War and Incitement

Henry V, inciter of violence.

I was talking about free expression at an event the other day, when the subject of incitement to violence cropped up.  I mentioned the formulation that Aryeh Neier (President of the Open Society Institute) gave at GFFEx last year, regarding whether the person doing the violence agreed with the person whose speech provoked it.

Blasphemy or religious defamation are essentially insults against a person or group of persons on the basis of one’s religious, or it could be another form of group defamation, where one is attacking or insulting members of a particular race or a particular nationality.  But it doesn’t have the effect of inspiring the supports of the speaker to engage in violence; rather it is the opponents of the speaker who might engage in violence.  So hate speech incites; blasphemy and religious defamation provoke.

That seems to me very important.  I think there limited circumstances in which it may be appropriate to punish those who engage in hate speech.  I think there are virtually no circumstances where it is appropriate to punish those who engage in in blasphemy or religious defamation, that is the circumstances in which they have provoked others to attack them.

An interesting retort to this, was to ask whether King Henry V was engaging in incitement to violence when he gives his famous, rousing speech?

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.

My only response was to suggest that, yes, the French would probably consider Henry’s speech an ‘incitement to violence’ and worthy of censorship, if only they could!  But in practice, such political speech is usually seen as exempt when matters of war and national survival are at stake.  Governments and their populations are usually comfortable with placing extra restrictions on our human rights during times of crisis.

However, there are times when this special exemption might not be as clear cut as we think.  Who, on 14th September 2001, objected to President George W. Bush giving a memorial speech for those killed in the attacks on the World Trade Centre just three days earlier?  Yet it was in that speech that he first used the phrase ‘War on Terror’, a formulation that has become hugely problematic and inciting.  The following week, when America was still reeling from the shock and in need of rousing leadership, the word ‘crusade’ slipped into the President’s remarks, which not only provoked the Islamic world, but certainly had the effect of inciting certain elements of American society to violent, disproportionate action.  The last film I went to see, My Name is Khan, deals with the aftermath of such words.

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