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The SNP are reintroducing the offence of blasphemy

The SNP has introduced a Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill. At present hate crime laws cover disability, race (and related characteristics), religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity. The bill will add age and allows sex to be added later. It also will abolish the offence of blasphemy.

What matters with law is not so much what is written in a bill but what will change after the bill becomes law. Is there anything that is permitted now that will be forbidden after the law comes into force.

Clearly abolishing the offence of blasphemy will not change anything. If last year I had said something that a Christian thought was blasphemous I would not have been prosecuted nor would the police have thought that I had done something illegal. The same will be the case in the future. There are lots of obsolete laws that are on the statutes. Abolishing them changes nothing.

But what if I said something blasphemous about Krishna, the Buddha or Muhammad? Would I get in trouble then? The SNP wants to abolish laws on blasphemy because it thinks it’s unfair that only Christian beliefs are (theoretically) protected. But the result will be that only Christian beliefs will be unprotected.

I believe in Christianity, but I find the film the Life of Brian very funny, clever and also rather Christian. But if I made a film about the Life of Krishna, the Buddha or Muhammad which depicted these figures in a way that mocked them I would be arrested in Scotland and sent to jail. This is called abolishing injustice by the SNP.

The whole concept of a hate crime is to misunderstand what is important in morality. The thing that is good about the Samaritan is not that he is from Samaria, but that he helps the person who is injured. What matters in morality is not that I kill a person because he is black, or a Hindu or disabled, but that I kill at all. Who is your neighbour? Who should you help? And who should you not do wrong to? Everyone.

There are no special characteristics that are deserving of special treatment in morality. Our duty to do good or refrain from doing evil is not changed by any of the characteristics in the SNP’s bill. No system of morality until the past two or three decades even mentions such characteristics, because they are irrelevant.

Thou shalt not kill. There is no mention of race, religion or any other characteristics, because they don’t make the act of killing better or worse.

If I am a burglar and I steal from someone’s house the crime is not worse because my victim is a Muslim or because he is a Christian or an atheist. The harm is the same.

The mistake that we have made in law and morality since the death of Stephen Lawrence and the MacPherson report is to suppose that it would have been less evil if the victim had been white. If the people who killed Stephen Lawrence had killed him because of a minor disagreement about money, the wrong would have been exactly the same.

Immorality is not aggravated because of my motivation. Who anyway can look into the mind of another person with certainty? If a white person has a fight with a black person because of a spilt drink in a pub the offence will be described as racially aggravated, but if two white people have exactly the same fight for the same reason it won’t be. This is unjust not merely because the offence is the same, but because it brings into law something that is entirely subjective. If the victim perceives the offence to have been motivated by hatred it will be motived by hatred whether it was or it wasn’t.

This is unjust because it brings into law something that cannot be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The victim ought to have to prove the motivation of the perpetrator not merely perceive it and then have this perception treated as already proved.

I have a duty to treat others as my neighbours no matter what their characteristics. It is wrong to act in a hateful way to anyone. It is wrong to assault someone because of their race or their religion, but it is not worse than assaulting them for fun.

The concept of crimes being worse because they are motivated by hatred of certain characteristics is simply mistaken, because these characteristics are irrelevant to morality. Worse the SNP’s legislation will make it easier for people in Scotland to be prosecuted merely for having an opinion that is disliked by one of the protected groups.

If Salman Rushdie published his Satanic verses in Scotland and a Scot said that his novel was motivated by hatred, would Rushdie be prosecuted?

If Charlie Hebdo was published in Edinburgh and the office attacked by terrorists, would the SNP arrest the surviving staff because they had committed a hate crime?

The problem isn’t so much that the SNP have abolished blasphemy. Rather they have reintroduced it. Anyone who says or writes anything that is perceived by one of the various protected groups to be motived by hate is liable to prosecution.

I have a duty to be kind to each of the groups mentioned in the bill, but free speech requires that I might disagree with them in a way that they dislike. They may find it hateful or insulting that I write something that argues against something that is fundamental to their world view. For instance, I might think that it is a misunderstanding of the word “marriage” to suppose that men can marry men, or I might think that it is simply impossible for a woman to become a man. Am I allowed to think and write these things in Scotland?

There are limits to free speech, but if I am not allowed to criticise certain protected viewpoints in a reasoned way there will be no free speech at all in Scotland and each of us could soon be convicted of blasphemy.

This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: https://www.effiedeans.com/2020/05/the-snp-are-reintroducing-offence-of.html

About Effie Deans

Profile photo of Effie Deans
Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger who works at the University of Aberdeen. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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One comment

  1. Surely this is beyond their remit, a matter for the UK government not the devolved parliament? Do they really have authority to do this?

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