Incitement to Intolerance

Incitement to intolerance could provoke future ethnic violence, so it might be appropriate to make it a criminal offence.

Karl Popper, in his book The Open Society and its Enemies, pointed out that unlimited tolerance allows intolerant people to suppress other people’s free speech.  He argued in chapter 7 for using the law to suppress intolerance, as quoted by Derek Beres in an article Should We Tolerate the Intolerant?:

“We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, exactly as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping ; or as we should consider incitement to the revival of the slave trade.”

Popper’s aspirations for an “Open Society” might be beyond reproach, but to use the law as an instrument to prevent intolerance might be problematic.  A defence could plead that the accused was merely expressing opinions or recounting facts, as legitimate criticisms, and it would be difficult to prove intolerance.

Society as a whole benefits if the law can be used to prevent people from trying to stir up ethnic conflict.  It is undeniably difficult to do so, but many countries have introduced some legislation against incitement to intolerance (with varying success) despite a reasonable and necessary bias in favour of free speech.  Britain’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 is one example, which has had mixed success: the BBC reported the acquittal of Nick Griffin, BNP leader cleared of race hate, despite his having described Islam as “this wicked, vicious faith”.

Human rights legislation can be used as an alternative to laws against incitement, as discussed next (5.4.7).


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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/edition04/5463.htm.