Moral Pressure to Suppress Divisive Language

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/4465.htm)

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.

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 religious leaders at local and national level could and should apply pressure in the Moral Dimension by criticising the use of such language and exposing its destructive (and irreligious) intent.  Condemnation is appropriate, if not essential, on the basis of even the negative form of the Golden Rule  (

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.


Next Section