Friday, November 04, 2011

Bullying and Freedom of Speech

There seems to be a lot of noise in Atheist blogs about a religious exception being written into a Michigan bullying law.

The exception reads:

“This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil and parent or guardian.”

This is being protested as a religious exception to bullying.

Well, I have a question.

Is the statement, "Creationism is stupid," an act of bullying?

What about "Evolution is a fact?" Is this not an act of bullying people who reject evolution into accepting a view that contradicts their religion?

Well, no . . . but it is easy for some people to interpret it that way.

I do not see this clause as providing an exception to bullying. It does not say that teasing or tormenting an individual is justified when it is done on religious grounds. However, it does say that one has the right to express a sincerely held opinion on matters of religion or morals without being accused of a crime.

In this blog, I defend the thesis that praise and condemnation are central to morality. A moral statement is (1) an expression of an action and reasons for action that exist, (2) an act of praise or condemnation.

Where does moral praise and condemnation - for such things as lying, stealing, or even, for that matter, bullying differ from bullying itself?

In many cases, the difference is found nowhere but in an agent’s belief that the condemnation is justified or not justified. Unjustified condemnation is “bullying”, whereas justified condemnation is . . . well, condemnation.

However, with a law that fails to recognize a distinction, any expression of a minority opinion on matters of morality would be at risk of being called “bullying”. Abolitionists opposed to slavery would be “bullying” slave owners. Gay-rights activists opposed to literalist objections to homosexuality will be seen as “bullying” religious conservatives.

Without this exception, I do not see how any moral statement - particularly a statement of moral condemnation - can be distinguished from bullying. Moral condemnation itself would be declared immoral.

In fact, in the protests to this exception claus, it seems that a substantial number of people already support the view that a "a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction" is equivalent to bullying and is to be prohibited, rather than protected.

Which would imply that this entire blog is an example of bullying - because it is nothing but statements of sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions.

In effect, without this exception, this anti-bullying law would read a lot like the so-called “respect for religion” resolutions often submitted to the United Nations. Those resolutions prohibit people from saying anything negative about another person's religion. Saying that another's sincerely held religious beliefs are false - or insanely stupid - would be declared a hate crime that governments have an obligation to stop.

However, in that case, atheists correctly recognize that the declaration would constitute a violation of free speech. They fight to protect their right to say that certain religious beliefs are not only false, but insanely stupid, and in some cases malicious and evil.

Would this anti-bullying law - without this exception - not make it a crime to say that certain religious beliefs are not only false, but insanely stupid, and in some cases malicious and evil? Is that protected speech, or is that bullying?

If this law makes it possible to declare that such statements are acts of bullying, we have more reason to reject the law than to favor it – or to explicitly write in an exception in favor of freely expressing religious and moral beliefs.

Bullying is bad. I was a teenage atheist, and I was a recipient to some very brutal treatment as a result of my beliefs. In one case, I was in a situation where I was quite convinced I was being killed by classmates who sought to "baptize" me by holding me under water longer than I was able to breathe. As an act of desperation when I could not hold my breath any more, I screamed. Screaming while somebody is holding you underwater does not make any noise. But, they let me up.

This is the worst of what happened, but it is not the whole story.

So, I know the hazards of bullying.

At the same time, I recognize the importance of freedom of speech. I recognize that it is important to condemn people who do wrong, and that moral condemnation is not the same as bullying.

The law needs to recognize that as well.

Furthermore, please consider, which type of claim do you think is more likely to be branded as "bullying" and prohibited without such an exception? The claims of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens against those who believe in God? Or the claims of those who hold that atheists are un-American and you cannot have morals without belief in God?

Ultimately, if no exception is allowed for statements about sincerely held religious beliefs, it is probably the "militant atheist" who will be silenced as bullies before anybody else.

Sometimes, it is useful to defend freedom of speech, because, without it, one's own freedom to speak that would be the first to disappear.


wicked sick said...

A fantastic analysis of the current debate on the issue of bullying. I have linked to this post on another atheist blog:

As something close to a civil libertarian and a budding ethicist, I offer my thanks to you for the effort you put into this blog.

David Rand said...

Your point about the importance of freedom of expression is well taken. Indeed, we as atheists need to think carefully before taking a position on this issue. However, I think your analysis fails to take into account the following points:

[1] The phrase "a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction" constitutes a privilege for opinions based on religion rather than on other things. Also, in a highly religious country like the USA, the field of morality is assumed by many, perhaps most, to belong to religion: thus, the second half of "religious belief or moral conviction" will normally be subsumed into the first. But why should an opinion based on religion -- rather than on, say, science or aesthetics -- be given special consideration?

[2] The phrase is more likely to be used to defend the religious than the non-religious. Indeed, if an atheist expresses an anti-religious opinion while a believer expresses a pro-religious sentiment, then the latter is more likely to be recognized as "a sincerely held religious belief" than the former. This constitutes another advantage for religion.

This question is important to me because the controversial clause in Michigan Senate Bill No. 137 is very similar to a provision in the Criminal Code of Canada. Indeed, so-called "hate propaganda" is illegal in Canada, but there are several exceptions which make speech -- which might otherwise be considered hateful -- acceptable. One of these exceptions is "if, in good faith, the person expressed or attempted to establish by an argument an opinion on a religious subject or an opinion based on a belief in a religious text". (See Legislation in Canada)

It can of course be argued that "hate propaganda" should never be criminalized, because that constitutes an unacceptable restriction on freedom of expression. But given that some restrictions exist (for example, I think most people would agree that incitement to genocide should not be tolerated), how can one justify making an exception specifically for religious reasons, especially given the fact that religion is often the origin and cause of hateful attitudes? It would seem to me that if we accept any restrictions on freedom of expression, then the only legitimate exceptions should be accorded to reality-based speech. I recognize that arriving at a clear definition of "reality-based" may be very difficult, but it is clear that religious speech often falls well outside that category!

Anonymous said...

I don't necessarily disagree with anything you said, but I do have two questions:

1) Why does Michigan need a law to prevent bullying?

2) How do we tell the difference between a, "sincerely held religious belief" and an idea I pulled out of a christmas cracker?

Alex Setzepfandt said...

In general, I think you are right to be skeptical of laws that would label moral criticism as bullying. At the same time, the law in question prohibits a particular form of criticism in a particular context: Only statements made in school that are reasonably expected to disrupt class or cause emotional distress would be prohibited by the law (even without §8).

Given the emotionally fragile nature of schoolchildren and the fact that they are forced to go to school, it makes sense to limit the sorts of speech allowed in this setting. Permitting academic discussions about religion is much different from letting students tell others they are (say) going to Hell.

I posted a longer discussion on my blog:

Kristopher said...

the law is merely stating one of the many things it does not prohibit. there is no reason to expect that statements that are not faith related would not fall under the category of permited.

the statement that an apple is not an orage says nothing one way or another about bananas. (though they also happen top be, not an orange) (apple=religous statements of belief. orange=prohibited. banana=a statement about the truth value of creationism or evolution)

that "religous exception" is irrelevant to the law. it merely states that something which is clearly free speech will not be infringed upon. it does not say that other things which are also free speech should be infringed upon if they are not relgious.

adding a useless clause to the law shows a certain non-secular focus that i do not appreciate in my laws. but beyond that cosmetic addendum the clause is legally irrelevant and implies nothing about the laws application to secular assertions in school.

thanks for the great post alonzo

it is a little odd that they needed a law. this seems to be a useless proclamation that bullying is bad. i don't think that previously bullying had been acceptable becuase it was legal but now that this law is in place we can finally do something about it! it's just a politician trying to score points by pointing a finger at something we all know is bad and proclaiming that he too thinks it is bad. what remarkable leadership...