Racial and religious offence: Why censorship doesn’t cut it



March 11th, 2012

Edited version of a talk at the Association of Muslim Professionals’ Community In Review seminar 2012 on 10 March. The theme of the seminar was “To Post or Not To Post: Multiculturalism in the Social Media”.

The internet has provided a public platform for the best of human characteristics to be displayed, but also for the worst. We don’t know whether the internet makes things worse by encouraging anti-social speech, or whether it just publicises what used to be said in private. What is clear is that, in the past, gatekeepers of the mainstream media – newspaper editors and broadcast news producers – acted as filters to make sure that any offensive speech from the ground could not reach the wider public. The internet bypasses these gatekeepers, which means that the journey from thought to private utterance to public statement is almost instant.

No matter how hard we work at developing media literacy, we should not expect to be rid of all racially offensive speech online. There are two broad ways to respond to these breaches. We can reach out horizontally and together with our fellow citizens repair the damage by persuading others to reject harmful ideas. Or, we can reach up vertically to government, getting the authorities to act against irresponsible speech by using the law. The advantage of the latter is that it seems more efficient, punishing those who cross the line of acceptability and violate social norms, and deterring others from doing the same. The horizontal approach works through persuasion rather than the law, so it is slower and not foolproof.

All societies use a mix of approaches to address offensive speech. In international law, like at the European court of human rights and more and more jurisdictions, there is growing feeling that the law should really be a last resort and only used for the most extreme speech – speech that incites violence in a very direct way, or that is part of a campaign that violates the rights of minorities to live free of discrimination. In contrast, simply insulting and offending others, even if feelings are very hurt, is not seen as something that should invite a legal response. Using the law to protect feelings is too great an encroachment on freedom of speech.

Singapore draws the line differently. Our laws are written very broadly, such that any sort of offence, even if it does not threaten imminent violence, is seen as deserving of strict regulation. This probably reflects a very strong social consensus that race and religion should be handled delicately. So we tend to rely on strong government. The state protects racial and religious sensibilities from offence, using censorship when there’s a danger of words and actions causing hurt.

Thus, for several years now, we have seen many examples of offensive online speech prompting police investigations. In 2005, three young bloggers were convicted under the Sedition Act for racist comments. There have been other cases since then where the police have been called in to investigate offensive speech.

These cases are striking in two ways. First, it is interesting that in almost all cases, state action was instigated by complaints from members of the public. This is quite unlike political censorship, where action is initiated by the government, often with great resistance and opposition from netizens. In a string of cases involving racial and religious offence, however, it’s the netizens who tend to demand action, sometimes acting like a lynch mob.

Second, it is striking that in many cases, the offensive messages were spread further by those reporting the offence. In one case late last year, a blogger posted a religiously offensive image on his own facebook wall to warn others that this image was making the rounds. One of his so-called friends took offence and circulated it more widely on the internet in addition to making a police report. In the case involving a Christian pastor’s offensive sermon, most Singaporeans who have seen the video did not see it on the church website where the video was originally found, but via Hardware Zone, one of Singapore’s most popular forums. It was put there not by the pastor himself or his church members, but by someone who wanted action taken against the pastor.

This pattern is paradoxical. What is the justification for strong police action against any form of speech? Why do we sometimes feel that it may not be enough to counter bad speech with good speech in free and open debate, and that we must instead use the law to stop the bad speech? Surely, it must be because we think the bad speech is so dangerous that it can cause immediate harm; or because we don’t trust the public to respond rationally, so we don’t know if good speech would indeed triumph in open debate. Usually, if we call in the authorities, it must be because we have a mental picture of offensive speech being like lighting a match in a combustible atmosphere. It is dangerous and there’s no time to debate the merits of that match – we just have to put it out.

The irony of most of the cases that we have seen in the past few years is that the people demanding government action, as if the offensive words were explosive, were also those who helped to spread them. It is like helping to spread a fire while calling for the fire brigade.

Unless these complainants were just plain irrational or irresponsible, which I don’t think they were, their act of spreading the offensive content must mean that they did not actually believe that the expression was really that dangerous in the sense of prompting violence through reprisal attacks or riots. In reposting the offensive words or pictures, they showed that they actually trusted the public enough to respond sympathetically – they had faith that enough people would add their voices to the outrage that they themselves felt when they saw the offensive images or videos or words. And they were right: in every case, when these offensive messages were publicised, the overwhelming sentiment was that these messages were wrong, were anti-Singaporean. People who may have shared those thoughts were quickly reminded that they were not in line with Singaporean norms. The public debate reinforced our multi-racial and multi-religious foundations.

This then raises the question, why the need to involve the police at all? If Singaporeans are grown-up enough to defend their society against offensive speech, why have calls for prosecution and censorship become the automatic response?

I wonder if this is an example of the well-known habit of unthinkingly relying on government to solve all our problems even when, with a little bit of effort in the form of grassroots action can do the job. One problem with the culture of expecting police action whenever we feel insulted or offended is that this mechanism can be overused and abused. Those most likely to complain against any expression are the least tolerant members of each religious or ethnic community. Very quickly, therefore, the most dogmatic and extreme spokesmen set the tone for the rest of society.

Yes, we need to beware of offensive speech that is part of a deliberate campaign of hate-mongering. But let’s not be naïve. It’s not just giving offence, but also taking offence, that can be used as part of a political game. Usually, what looks like spontaneous and visceral reactions to offensive speech – angry demonstrations and so on – are orchestrated by activists who spot a political advantage in an outpouring of anger. In Singapore, I doubt that every netizen who demanded action against this or that offensive message was purely driven by concern for Singapore’s multiracial fabric. I am quite sure that in some cases, they simply saw the opportunity for some kind of political advantage against individuals or groups that they have on-going political feud with.

There is also overwhelming evidence internationally that the effect of outlawing blasphemy – which many well-meaning Singaporeans might intuitively feel is a good idea – backfires by allowing religious majorities to persecute religious minorities. Since offensiveness is subjective, it is possible for the dominant group to claim that its beliefs are being blasphemed by the peaceful religious expressions of a minority group. It can thus use the law to marginalise religious minorities. We see this in Malaysia. In Singapore, it should not be up to the state to decide which religious beliefs or schools of thought within a religion deserve legal protection – possible victims of such a move might include Singapore’s small Shia Muslim minority, which has long felt marginalised by the dominant Sunni school.

Another problem with this vertical approach, reaching up to higher authorities, is that it perpetuates a dependency on government and doesn’t do much for building horizontal trust, that is, trust between citizens. Such trust is ultimately the best defence in a world where we will never be able to control 100% of the messages 100% of the time, even if government regulators were given more powers.

Horizontal trust is important, because that is what helps us put things in perspective when we face provocations. Most offensive messages are not, by themselves, threatening, They are like a lighted a match. Whether there is an explosion depends on the context. It is mistrust that acts like an accelerant, like combustible gas in a confined space. Increasingly, we cannot control the text – the match. But we can influence the context. By building horizontal trust, our society will become more resilient against the inevitable frictions and frustrations of living among people of different cultures.

I believe that in many cases, Singaporeans make police reports when they encounter offensive speech not necessarily because they want the speaker to be punished, but because they want a strong public signal to reaffirm our multi-racial and multi-religious principles. They want reassurance. They want to bring the weight of moderate public opinion to bear on a dispute, plus perhaps a clear signal from the authorities as to what constituted acceptable speech. If so, why not just demand such statements instead of legal action. Even better, why not mobilise and organise civil society against such breaches.

The next time people encounter racist or religiously offensive speech, it would be nice to see swift responses from credible and respected civil society groups, Members of Parliament, and other ordinary citizens. If the speaker doesn’t get the message, organise boycotts, for example, and give him or her the clear message that our society isn’t going to take such offence lying down. The more we can respond ourselves through open debate and grassroots action, without the need to ask law and order to step in, the stronger our society will be.

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