Words matter: It’s time to rethink hate speech laws

5:35 pm on 2 April 2019

By Saziah Bashir*

Opinion - In the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks of 15 March in Christchurch, one can't help but notice the clear and deliberate language used by the prime minister. She's been applauded the world over for embodying what a strong leader looks like in the face of tragedy, yet with a rare abundance of what appears to be genuine compassion and empathy. She has rightly kept the focus on the victims and survivors, on Christchurch and on the Muslim community in New Zealand.

A pro-Muslim protestor carrying a sign saying 'Free Speech NOT Hate Speech' as opposing groups of protesters clashed over the M-103 motion to fight Islamophobia during pro-Muslim and anti-Muslim demonstrations in downtown Toronto; Ontario; Canada; on March 04; 2017.

Saziah Bashir says we need to trust that reasonable hate speech laws and more attention to hate crimes in NZ will foster more conversations about tolerance and equality. Photo: AFP

She has largely been echoed consistently across the political spectrum in New Zealand. By contrast, living in Australia has shown me how quickly politicians can descend into the gutter, with some scrambling to use this incident in New Zealand to finger point and score political points.

The prime minister will have her detractors even on this, I'm sure. But for once, even if it is lip service, I felt consoled to hear Muslims supported instead of vilified because words matter. I felt heartened to hear that our safety and security was of paramount concern. For much too long, it hasn't been.

Actions matter even more. The change in gun laws was a sensible, swift reaction. In querying how violent ideologies are perpetuated, looking at what provisions we have or lack with regard to hate speech and hate crimes is a logical next step.

Andrew Little's proposed review of our hate speech laws therefore makes sense. Though like opposition leader Simon Bridges, I too urge caution.

I would caution political leaders in New Zealand to not succumb to cowardice, and instead show that they have the mettle to face these challenging and complex debates about balancing free speech with the responsibility to use a platform respectfully and, where possible, for public good.

While it's some consolation Mr Bridges supports the proposed review, it's lamentable that as a legislator, he demonstrated the constitution of a soft cheese by crumbling at the idea of tackling law reform that might be "incredibly hard" to navigate.

A cynical take on this would be that Mr Bridges is virtue signalling to his more conservative constituents that he, at least, has not been swept away in this latest pro-Muslim, pro-migrant madness. A gentler interpretation might be that he truly does find the task daunting.

I can put in some work to dispel some of Mr Bridge's fears, which I'm sure are shared by many.

Firstly, Kiwis are a sensible bunch. Just like so called anti-smacking laws didn't result in half of the country's parents being jailed despite the mass panic about our nanny state gone wild, hate speech laws won't result in New Zealand turning into some fascist Orwellian regime.

That freedom of expression is a vitally important right to New Zealanders goes without question.

But the likes of Mr Bridges and Mr Seymour would be doing the people of New Zealand a disservice if they assumed we wouldn't be able to differentiate between Bob's offensive comments at morning tea and giving platforms to truly problematic rhetoric that might be inciting targeted hatred and violence.

Secondly, hate speech laws wouldn't be stifling genuine debate and learning.

It's 2019 and refusing a council venue to a white supremacist mouthpiece, for example, wouldn't make a dent in their reach thanks to technology.

Hate speech laws could be framed as a protection for vulnerable groups and provide some recourse rather than serve as a deterrent against the exercise of free speech.

At the risk of being called a "whitephobic hate monger" again (something I have apparently actually been called in the rancid bogs that are the comment sections of the internet) I have my doubts that the people attending speeches by the likes of Lauren Southern are interested in healthy philosophical debates and learning about other cultures and points of view in order to challenge their own presumptions and expand their intellectual horizons.

The people who admire the likes of Southern and her mates, such as Martin Sellner, are looking for affirmation of their bigoted views being amplified in a public forum so they feel less alone in their hatred. Sometimes they're looking to do worse.

I'm quite sick of this particular strawman because it posits that this fictional gentle dialogue is somehow more important than entire communities in our country feeling safe. I personally couldn't care less what the far right's equivalent of diet-tea peddling influencers have to say about migrants or Muslims, their opinions don't touch my faith or identity.

But I do care whether their unfettered ability to spout their hateful agenda emboldens anyone to harm me and mine. Fifty people are dead, dozens more injured. Following the attacks, we told my mother not to leave the house for some time.

Our places of worship were shut, then reopened with police guarding entrances. A story that exemplified to me how much fear the Muslim community felt in just being themselves was that of a family friend who called his wife frantically the afternoon of the attacks, knowing she'd be picking up the children from school, only to beg her to take her hijab off right then, just to be safe.

Muslims have had their freedoms restricted, often self-imposed, out of fear of racist attacks for decades, and only now that the worst imaginable has happened are our concerns being taken seriously.

Now is not the time to succumb to the cries of the largely able bodied cis-het white male "protect free speech at all costs" brigade because for some minorities the cost is already much too high. There is such a disproportionate nervousness in New Zealand about anything short of completely unfettered rights to freedom of expression.

But it's a distraction to suggest free speech is under attack when what is being sought is a framework to address risk and harm within the operation of that right.

If our political leaders are up to the task, people should have nothing to fear from a review of the potential inadequacies in our laws. We need to trust that reasonable hate speech laws and more attention to hate crimes in New Zealand will foster more conversations about tolerance and equality rather than erode freedoms that we all hold dear.

*Saziah Bashir is a freelance journalist commenting on issues of social justice, race and gender.

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