Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Hate speech ... free speech

In the UK, as in many other countries, we believe in freedom of speech. And if you wander down to Speaker's Corner  you can see that in action. I've been there, it's great fun. because the freedom of speech isn't just for people who stand on a soap box; the audience can, and do, answer back.

But today, in the UK, and in many other countries, something called hate speech has been criminalised.

What is hate speech?

The law in the UK "forbids communication which is hateful, threatening, abusive, or insulting and which targets a person on account of skin colour, race, disability, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation". All of which sounds cosy, until you look at it more closely. And the part of it that's most worrying, is the parts about "insulting". and the part about "religion". Because all the above categories are involuntary (you can't choose your skin colour) except religion. You can choose your religion.

There are many religions. And they can't all be true, because they contradict each other. If you say that a particular religion "isn't true", that could be construed as "insulting". Because what is an insult? And if you're an atheist, then they're all not true, so by saying "I'm an atheist", I'm insulting all religions. The penalty for breaking this law is fines, imprisonment, or both.

I think we've gone too far here. I want the freedom to insult. I want to be able to say that adults who believe that the Easter Bunny will leave sixpence under their pillow if they clap their hands and say "I do believe in fairies", are stupid, deluded and would benefit from having it explained to them.

Although, by the way, I do think it's a good idea to convince children of the existence of Santa Claus, because when the find out the truth (and they always do), they learn the important lesson that adults lie to them about the existence of invisible friends.

More importantly, I want schools to put a lot more effort into teaching critical thinking; people need to think for themselves, and not blindly accept that an offer of $3,800,000 by a bank clerk in Ruritania, is going to be a scam aiming to relieve you of as much of your money as they can. Nor will you get into heaven by pretending that you have any particular belief, because although you can certainly pretend, you can't actually have that sort of control over what you believe.

I do have that sort of control over my fingers; I can make them dance on the keyboard and type this blog entry. I don't have that sort of control over my beliefs; I can't suddenly decide, "Oh, Pascal's Wager, so I'll believe in a god". Pascal thought that acting as if you believe, makes you believe. But that's obviously nonsense. Suppose I wanted to believe that batteries last for ever. Then my action would be "never change a battery". But that wouldn't cause a belief in the infinite life of batteries, especially as my disbelief would be constantly reinforced by the occasional battery failure.

Critical thinking helps you avoid scams such as the 419 scam. And it will help you stay clear of false religions, of which there are many, and some are more harmful than the internet scams.

But to say so, means you have to insult them. And we really shouldn't be criminalising the criticism of religions.