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May 2019 Pulse

There has been much discussion in recent months in Singapore about deliberate falsehoods (especially the online variety) and hate or offensive speech. Hardly a day passes that The Straits Times does not carry an article or two about these menaces and what the Singapore government is doing to address them in the interest not only of social harmony but also that of national security.

Global concern over the scourge of fake news and hate mongering and the harm they inflict show that words do matter and that what is written, spoken or sung can cause irreparable harm to individuals, groups and even to society as a whole. In the era of deliberate falsehoods and hate speech, we can no longer accept as a truism that well-known idiom: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’

The Christian Scriptures has much to say about the power of words, their ability to build up and tear down. For example, in Exodus 20:16 we find this clear injunction: ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.’ Commenting on this verse, Walter Brueggemann notes that the ninth commandment emphasizes that ‘community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported.’

Writing to the Christians at Ephesus, the apostle Paul exhorts them to put away all falsehoods and to ‘speak truthfully’ to their neighbour (Ephesians 4:25). Peter echoes Paul’s exhortation in his letter to the Christians dispersed in Asia Minor when he writes: ‘Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit’ (1 Peter 3:10).

Christian speech must always exhibit the qualities of civility and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Words must always be spoken in love (Ephesians 4:15). However, to say that these virtues should govern Christian speech is not to suggest that truth telling should be compromised, or that we should acquiesce to the culture of ‘political correctness’. For political correctness can itself be a form of falsehood, dishonesty and deceit that, in the long run, is harmful to human relationships.

To treat our neighbours with civility and respect is to acknowledge and honour their inherent dignity. It is to recognise that they are created in the image and likeness of God and are therefore valued by their Creator. Although this principle is firmly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the basic intuition it conveys is not lost to our secular culture.

For example, in a series of articles on hate speech, Jeremy Waldron has convincingly argued that this form of discourse is fundamentally an assault on human dignity. Working with a broadly Kantian account, Waldron insists that ‘dignity is inherent in every human person.’ Furthermore, Waldron believes that dignity does not only have to do with the moral status of an individual but his social and legal status as well, which have ‘to be established, upheld, maintained and vindicated by society.’

Noting that hate speech is mostly directed at minority groups, Waldron argues that it behoves the rest of society to do their best to address the problem so that the dignity of the members of the target group is protected. He maintains that when society takes measures to curb hate speech against a minority group, the members of that group will be assured that their basic dignity and social standing as citizens are valued and respected.

For Waldron, assurance, which he defines as the ‘pervasive, diffuse, ubiquitous, general, sustained, and reliable underpinning of people’s basic dignity and social standing, provided by all for all’, is a public good. Such an assurance is vitally important if members of a society are to live trustingly and peaceably with one another. Waldron explains:

[I]n a well-ordered society, where people are visibly impressed by signs of one another’s commitment to justice, everyone can enjoy a certain assurance as they go about their business. They can feel secure in the rights that justice defines; they can face social interaction without the elemental risks that such social interaction would involve if one could count on others to act justly.

But in order for society to offer such an assurance, every single member must recognise that it is their duty to treat their fellow citizens with dignity and respect. Seen from this perspective, laws against hate speech are not only meant to punish transgressors. They are also purposed to instil in the members of the public their (legal) duty to acknowledge each other’s civic status – as social equals and as bearers of rights – and to treat each other with dignity.

Hate speech violates the dignity of its victims by calling to question or rejecting their status as people that should be treated as equal members of society. As Jonathan Seglow has argued, hate speakers implicitly claim ‘that minorities do not really merit the basic civic entitlements which the majority of citizens enjoy.’ ‘Hate speakers’, he adds, ‘communicate the view that minorities, who are often already vulnerable and marginalised, are not members in full standing of society.’

In denigrating its victims, the hate speaker does not only treat them with profound disrespect, he also assaults their self-respect. Thus, Jonathan Seglow, in agreement with other commentators, has argued that ‘the damage to self-respect which hate speech causes is a direct harm: it sets back individuals’ interests in morally unacceptable ways. As such unless there are strong reason to the contrary, we should treat it as we do other harms.’

The menace of hate speech can be successfully dealt with only when members of a society learn to respect one another and see this not only as their civic and legal duty, but also (and more fundamentally) as their moral obligation. To respect an ‘other’ is to accord him or her with an inviolable dignity as an equal member of the human race. It is to value him or her as a unique human being, who, like the rest of us, is given the privilege to be a bearer of the divine image (Genesis 1:26-28).

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.