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May 2019 Pulse

In his recent ministerial statement on hate speech, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam stressed that society must not only condemn hate speech, it must also shun speech that is offensive. This is because if offensive speech is not checked, over time it would create an environment that is ‘conducive for discrimination and eventually violence.’ ‘If we normalise offensive speech,’ the Minister explains, ‘after a while, the tone, texture of public discourse will change. Giving offence to others will become normalised.’

What constitutes offensive speech has been a subject of much discussion and debate. Some commentators have suggested that there are at least two types of offensive speech.

The first type of offensive speech is described as speech that is objectively offensive. An example of objectively offensive speech is telling falsehoods or lies about people that can harm them by damaging their reputation and causing trust in them to erode. This would of course include online falsehoods about a racial or religious group that could generate public animosity against or create suspicion of the group in question.

Objectively offensive speech is in many ways closely related to (although not always synonymous with) hate speech. In some ways, speech of this nature is in most (although by no means all) cases slightly easier to identify and the laws that are already in place in Singapore are, broadly speaking, quite sufficient to deal with them. New laws may be introduced to supplement existing ones by filling the gaps in current legislation.

The second type of offensive speech is speech that is deemed to be subjectively offensive. This is speech that hurt someone’s feelings but otherwise does no real harm to that person. Subjectively offensive speech includes insensitive words or actions that cause displeasure or anger, even outrage.

Speech that may be categorised as subjectively offensive, however, is of a remarkably wide range. At one end of the spectrum, there is the hurtful language that we sometimes use in everyday conversations (including slangs and colloquialisms) or during a heated argument with someone.

For example, we say that this individual is ‘a retard’ or ‘an imbecile’ when venting our frustration at not getting through to him or in expressing our disappointment at him for his unwillingness (or inability) to see things the way we do. These and similar monikers are also sometimes used to mock an ethnic or religious group.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have publications or artwork that are offensive to people who belong to a particular religion or racial group. For example, recently the Ministry of Home Affairs instructed the Info-Communications Media Development of Authority to cancel the concert of metal rock band Watain because the lyrics of their songs are offensive to Christians. The most radical instance of subjectively offensive publication is the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that denigrate Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.

Although these materials are deemed deeply offensive and hurtful by the respective faith communities, some commentators have argued that they cannot be said to have inflicted actual harm on those communities. Much depends on how narrow or broad is one’s definition of harm. Be that as it may, what is of moment is that between the black-and-white instances of offensive speech lies vast swathes of grey.

And it is here (in this grey territory) that there will be profound disagreement and conflict. There will be debates not only on whether the speech in question is indeed offensive, but also whether it is offensive enough to warrant government intervention or legal action. There will also be disagreements on how the prohibitions of some forms of offensive speech (and the fear of transgressing these prohibitions) could encroach on free speech, and debates on how candid opinions should be distinguished from deliberate slurs. There will be disputes about who gets to decide where the proverbial bright-line, beyond which satire must never be permitted to cross, should be drawn.

But there also lurks the danger that the responses to different instances of offensive speech – by the targeted community or even by the Government – may be seen as being inconsistent and therefore construed as being biased or unfair. In such cases, subjectively offensive speech and the response from the targeted community and by the Government can easily be politicised and exploited by parties with the malicious intention of pitting one group against another. And this may result in more conflict and tension than the offending speech itself, making the situation more complex than it already is.

The Singapore Government has taken a practical approach to handling offensive speech.  In his interview with the press, Mr Shanmugam has explained the approach thus: ‘First, we look at the words, the material – how offensive are they? Second, we look at what is the likely impact of the speech? How would, for example, the community which is target of the offensive speech react?’ Then, there are also security considerations and whether the offense would escalate tensions or deepen existing fault lines.

Mr Shanmugam is right to maintain that it is not only impossible but also undesirable to ban everything. ‘Ban everything that is deemed insulting, offensive by anyone, or allow everything that is insulting, offensive. I have explained why that will eventually lead to trouble. I think Members will see that the absolute approach is undesirable.’

In similar vein, it is perhaps also not desirable to use the law to deal with every instance of offensive speech. Here, the principle of subsidiarity, especially in the way in which it is envisioned by the Christian tradition, can be employed in dealing with certain forms of offensive speech, particularly those that belong to the subjective variety.

Although this principle has been employed by Christians of all stripes, it was Pope Pius XI who articulated it most clearly in his social encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno (‘On Reconstruction of the Social Order’, 1931):

It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance to the right order to transfer to the larger and higher collective functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies. Inasmuch as every social activity should, by its very nature, prove a help [subsidium] to members of the body social, it should never destroy or absorb them.

In a helpful summary, Andrew Murray explains that the principle of solidarity states that while ‘the government should intervene in the affairs of citizens when help is necessary for the individual as well as for the common good … [it] insists that all functions than can be done by individuals or by lower level organisations be left to them.’ ‘The government, therefore, has a subsidiary or helping role in relation to lower organisations or individuals,’ adds Murray.

The origins and the complex applications of the principle of subsidiarity as an approach to social organisation need not detain us. What is of moment is that this principle can and should be applied wherever possible in dealing with subjectively offensive speech.

In addressing this type of offensive speech, the principle of subsidiarity recommends that government intervention should not be the immediate first step. Instead, the different racial or religious communities should be allowed to resolve the issue on their own, through dialogue, mediation and other social and communal avenues and mechanisms.

For example, if a Christian pastor were to make derogatory remarks in public about Muslims or Buddhists that are deeply offensive and hurtful to the Muslim or Buddhist communities, the leaders of those communities should bring this to the attention of the pastor (and perhaps the leaders of the pastor’s church or denomination) and try to resolve the matter amicably and civilly. The same approach should be taken if the offensive speech or action has to do with race.

The distinct advantages of such an approach are many. In addressing offensive speech in this way, the racial or religious communities are able to negotiate conflicts on their own and in the process (it is hoped) grow in sensitivity and respect for each other.

Thus, in contradistinction to what may be described as ‘legalist’ or ‘statist’ approaches, the communal approach to dealing with certain types of offensive speech – inspired by the principle of subsidiarity – can deepen and strengthen the relationships between the ethnic and religious communities which provide the social ballast for a multi-religious and multi-cultural society like Singapore.

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.