Thursday, November 15, 2007

Insulting population groups

Mikko Ellilä got accused of incitement against a population group for this blog post.

The post is racist, in bad taste, and IMO wrong about biology being destiny, but what I haven't found there is any actual incitement (explicit or implicit) to do anything illegal against black people, or anyone else.

Yes, I know, the law also prohibits insulting a population group. Question is, what's an insult? Does it depends on the truth of the matter? Does it depend on somebody being insulted? Where are the limits of the free speech? Is it desirable to have a law that prohibits saying the truth about some group? How about speculation about things that might be true but not necessarily are (for example, scientific theories)? How about the things that are obviously untrue but presented as if they might be true?

The whole free speech vs. insulting a group issue is very complicated here in Finland (probably also elsewhere). During the whole Lynn-and-Vanhanen scandal a friend who knows more about the law than I do told me that one important factor is the medium: an article saying that ethnic group A is less intelligent than ethnic group B is quite acceptable in a scientific journal but can be considered incitement against an ethnic group if it is placed in a big popular newspaper like Helsingin Sanomat. The accusation that Ellilä got and posted somewhere (can't find it now) also mentions the pictures he uses in his blog as an aggravating circumstance, I am not sure why (the text is in bad taste, but the pictures are just pictures, none of them particularly insulting or tasteless).

Considering that the number of people writing in public has greatly increased and is still increasing, and so are various ethnic and religious tensions in Europe, isn't it time to have a public discussion about the limits of free speech and insulting population groups, and possible need for a new law, or for clarifying the old one? Lest we end up in a world where "Jos siihen sisältyy samalla ulkomaalaisten arvostelu, sekin on hyväksyttävä, jos sitä ei ääneen lausuta." ("If it contains criticism towards foreigners, his is acceptable, as long as it is not pronounced out loud.")

The questions I'd want answered are:

1. Do people really want to have a law that bans insulting groups of people? (Personally I don't, as long as they don't contain any actual incitement.)

2. Can the truth be considered an insult? If yes, to what extent does it depend on the particular words used?

3. What about the speculation, theories, etc.?

4. What about the obvious lies presented as speculation? (I might say "it is still being discussed whether or not Italians eat babies", but it is not AFAIK in fact being discussed by anyone in their right mind, and Italians do not in fact eat babies.)

5. To what extent does the whole thing depend on the venue? Do bloggers, writers of scientific articles, and people who call Americans stupid on Finnish web forums have to be just as careful as editors of HS?

6. When does the insult expire, and does it ever? Should all the racist writings of the old times be held to the current standards, and forbidden?

7. How about using them now? Can you read them in public and quote them in the current writings?

8. The whole issue with religions, insults and respect is deeply problematic: on one hand people are supposed to pretend to give some respect to other religions' writings and holy books, on the other hand the religious writings and holy books in question tend to be deeply disrespectful of other religions and atheists. But I think this should mostly be discussed in connection with another law, the one on blasphemy (ok, nowadays it's "religious peace").

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