Special Topics: Speech that offends

Special Topics / Wednesday, December 9th, 2020

by Cherian George

Since 2000, laws against offensive expression have been among the most frequently triggered speech restrictions in Singapore. Most of these cases have been initiated by citizens taking offence at racially or religiously provocative online content. How to deal with such cases continues to be debated. Like in most societies, there’s growing alarm about online incivility and how this may affect social cohesion. But there’s also concern that prevailing laws and norms — which prioritise order over deliberation — are silencing voices and viewpoints that need to be heard in order to build Singapore’s multiculturalism on broader foundations, instead of always requiring punitive interventions to prop it up. In 2020, there was some official acknowledgement that it might be time to widen the space for more open discussions of race and religion. The government remains wary of doing so. This selection of readings offers in-depth discussions of various issues connected to the debate.

International law

International human rights law distinguishes between incitement to hatred (calls to action that directly cause harm, and which states should prohibit) and speech that offends (a more subjective category that, if it does not cause any additional harm, should be protected). These norms are grounded in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Singapore and a small number of other countries have not signed but which is the most globally accepted human rights agreement.

A quick overview of the harm/offence principle:

A defence of prevailing international norms:

  • Mendel, Toby. “Does International Law Provide for Consistent Rules on Hate Speech?” In The Content and Context of Hate Speech: Rethinking Regulation and Responses, edited by Michael Herz and Péter Molnár, 417–29. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Primary documents:

Challenges to human rights norms

Some argue that offensive speech is more harmful than international law assumes. This line of argument has come from two very different camps. First, governments of majority-Muslim countries and other traditionalists have argued that “defamation of religions” should be restricted as it promotes discrimination. Although this lobby did not succeed in changing international law, the question continues to be debated.

  • Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “What’s Wrong with Defamation of Religion?” In The Content and Context of Hate Speech: Rethinking Regulation and Responses, edited by Michael Herz and Péter Molnár. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Bonotti, Matteo, and Jonathan Seglow. “Self-Respect, Domination and Religiously Offensive Speech.” Ethical Theory & Moral Practice 22, no. 3 (June 2019): 589–605. doi:10.1007/s10677-019-10000-2.
  • Cox, Neville. “The Ethical Case for a Blasphemy Law.” In The Handbook of Global Communication and Media Ethics, edited by Robert S. Fortner and P. Mark Fackler, 263–97. Oxford, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2014.
  • Langer, Lorenz. Religious Offence and Human Rights : The Implications of Defamation of Religions. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Second, scholars and activists in liberal democracies coming from the tradition of Critical Race Theory say that even if it doesn’t cross the threshold of incitement, abusive speech causes psychological harm to historically disadvantaged groups such as women and persons of colour, discouraging them from participating as equals in society. Terms from this discourse, such as “microaggressions” and “deplatforming” have entered the public debate in many countries. There is large and growing literature, mostly American, examining whether and how unregulated speech can be costly for social justice. Below is just a sampling.

Regulating offensive speech in Singapore

Speech deemed offensive to racial or religious groups is regulated mostly through the Sedition Act, the Penal Code (Section 298/A), and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. The following list comprises perspectives from legal studies, political sociology, history and anthropology. They include analyses of prominent cases such as the Maria Hertogh Riots and the Amos Yee Affair.

Offendedness in political contestation

Singapore’s approach to offensive speech was largely inherited from the British colonial era, via India. Studies of India and other societies are therefore illuminating.

  • George, Cherian. “Hate Spin: The Twin Political Strategies of Religious Incitement and Offense-Taking.” Communication Theory 27, no. 2 (May 1, 2017): 156–75. doi:10.1111/comt.12111.
  • George, Cherian. “Regulating ‘Hate Spin’: The Limits of Law in Managing Religious Incitement and Offense.” International Journal of Communication 10 (June 15, 2016): 2955–72.
  • Nair, Neeti. “Beyond the ‘Communal’ 1920s: The Problem of Intention, Legislative Pragmatism, and the Making of Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.” The Indian Economic and Social History Review 50, no. 3 (2013): 317–40. doi:10.1177/0019464613494622
  • Tripathi, Salil. Offence: The Hindu Case. London: Seagull Books, 2009.
  • Viswanath, Rupa. “Economies of Offense: Hatred, Speech, and Violence in India.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 84, no. 2 (June 1, 2016): 352–63. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfw031.

Digital offence

The most active area of research, not surprisingly, is on the effects of and possible solutions to online hate and offence, including massive investments in algorithmic methods of detecting and removing hate messages. These articles provide more critical overviews of internet regulation and moderation.

On our website

“Social media, of course, has facilitated the airing of grievances, and making unintentional or intentional remarks that can be constituted as racist, as well as being informed of what is happening elsewhere.”

– How to talk about race in Singapore: a conversation with Mohd Imran Taib