5.4.6 Prohibiting Ethnically Divisive Language

Prohibiting ethnically divisive language is contentious, because it conflicts with free speech, but it is dangerous to inflame tensions.

The previous section (5.4.5) identified several legal constraints on freedom of speech, to prevent people from causing immediate harm to each other – by inciting violence for example.  Ethnic sensitivities are different, though, because inappropriate language can foment tensions which can be predicted to cause trouble in the future, although it cannot be proved that any individual person has been harmed at the time.  Free speech, although necessary for resolving ethnic tensions, can also create them (4.4.6).

As described in the previous chapter, there is a potential for conflict between different ethnic communities in a pluralist society (4.4.5).  Europe’s Thirty Years War in the 17th century, and numerous more recent conflicts in the Middle East, are just some examples of how dangerous it is to let ethnic conflict get out of hand.  The law can play a part in preventing that from happening:

●  People’s human rights can be guaranteed by law (, and that includes freedom of worship

●  Equal treatment of all ethnic groups can be legally enforced, to avoid the inevitable resentment caused by discrimination.

●  Violence, incitement to violence, or the threat of it, can all be prohibited.

A desire for freedom of speech must be balanced against the desire for a peaceful society.  Prohibiting ethnically divisive language is essential to avoid conflict.  The law on free speech must be clearly defined in relation to ethnic issues, it must be enforceable, and it must avoid suppressing constructive criticism.  There are at least three categories of speech which might be thought to meet these criteria:

Defamation of a religion or all its adherents can be prohibited ( Several countries have blasphemy laws.

It is also possible to ban the circulation of lies with intent to defame an ethnic group (, without undermining the moral case for free speech. At least it is possible to require an explicit acknowledgment if the material being circulated has been proven to be false or is of doubtful origin.

Preaching intolerance amounts to incitement to future violence ( It could be made a criminal offence under the law, but the required burden of proof might be difficult in practice.



Next Section

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/edition04/546a.htm.