for a new bill that would still limit Kiwis’ speech, if less comprehensively than the original proposals.

What’s more, Allan’s statement also spelled out some important principles that make clear (if it wasn’t clear already) how important it is that we clamp down on New Zealanders expressing themselves.

First, we should bear in mind that contemptuous words can cause ‘significant harm’ to those targeted by them and to ‘society as a whole.’ Censorship, on the other hand, has never caused any harm to society, as history shows.

Second, the victims of hate speech can experience ‘the loss of their right to feel safe, freedom of movement and expression, and, at the right extreme end of the spectrum, the right to life, if someone is killed as a result of incitement or hostility.’

The reminder that we all have a right to feel safe is particularly salutary, since this right appears to be missing, for some reason, from important documents like the New Zealand Bill of Rights and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Equally salutary is the clarification that words can deprive people of their freedom of movement (a belief that might not come naturally to most people), and that framing laws against free expression can sometimes be needed to protect people’s right to free expression.

It is also important to remember, as the bill does, that when someone is killed by bombs or guns, one of the things we should most be concerned about are words, especially the words of people who don’t seem to have had anything to do with the violence.

Most important of all, though, is that the bill has made clear that deadly violence of this sort and words are all on the same spectrum. Making a joke about someone’s God, saying that there are only two sexes – there’s little, of course, to distinguish such things from terrorist atrocities.

This is crucial, since our society has previously been acting on the assumption that speech and violence are significantly different, and that it’s precisely our ability to discuss things that allows us to avoid ghastly violence.

What fools we were!

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