Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Rule, Brittania

Not content with squashing the right of the church to teach in its schools that its doctrines on sex are true, Britain is moving toward Thoughtcrime territory on homosexuality. The Times of London reports that "inciting hatred" against homosexuals will be punishable by up to seven years in jail.
Leading gay rights campaigners insisted that the proposed offence would not lead to the prosecution of people expressing religious views. “It will not apply to those who temperately express religious views,” a leading campaigner said.
Well, that's reassuring, isn't it? An anonymous gay-rights advocate's assurances? Even Molotov got better assurances from Ribbentrop than that. And even that was tempered by the word "temperately."

I was quite surprised to see in Mark Shea's comboxes, a "don't worry about it too much" comment from my friend Ron Belgau.
I agree with your worries about excess state power being turned against Christians. I also am not naive enough to think that "inciting hatred" will always be interpreted rationally by judges.
However, this law does not criminalize saying homosexual acts are sinful. It criminalizes inciting hatred on the basis of sexual orientation, which is not quite the same thing.
In societies that respect the freedom of religion, I can write a book that explains my convictions or critiques others' convictions. I can't try to whip up a mob to go burn down the local synaogue or lynch the Mormon bishop.
As I read it, this rule is the equivalent of telling me not to incite others to burn the synagogue or lynch the Mormon bishop, not a restraint on theological debate. We shall have to see how it is applied, of course. But the problem, if any, is not in this law.
If this law gets interpreted to prosecute my writings, for example, then we are dealing with a corrupt judiciary, and a corrupt judiciary can find an excuse to prosecu
te whether they have this law or not.
Ron has two points:

(1) The law doesn't criminalize Church teaching;
(2) If the law will be stretched to cover that, the judiciary or executive is so corrupt that they don't need this law.

Obviously (1) is literally true as stated, but I just think Ron is being impossibly sanguine given the context. There *already is* (as I noted above) precedent for the British state (i.e., not some rogue judge) to refuse religious freedom in the name of gay liberation. There *already is* precedent from other countries of ministers being prosecuted or brought before tribunals under similar laws for preaching as the Church does on this topic.

And, as Ron surely knows, many if not most practicing homosexuals, and an increasing number of sympathetic liberals and leftists think the Church stance is, by definition, inciting hatred. I honestly don't believe that the homosexualists think it is possible to oppose their cause temperately. Some have even gone so far as to say a devout Catholic woman stabbed to death by a gay man brought it on herself, and the lawyer made the claim in open court that "it happened because she wouldn't leave him alone." I know I have been accused frequently of inciting hate, and I would be *stunned* if Ron has not. To cite one of numerous personal experiences, in one private forum, not devoted to politics or religion, I used the phrase "I believe it to be wrong." This was compared (and seconded thus) to the medieval blood libel with the specific qualifier "no matter how delicately said."

Which bring us to (2) ... and here again, I think Ron is thinking too rationally. Of course, it is the case that a thoroughly corrupted institution doesn't need legal niceties. But there's corrupt and there's corrupt. Ron's point would be correct if we were fearing literal "Gay Blackshorts." But the post-Christian West is not vulnerable to hard totalitarianism of the Hitler-Stalin kind, or to the "l'etat c'est moi" (or "la loi c'est moi") principle of arbitrary rule by an all-wise Ruler (think Kim Jong-il for a modern example). In those cases, yes, what the law says on paper is of little consequence.

But that's not what's happening. Instead, Christians in the post-Christian West face a kind of soft-tyranny -- marginalization under the law, underscored by and justified by cultural contempt. What these laws do, what they're designed to do, is give lawyers "words to work with," i.e., provide a legal basis for acting on conclusions already drawn morally (in this case "to silence the hatred coming from the christofascist godbaggers that is killing us oppressed LGBTs"). Yes, it can only be for what people may want to do in the darkest recesses of their hearts anyway. But soft-tyranny is still soft, and jurists and the legal class are not willing to act without the backing of the law. After all, "we're a society of laws," right? But if the law provides a legal basis, words to work with, to lock up those who incite hate, and in that society, Christianity is commonly constructed as "hatred" ... well, the conclusion hardly needs stating.

Further, these laws incentivize accusations of hatred, by rewarding them in the currency of silencing one's opponents. Economics teaches us that everything a society rewards, it will get more of. And as night follows day, rewarding accusations of "inciting hatred" (especially if there's no cost for unvindicated complaints, as there won't be) will result in a lot more complaints of "inciting hatred."

The British gay group Stonewall (see point 10 here) already has stated that Christians protesting gay-rights laws are "inciting hatred" and it called on those grounds for denying a permit to march on Parliament. The Stonewall Web site defines a "homophobic incident" as "any incident which is perceived to be homophobic by the victim or any other person." This is rather broad and open to easy abuse, no? Not to mention completely incompatible with the classic mens rea standard for intent-to-commit-a-crime. But it's what these people say when they're free to speak among themselves. This will become a self-reinforcing loop with, in principle, no end point, because people (homosexuals and their advocates in this case, though the point is generalizable) will become thinner- and thinner-skinned as disapproval in any form becomes a rarer and rarer experience, like groups that had no exposure to viruses or pathogens have no immunity to them and become sicker quicker. The principle of passive immunity applies to more than the body.


Ron said...

This is a quick response, which is probably a bit repetitive and longer than it should be, because I don't have time to go back, edit, and condense my thoughts--I'm in the middle of the semester with grad school, and have a bunch of reading to get done this morning before a conference this afternoon.

From A Man for All Seasons:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

I am well aware of the gay rights advocates who view any criticism of homosexuality as "incitement to violence." I am also aware of Christians who oppose any concession to gay rights on the grounds that it is one step down a slippery slope to the persecution of Christians.

However, I believe in the rule of law. In a fallen world, everyone's peace and happiness depends on the fair and just application of laws that respect and uphold human dignity.

I know full well how this law may be applied. But a law against inciting hatred is a just law. I am prepared to fight, and if necessary to languish in prison, for speaking and writing the truth about God's plan for human sexuality. But, naive or not, I believe in the fair application of just laws.

It seems to me that you and Mark are falling into a tribalist mentality, in which certain Christians will not support even basic protections against violence for homosexuals, for fear of losing their freedom of speech, and certain homosexuals will not support even basic religious freedom for Christians, for fear of persecution.

I can read the signs of the times. I know that Christians are being more and more marginalized. I also am not naive about how the laws are being turned against us. But I still believe in the rule of law and in supporting laws which are rooted in the natural law and which protect fundamental human rights. I have very little hope that the next few decades will see those in power showing greater respect for the rule of law--the signs, both on the left and the right, point the other way.

I need only look to Thomas More to see that defending the integrity of the law does not necessarily provide any protection in this fallen world.

But it seems to me that the "realism" that you and Mark have embraced is really consequentialism: we have to oppose a law that is (in itself) just in order to protect the future of our tribe.

So I do not disagree with you that the law may well be used to suppress Christian teaching. But that is because those in power have lost respect for the rule of law and the protection of human rights. It becomes more and more a matter of different groups competing for the levers of power in order to impose their own will on others.

I'm strongly opposed to this. But in the political realm, my loyalty is to the rule of law, not my "tribe." I haven't read the text of the law in question. If there is something in the text of the law that is unjust, then I would oppose it on those grounds. But if the law itself is just, then my fight would not be against the law--it would be against the forces that seek to use the law unjustly.

To oppose the law itself seems to me simply to reinforce the idea that Christians want in incite hatred and violence against gays, which reinforces the idea that protecting gays from hatred and violence requires suppressing Christian belief.

- Ron

CourageMan said...

Our disagreement, Ron, is over the following points:

But a law against inciting hatred is a just law.

I don't think it is possible to state "X is a just law" in an abstract realm, separate from all concrete considerations. A law against "inciting hatred" is not just in a society that considers Christianity to be inciting hatred. And I'll take it to the extreme -- a Catholic theocracy would be a terrible form of government for existing contemporary Sweden or Saudi Arabia.

in which certain Christians will not support even basic protections against violence for homosexuals

I can't speak for Mark Shea obviously (though I doubt he'd disagree with what follows), but that is not on point. The proposed law is not a post-hoc hate-crime law (I oppose them too; though on all counts, not just gayness), but a prior-restraint incitement law. In other words, no violence has occurred; only speech.

Further, we are not in a world where homosexuals do not "have basic protections against violence" and concessions-for-appearance do not appease when based on falsehood (they merely embolden). I know of no Christian who thinks homosexuals should not be covered by the same laws against assault, robbery, murder, etc.

I do not disagree with you that the law may well be used to suppress Christian teaching. But that is because those in power have lost respect for the rule of law and the protection of human rights.

I don't see that "losing respect for the rule of law" is the problem, but rather the opposite. To take an easy example, liberals wouldn't bother either to [try to] justify "the right of privacy" or actually put it in constitutional texts (which they have succeeded in doing in several states) if they didn't have respect for the rule of law. I know you know that justice and law are different things, which is why I made my "words to work with" point. What I was getting it is that incitement laws enable persecution of Christians to be compatible with the rule of law. I agree that in a Nero situation, the law doesn't matter. But we are dealing with a legal-managerial state where they do.

Maybe you're made of sterner stuff than me, Ron, but I am not prepared to languish in prison for speaking and writing the truth about God's plan for human sexuality. Or to be more precise, I am not prepared to say that I am willing, have reason to believe I might not be, and would really rather not be put to the test. To paraphrase Amy's Flannery O'Connor quote: I'm no saint and could only be a martyr if they kill me real quick.

Ron said...

Having done more research, this law is unjust, but for a reason which Mark did not mention at all, and which you only gestured at.

According to an English priest I know who is more knowledgeable about the English legal scene than I am, the law itself defines "inciting hatred" subjectively. That is, if X feels that Y has "incited hatred" against them, then Y is guilty. If my informant is correct, then that makes the law ipso facto wrong, and had I had this information at the beginning, I would not have said anything in defense of the law.

However, I stand by my critique of Mark's original post. The article he linked to did not justify the tagline he gave, and it was sloppy to tag the article that way without providing a further argument showing why a law against "inciting hatred" would automatically lead to anyone who defended the Church's teaching going to jail.

And had you linked your critique to the law's text, rather than to things gay activists say, I would also not have objected.

But I remain committed to the idea that justice involves having laws which are impartial arbiters. I'm as firmly opposed to a concept of the law in which we Christians try to gain maximal leverage against those who oppose us, while the opposition tries to get maximal leverage against us. Nobody can get justice under those conditions.