The right to offend

If we say that we should ensure no offence is caused to religions in the public space, we effectively give the right of veto to religions as to what is permissible in the public space. This cannot be. If freedom of religion is important, so likewise the freedom to offend should be too. And do I agree with prosecuting the couple for distributing anti-Muslim literature? Full essay.

16 Responses to “The right to offend”

  1. 1 Laïcité 26 June 2009 at 00:17

    I am an atheist and a secularist and I too do not believe that the couple who distributed the tracts should have been prosecuted. I wouldn’t say that we should have the “right to offend”, but that there should not be such a thing as the “right not to be offended”. I don’t think that it is the state’s duty to protect people from being offended, but it is the individual’s duty to tolerate or avoid facing instances in which he knows he will be offended, or even exercise his freedom of speech to “correct” the offensive messages.

    But what I find interesting and infuriating is that Christians feel that it is perfectly fine to poke holes in other religions and label them as pagan or primitive (especially traditional chinese religions), and as you have mentioned, it is inherrent in Islam that the notion of jesus christ as god is rejected, but once an atheist tries to make these claims, we are suddenly viewed as inflammatory and chided for offending believers. And at the same time these religions are holding very offensive views towards atheists/infidels.

    It seems that when it comes to the “right to offend”, Singapore (both the state and the society) is very selective about who has this right, and also about who has the right to be protected from offense. Atheists and homosexuals got neither.

  2. 2 Robox 26 June 2009 at 02:00

    Re: “What is the status of atheism anyway within the principle of “Freedom of Religion”? Shouldn’t freedom of religion include freedom from religion too?”

    I believe that you already know the answer to your own question, but for the sake of your readers who may not, Article 15(1) of the Constitution states, “Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it”

    The constitutional interpretation of the above Article goes:

    1. The right to profess a religion implies the right to reject all other religions, the latter right presumably for reasons such as:

    a) an individual not being born into those other religions; or,

    b) that those other religions do not meet the particular needs/requirements/standards of the individual; but,

    c) can include less savoury reasons like, “I don’t like the people of religion X”.

    All reasons for rejecting any religion are considered valid under the freedom of religion clause.

    2. Following from #1, the right to reject religions for any reason would then imply that those reasons for rejecting any religion are applicable to ALL religions; thus, the right to atheism finds legal protection.

    However, Article 15(1) is also subject to Article 15(4) which states, “This Article does not authorise any act contrary to any general law relating to public order, public health or morality”.

    Here’s where what constitutes “public order” or “morality” – two of the three stipulated grounds that limit the practise and propogation of religion – is relevant to the point that I am about to raiseand could become a point of contention.

    Not just because it is provided for in Article 15(4), but purely out of consideration for the ground reality of power imbalances between “in-groups” and “out-groups” – to use your terminology – and the damage inflicted by the ‘right to offend’ on those out-groups, I disagree with you on your conclusions in the case of Ong Kian Cheong and his wife, Dorothy Chan Hien Leng.

    (Incidentally, I see the difference between our two views being that of you being liberal on this issue and me taking a social democratic stand on it.)

    But first, I disagree with the decision to charge the couple with “sedition”; sedition is a very serious charge that was originally intended only for times of political exceptionalism like national emergencies, war, and the like; they should have been charged under the Penal Code instead.

    What the couple has committed is a direct and intentional assault and I would hold this to be true even if they had not intruded into the privacy of those whom they had targetted by stuffing the offensive literature into their mailboxes; the element of “intent to cause harm” that is used in the determination of crime is very definitely present.

    By contrast, the examples of the ‘right to offend’ in your article, which I consider to be unfortunately named on your part, is really the balanced position between:

    a) the right to pursue any activity in the fulfilment of one’s needs, wants, enjoyment, etc without any accompanying intent to cause harm to those whose religions prohibit those activities; and,

    b) the responsibility that the ‘offended’ group has in not infringing on the rights of others in their pursuit of their needs, wants, enjoyment, etc, and where the intention to cause harm to those whose religion prohibits those activities is absent.

    Only then I would say that your own statement serves as a coherent conclusion:

    Re: “It’s for you to avoid what you consider offensive; it’s not for you to stop others exercising their freedom, be it showing skin, releasing fumes of pork oil or selling “Buddha Bar” music CDs.”

    To put it another way: “Your rights end where mine begins” and this is where, in my opinion, the couple charged with sedition has run afoul of others’ right not to be harmed by assault.

  3. 3 Robox 26 June 2009 at 02:37

    I’m trying to do this from memory, but this post is really a big picture view of the factors that are normally taken into consideration when legislating against any activity, the promulgation of which is attributed to the 19th century political philosopher John Stuart Mills and which also forms the basis of modern criminology.

    I include it here not only to point anyone interested in this topic in the right direction, but also for ‘safekeeping’ with you because it is probably you who will be called upon in any consultation for the rights of LGBT Singaporeans.

    It’s also tangentially relevant to the topic at hand.

    Mills identified four motivations present in any one general population when calling for an activity to be considered a crime. These were when a said activity:

    1. causes harm to others – Mills believed that this should be the ONLY reason to criminalize an action; his is considered a classic liberal position;

    2. causes harm to oneself – Mills called this a ‘paternalistic’ stand. However, examples of criminalizing acts on this basis abound such as suicide, the consumption of narcotics, etc;

    Note: Most acts that fall under this category are however NOT criminalized.

    3. causes offense – definitely cannot be considered a crime if harm towards others is not intended; and,

    4. harmless wrongdoing – Mills considers this to be a contradiction in terms and acts that fall under this category cannot, in his opinion, be criminalized.

  4. 4 Mouth of the Beast 26 June 2009 at 02:54

    This is certainly a difficult issue.

    Charges of “sedition” and references to “seditious tracts” read like something out of the 16th century and sound totally out of place in a modern society.

    Sedition is defined as “conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch.” I’m having difficulty seeing how this relates to offending, or inciting hatred of, a particular group, unless the law has developed in a particularly unique way in Singapore. Surely there are more relevant laws that are applicable? These days societies are passing specific laws against “incitement to hatred” of minority groups, including gays, to protect them not just from offence but from people demonising them so that they potentially become targets of violent attack. On the other hand if “sedition” has developed in Singapore to protect minorities from incitement to hatred, this may be good news for gays: I see no reason why gays should not also be protected by it, not least on the grounds of public order. It’s not long since a gay man was chased and kicked to death, in Lucky Plaza, I believe.

    Turning to the actual comics, having had a look at these online, it did seem to me that they demonise all Muslims, and distributors might face prosecution in more liberal countries too under incitement to hatred laws. The comics are clearly aimed at children and designed to change how they see their Muslim friends, to see them as a danger. And a shop is just as guilty as an individual if they are distributing them. It is no defence that a shop is only selling hate literature to children or parents that want to buy it.

    I think you are right that you can’t protect believers/ non believers from being offended, it is so subjective, and it is indeed strange the way gay people are singled out for discrimination in this respect. You can, however, protect minority groups from incitement to hatred, which is ultimately about public order as much as respecting diversity.

  5. 5 Lee Chee Wai 26 June 2009 at 06:59

    I think there has to be a reasonable legal guideline to tell the following apart:

    1. free speech (if one is offended, one can choose to ignore the nonsense or one can choose to publicly counter the “BS”).

    2. hate speech (clearly intended to intimidate, harass others, incite and direct anger or hate between groups of people).

    The way I see it, the government (and a good number of people) of Singapore chooses to view *anything* that causes “offense” to others as the latter. I think that is very unfortunate.

  6. 6 Ethel 26 June 2009 at 08:54

    There are 2 ways to do anything in the world (e.g. rectify a problem, enforce a mindset): legislation and education (e.g. campaigns, putting certain modules in the national curriculum). One is the ‘stick’ method, the other ‘carrot’. Very often, conservative societies will use legislation, as that is the easier way to solve a problem. Education takes a long time, and moreover, it does not guarantee a change in behaviour. For example, (I guess), a lot of us do not litter not because we are taught to keep our environment clean (but some do); we do not litter as we are more afraid of being fined, doing CWO.

  7. 7 KiWeTO 26 June 2009 at 11:08

    I have to agree that sedition is the wrong law to throw at this couple in question.

    It has offended individuals of a particular belief, but in no way, were they conducting a massed attempt to destabilize a state. (perhaps if they were doing it in a theocracy, but we’re NOT one!)

    No lawyer myself, but i think that was using the wrong law to achieve the right outcome.

    What they did was wrong. What it was punished under, needs rethinking.


  8. 8 Slippery slope? 26 June 2009 at 16:02

    “A public policy question then arises: Should we reward the heightening sense of offence with prosecution? Wouldn’t this response by the state encourage others to sharpen their sensitivities, and thereby further close off public space? Is that in the best interest of society? How many other sharpened sensitivities are we going to reward with clampdowns?”

    Your reasoning in objecting the prosecution sounded awfully like a “slippery slope” argument, which is usually fallacious.

  9. 9 Mouth of the Beast 26 June 2009 at 16:05

    I suppose if they were proved to be part of a plot to establish a theocracy of a particular religion it might be applicable?

  10. 10 abhtg 26 June 2009 at 16:23

    If the world can learn one thing from the west about race and inter-religious relations, it is that cultural homogeneity breaks more barriers than propaganda and tightly enforced rules against “sedition”.

    There are very real consequences to us, as a culture, segregating people in groups. Some European countries, and I am thinking of Britain in particular, have developed a mentality of specifically avoiding that – a culture of inclusiveness and political correctness. I suspect that this will be the case here by the time my generation is the mainstream.

  11. 11 Robox 26 June 2009 at 23:33

    Re: “A public policy question then arises: Should we reward the heightening sense of offence with prosecution? Wouldn’t this response by the state encourage others to sharpen their sensitivities, and thereby further close off public space? Is that in the best interest of society? How many other sharpened sensitivities are we going to reward with clampdowns?”

    I now understand your reason for not agreeing to the prosecution of the ‘seditious’ couple, but only after re-reading the preceeding paragraph to the one above as well as the paragraph proceeding from it.

    However, I believe that the problem lies with the PAP government’s non-practise of the rule of law – their pious chanting of the “rule of law’ mantra notwithstanding – that is a direct result of its non-practise of constitutionalism even though it is legally obliged to do so.

    Under rule of law, the law is enforced :

    a) every single time it is applicable,

    b) year round,

    c) year after year, and

    D) across the board.

    However, the aggressive proselytyzing-via-distribution-of-offensive-materials by Christians has been an ongoing activity for more than two decades now, likely even longer than that. Neither is this the first instance of complaints being made and then revealed in public. I vividly remember one particular reaction by Goh Chok Tong which belied his embarassment over the matter being made public, but he proceeded to merely shrug it off with more of the ‘fatherly advice’ that the PAP government is known for.

    That’s when I knew for a fact, just from reading his facial cues, that favouritism, and possibly a hidden agenda were at work.

    If the PAP government practised the rule of law instead, there would be prosecution of any individual even in times when there is no ‘heightening sense of offence’; it might have served as a deterrent for, if not a reduction of, future occurrences of the offending act.

    I actually doubt that a heightened sense of offence leading to an upsurge of police reports could even occur under rule of law; behaviour would already have been changed because of prosecution at other times, which is another function of legislation and law enforcement.

  12. 12 co-existence 27 June 2009 at 16:14

    Hi Alex,

    The question asked was not about how can the public space function in a way to be sensitive to all religions or not to offend relgions, but rather, the question asked was along the line of:

    Given the differing and sometimes contradicting wishes, preferences, visions and demands of different worldviews (ie both religious and non-religious worldviews), how to strike a balance, in principle, if the goal is to meet as much as it is possible the desires of various worldviews while at the same time not going to the extend of having any of the worldview (e.g. Christianity) imposing itself upon the desires and preferences of other worldviews (e.g. agnostics, atheists, Buddhists) in various issues?

    For example, say, sexually-explicit movies. Some groups want such movies to be available in our cinemas while some other groups want such movies to be removed (to protect their children, to prevent society’s “moral decline” [sic] etc). A balance to meet various groups’ contradicting desires/demands might be to implement ratings for such movies and not allow children to watch such movies in cinemas.

    Other examples of issues where different groups have contradicting desires/demands/visions: gambling, euthanasia, homosexuality, prostitution, abortion and so on.

    So if the goal is to create our public space such that we can meet the desires and visions of as many groups as possible, in a way such that we can maximise as much as possible a fulfilling living experience for all this groups in our pluralistic society, then what kind of principles may guide us to achieve such a goal?

    Anyone here can give any comment or answer?

  13. 13 Chris 28 June 2009 at 19:38

    I too agree that the couple shouldn’t have been prosecuted. I find lots of things offensive but I would not want people saying those things to be prosecuted. Of course, if you are targetting people with hate mail or threats it does start become stalking and is different to making statements at large.

    In the comments above people have looked at philosophical objections to the prosecution and freedom of religion, or no religion. I would like to say that it is disgraceful that the police and courts consider it worth their while to prosecute this kind of behaviour. Surely they have better things to do than harass people disseminating offensive literature.

    Shouldn’t Singaporeans be asking how much of their money is being wasted on the equivalent of the vice squad or propaganda units? I don’t see the service delivered by the government in this instance as one worth paying for. It would be much better to be spend that money on education programs or encouraging tolerance within the public sphere.

  14. 14 Europhic_Core 29 June 2009 at 17:50

    I agree that the couple shouldn’t be prosecuted too. But however, there is a problem. Going by the aftermath of recent events like AWARE takeover, we can see that many people in the public community (which include gays) have seen Christianity in a bad light. So the government has to play nice to potray themselve as netural and not taking sides and offending the gay/athetist/buddhist community.

    This govt tries hard to be seen as fair, but unfortunately fails. Instead the cracks are passed on to society? Which leads me to think – PAP one big happy family?

    Unfortunately for the couple – A scapegoat.

  15. 15 Mouth of the Beast 30 June 2009 at 02:32

    After looking it up on Wiki, it looks like the law of sedition has indeed been developed in Singapore beyond the traditional meaning of “sedition”. Under the Sedition Act:
    “3. —(1) A seditious tendency is a tendency —

    (e) to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore.”

    (3) … the intention of the person charged at the time he … offered for sale, distributed…any publication or did any other thing shall be deemed to be irrelevant if in fact such act had, or would, if done, have had, or such words, publication or thing had a seditious tendency.”

    If correctly quoted in Wiki, the details could perhaps have been more clearly drafted, but it does seem to me this is really about preventing incitement to hatred rather than mere offence – it says “feelings of ill-will AND hostility”, not “feelings of ill-will OR hostility”.

    So it looks like it’s really about stirring up hostility against group x, not about hurting group x’s feelings, unless perhaps group x’s feeling are hurt so profoundly that they become hostile and potentially violent to another group.

    This reminds me of the stealthy takeover of that ngo by an anti-gay church group; the actions of the alleged coup members, regardless of their intentions, stirred up ill-will and hostility both against homosexuals and against Christians in general, many of whom I expect were appalled by this takeover.

    Was there sedition under this Act? I don’t know, only someone with all the facts could form a meaningful opinion, but I think it’s an interesting hypothesis to discuss.

  16. 16 Kim 30 June 2009 at 07:49

    I guess a country’s laws should be drawn up based on the line separating the “right to offend” and the “right to oppress”.

    Has the couple offended or oppressed?

    Has any mainstream religion in Singapore ever been oppressed?

    Have gays in Singapore been oppressed (denial of basic human rights = oppression)?

    Answers: no, no, yes.

    So do we now know who to prosecute and who not to?

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