A post by guest author Michael Hallihane.
‘Big Brother is watching’ is a well-worn cliché but it was also my first thought when reading the Republic’s new ‘Hate Speech Bill’. The Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill 2022, to give it its full name, has attracted significant media attention and criticism from among others Donald Trump jnr, Elon Musk and Jordan Peterson.
Leaving aside the verdict of these high-profile figures, what do the Irish public think? And what is the likely consequence of this law for Irish society? Justice Minister Helen McEntee, architect of the legislation, said that “the vast majority of people” want hate speech laws. But when pressed on the question of public support, it became clear the “vast majority of people” she was referring to were the coalition government, not the public. For McEntee it is the Dublin elite who count, not the Irish people who through the public consultation process and in opinion polls consistently voiced their opposition to the legislation.
The first problem with the legislation is that it is illiberal. It assumes the public are bigots not to be trusted with free speech or expression. In the Seanad Green Party senator Pauline O’Reilly declared “we are restricting freedom for the common good”. Views on gender identity which ‘create discomfort’ should be censored, she said. With a personal mandate of 80 votes she felt not a hint of embarrassment in dictating what people should be allowed and not allowed to say.
On a practical level how can you legislate against hatred without providing a definition of hatred? Even the Attorney General warned against the lack of a clear definition in the Bill. How do you define offensive? Are you allowed to be obnoxious to some people but not those with protected characteristics? How do you outlaw personal animosity based on the ‘protected characteristics’ of another individual? The legislation has so many holes in it you could run a coach and horses through it. Tolerance is fundamental to a democratic society but real tolerance is not criminalising people who express hate. Real tolerance makes a distinction between words and actions and allows people the right to express thoughts and views that others may detest.
It’s the price we pay for freedom. Real freedom.
The inclusion of gender self-identification in the legislation is also highly contentious. Some women’s rights groups see gender ideology as undermining their rights and are dismissed as TERFs. Hence the animosity and hatred heaped on JK Rowling. The idea that ‘trans women are women’ is just that, an idea – and an idea by no means accepted by everyone. To say that one group’s beliefs should be ring- fenced and protected by law and another group’s shouldn’t makes a travesty of the idea of equality before the law.
Will it become unlawful to hate gender ideology, but permissible to hate the views of social conservatives? It feels like we are headed in that direction. Political correctness and a small elite deciding who is hateful and who must be protected, who are the haters and whom the victims. But if certain views and opinions are deemed ‘hateful’ and are legislated against, does that not create a basis for more ‘hate’? Are the views of social conservatives and traditional Catholics ‘hateful’? Some identity groups would say they are. What’s to stop politicised legislation being used against the next set of opinions that the Dublin establishment and its favoured activists do not like?
Government censorship of views it doesn’t like represents a despot’s charter that will chill free speech for everyone. Some may see hate speech laws on behalf of specific groups with ‘protected characteristics’ as well intentioned but it will lead to the institutionalisation of identity politics as a ‘perpetual conflict machine’. With competing identity groups continually petitioning the state to side with them against the other side.
The criminalisation of ‘hate speech’ under Irish legislation risks taking us down a draconian cul-de-sac. Respect for difference is negotiated between people. It is interpersonal and should not be legislated by the government. A liberal, tolerant government would do well to stay out of identity politics disputes. We do not need legislators as identity activists. The state should not have the right to police our thoughts be they be our likes or dislikes. Neither does anyone have the right not to be offended.
With the prospect of a united Ireland now a distinct possibility as opposed to a remote one we need to ask what kind of new Ireland we want to see? Do we want to live in a society where you feel free to speak your mind or in one where you are afraid to speak freely and consequently self-censor for fear of arrest? Is the new motto now – ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ to quote the title of a poem by Seamus Heaney? Censorship or self-censorship doesn’t root out or dispel prejudice, it just hides it under threat of punishment.
In a new United Ireland, let words and ideas be spoken freely no matter how controversial because sunlight is the best disinfectant. “Enlightenment thinker Baruch Spinoza said ‘In a free state every man may think what he likes, and say what he thinks.’ Ireland needs to decide whether it wants to be a free state or an unfree one. The Hate Speech Bill must be resisted.
Michael Hallihane is a writer based in London and ran an independent book shop for a decade.