Divisive Language Should be Criticised

Divisive language should be criticised, and the claim of one person’s right to free speech must be set against another’s right to peace.

People ought to exercise self-restraint and avoid using abusive and divisive language, as part of socially-acceptable behaviour (4.4.2), but there will always be people who flout this requirement.  It can be argued that nothing can be done to prevent these breaches, on the grounds that freedom of speech is of such importance that it overrides any other consideration.  To do nothing, though, would be to stand idly by whilst society tears itself apart.  A negotiated view of freedom of speech is that a society should consider the balance of interests, between freedom for some people to be unpleasant and other people’s freedom from social oppression and intimidation.

The controversy over Yorkshire cricket racism provided a vivid example of the issues:

“Azeem Rafiq accused Yorkshire County Cricket Club of racism and an inquiry was launched. This found the player had been subject to “racial harassment and bullying” – but no one was punished.

..Yorkshire concluded the incidents in question amounted to “friendly banter”, and added: “The Panel does not accept that Azeem was offended by (the other player’s) comments, either at the time they were made or subsequently.”

There is a strong case for arguing that only moral pressure should be used to suppress publication of divisive views, abusive language and blasphemy.  Use of the Legal Dimension to ban such views is difficult to enforce and can be seen as endangering the freedom of speech – but divisive language should be criticised by religious leaders at local and national level.  They could and should expose its destructive (and irreligious) intent.  Condemnation is appropriate, if not essential, on the basis of even the negative form of the Golden Rule ( don’t treat other people in a way that you wouldn’t want to be treated.

Members of a group should not be afraid to criticise its leader if the latter is encouraging divisive behaviour.  If this is not possible, they have a responsibility to leave the group and to encourage others to do the same.  Leaders are disempowered if nobody follows them.

In the absence of such moral leadership though, recourse to the law may be necessary and practicable for some types of divisive language – for example to suppress lies and defamation, as examined in the next chapter (5.4.6).  The point at which moral unacceptability passes over into criminality is a sensitive decision for any society.  It is a prime example of an issue which needs to be periodically examined in the light of current circumstances, and one for which decisions should be reached by an appropriately negotiated mechanism.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4465.htm.