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Slippery Slopes in Action:

Raffi Melkonian points to the English proposal to ban incitement of religious hatred as an example of a slippery slope (what I call the "equality slippery slope"):

The British home secretary, David Blunkett, has proposed a ban on speech that incites religious hatred. The law would obviously be unconstitutional in America, I think, since it throughly fails the Brandenburg test. But far more astonishing is one of Blunkett's arguments in favor of the ban. As he puts it today in the Observer,

For example, how can a modern society say Jews are protected (rightly, because they are covered by race laws, rather than religion), yet Muslims and Christians are not? Can it be right that hatred based on deliberate and provocative untruths about a person's religion remains unchallenged?

But this is a particularly weak argument, because it doesn't explain why laws against incitement to racial hatred (but which fall below the barrier to incitement to violence) ought to exist. And for those of us who have heard Professor Volokh's Slippery Slope talk (or read the article), I can't think of a more paradigmatic example of how one undesirable law can be used to faciliate the passage of another one later.

For more on equality slippery slopes, see here (especially starting at p. 17). One way of thinking about this is "censorship envy," as some groups that might otherwise tolerate offensive speech demand its restriction when they see that speech which is hostile to other groups is restricted. (See my explanation of why this should lead us to resist calls to ban flagburning.) Or one could focus on voters in the majority, as the equality slippery slope analysis does: If one important part of a pro-free-speech majority coalition values equal treatment of speech, then carving out one exception may lead them to swing around to supporting another exception, because their preference for equal treatment (e.g., of speech that's hostile to Jews, an ethnic group, and speech that's hostile to Muslims, a religious group) overcomes their support for free speech rights.

In any case, all this suggests that supposed free speech "extremists" or "paranoids," such as those who are (sometimes) in the ACLU, aren't paranoid at all: They are quite reasonably fearful that recognizing even narrow exceptions from free speech (e.g., for inciting racial hatred) may lead to broader ones in the future (e.g., for inciting hatred towards religions, which are after all ideologies that sometimes merit condemnation or even hatred).

UPDATE: The original version of this post said "Muslims, a racial group" instead of "Muslims, a religious group," which made no sense; I accidentally used the wrong word. If you were confused by this at first, my apologies, and I hope this update clarifies it. Thanks to David Ball for pointing out the error to me.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Jews as an Ethnic or Even Racial Group:
  2. Slippery Slopes in Action:
Jews as an Ethnic or Even Racial Group:

A reader writes:

I was offended by the way Blunkett, and, for that matter, you, glided over the concept that Judaism is a racial characteristic. Jews are not a race, any more than Anglicans or Catholics. Part of the persistence of anti-semitism lies in the thoughtless assumption that there is a race of people known as Jews, instead of a collection of individuals who have certain beliefs.

Well, everyone has a perfect right to be offended by whatever they please. Nonetheless, as I noted in my post, Jews are an ethnic group, though Judaism is also a religion. People can be ethnically Jewish though irreligious — many Jews are.

Certainly many anti-Semites hate Jews without regard to their religion; the Nazis went after the irreligious Jews as well as the devout Jews, and so did the Soviets. Much anti-Semitic propaganda focuses on Jews' supposed ethnic or cultural traits, not their religion. Nor is this just an anti-Semitic view; as I understand mainstream Jewish religious teachings, someone whose mother is Jewish, which is to say generally someone who is ethnically Jewish, is "Jewish" for purposes of Judaism even if he is an atheist.

I realize that there's some fuzziness about the definition of "ethnicity" (it usually turns on people's descent, but descendants of converts to Judaism may often be treated as ethnically Jewish, just as descendants of people who moved to Ireland not long ago may often be treated as ethnically Irish — especially when the descendants are now not in Ireland in any more, and especially if they characterize themselves as Irish). But there's also fuzziness about what constitutes "race." Suffice it to say that an ethnic group is a group that's usually linked by descent and culture, and that perceived itself and is perceived by others as an ethnic group. We need not delve further into this here, except to say that Jews are often treated as an ethnic group much as are Irish, Poles, Gypsies, and so on.

I prefer to use the term "ethnicity" rather than "race" to refer to Jews. Historically, however, the term "race" has also included what we now think of as ethnicity, so Jews, Italians, Irish, and such were sometimes called "races" rather than just ethnic groups (see here). I inferred from the article in the English newspaper that U.K. "incitement of race hatred" law either explicitly applies both to races and ethnic groups (Jews, Irish, and the like), or applies to races but with "race" interpreted — as one important old U.S. statute is interpreted — to include ethnic groups. (UPDATE: Reader Dan Neidle confirms, saying that "[t]he relevant legislation (Part III of the Public Order Act 1986) defines 'racial hatred' to mean 'hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins.'")

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Jews as an Ethnic or Even Racial Group:
  2. Slippery Slopes in Action: