Saturday, 9 June 2018

Crooked Thinking

NZ Human Rights Commission On A Bender

Professor Paul Moon
AUT University

Anyone hoping that the current purge of the Human Rights Commission will go far enough to flush out the hubris at its core is likely to be disappointed.

Indeed, despite staff changes, and a damning report into its culture, the commission will continue with its march towards introducing a damaging change to our society: its plan to make what it calls "disharmonious speech" aimed at religions an offence.

What makes this audacious and unwanted encroachment on our right to speak and think freely all the more insidious is that this proposed ban on "disharmonious speech" would not apply equally to the criticism of all religions.

The open season on attacking Christianity, for example, would remain, with its followers responding, as their faith requires, by turning the other cheek. Instead, the commission is explicit that this proposed free-speech ban would only apply to the sort of disharmonious comments that are "targeted at the religion and beliefs of ethnic minority communities" in New Zealand.

There are several troubling aspects of this plan. Firstly, the commission is moving from protecting people from unpleasant speech (which itself is dubious) to protecting ideas from criticism. If a belief is so fragile that some disharmonious comments might damage it, then maybe the adherents of that belief ought to reconsider its worth rather than seek to shield it from scrutiny.

Secondly, the commission is conflating religion with ethnicity, which is an appalling case of stereotyping.
And to show how far the commission has tied itself in knots over this issue, by singling out the religions which it presumes are those of ethnic minorities, it is acting in a way that discriminates on the basis of race and religion, ironically possibly in violation of its own legislation. The thought of the commission investigating itself for a breach of the Act under which it operates indicates how far its ideologues are pursuing the appeasement of certain religions on a Chamberlainian scale.

Thirdly, there is the real risk that in offering protective measures for some religions, the followers of these religions will simply have to feign whatever it is that constitutes disharmony, after which they will be able to say and do things with impunity from further criticism.

Fourthly, what makes the commission so intellectually superior to the rest of us that it feels it can be the arbiter of which ideas we can and cannot express? And what truths are they so afraid of that they feel the urge to silence us from making observations for fear that they might prove to be "disharmonious"?

Then there is the axiomatic issue of what exactly constitutes "disharmonious speech". It is deliberately not defined in the commission's report on this issue, and when I asked the commission to explain the meaning of the term, one employee replied the question "does not make sense".  No doubt we will get more clarity once the prosecutions get under way.

The freedom to criticise religion and to try to discover the truth was a burning issue (sometimes literally) in previous centuries. Yet in our more enlightened age, the Human Rights Commission is challenging the notion that we have progressed far enough to discuss, debate, and even criticise ideas that are different from our own.

Why does the commission wish to ban and penalise free speech to protect certain beliefs? Surely the commission, and the rest of us, would be far better off adhering to the maxim of the Czech theologian Jan Hus: "Love the truth; let others have their truth, and the truth will prevail."

• Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology

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