Durie has written several books on topics where emotions run high. 
Careful but never self-censoring, saying what needed to be said yet 
following exactly his own guidelines.

He was also a witness for the defence in the infamous State of 
Victoria religious vilification Catch the Fire trial.


<> blog: When Speaking on 
Sensitive Topics

Speaking on Sensitive Topics

Posted: 15 Aug 2011

This blog post is about how to speak reasonably about sensitive 
topics, and specifically ones which can give rise to charges of 

In ideal world, speech would be free, and everyone would use their 
freedom responsibly.  But human nature being what it is, speech is 
never completely free, and human beings often act up in bad ways.

How then can we talk about difficult and reactive topics, such as 
destructive forms of religion, or the negative attributes of 
particular classes of people such as nations, cultures, races or 

One of the challenges to freedom of speech in the west today is the 
emergence of so-called hate-speech laws, also known as (racial or 
religious) vilification laws.  These laws are built upon the concept 
of incitement.  They attempt to make illegal certain forms of speech 
which could incite or provoke others to have bad feelings towards 
particular groups of people.  An example in Victoria, Australia, is 
the oddly-named Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, which aims to ban 
conduct that incites 'hatred', 'serious contempt', 'revulsion' or 
'severe ridicule' against classes of people on the basis of their 
religion or race.

One problem with the concept of anti-incitement laws is that some 
realities about human beings' attributes really are beyond the pale, 
and deserve robust critique precisely because they should incite 
strong negative emotions.  A bad effect of anti-incitement laws is 
that they can make a person who speaks about such things responsible 
for the negative emotions which could and even should arise from 
their subject material.  For example if I accurately describe the 
actions of communists under Pol Pot, including their genocidal 
slaughter of the Khmer population, this should incite feelings of 
revulsion towards the Khmer Rouge.  Irrespective of whether that is a 
good thing, it would still be incitement.  Usually anti-incitement 
laws provide a way around this.  The Victorian law includes escape 
clauses known as 'exceptions' which mean that under specific 
circumstances, a person will not be held accountable for their 
incitement.  These escape clauses involve acting 'reasonably and in 
good faith' for a specific purpose, such as an academic or scientific 
purpose, giving comment on something in the public interest, or 
creating a work of art. 

Another problem with anti-incitement laws is that truth is not a 
defense in the way it is for anti-defamation laws.  You cannot defame 
someone by speaking the truth about them.  But you can incite hatred, 
contempt etc against a group by speaking the truth about them, if the 
truth itself is unpleasant.  So a problem with anti-incitement laws 
is that they can make speaking unpalatable truths illegal.  That can 
be a big problem.  There is however usually a partial protection for 
truth tellers, in that getting your facts right can help demonstrate 
that you have acted 'reasonably and in good faith'.

I'm no fan of anti-incitement laws, whatever name they go by (whether 
'hate crime' laws, 'anti-vilification laws' or 'defamation of 
religion' laws). For one thing they can inflame tensions between 
groups by inciting complaints and court cases.  These are inciteful 
laws which can easily provoke racial and religious tensions.

But my purpose here is not to complain about anti-incitement laws. 
The purpose of this post is to  suggest a few principles which 
speakers and writers might be wise to follow when dealing with 
sensitive topics.  These principles, if followed, may help to provide 
some protection against complaints of incitement. 

Essentially these are tips for acting reasonably and in good faith, 
or to put it another way, for cooperative communication.

(Please note that I am not a lawyer, but a cleric and a linguist, and 
I offer no guarantees about the effectiveness of these principles!)

1.	State your purpose and stay on topic.
If you want to criticize the Khmer Rouge, don't stray into a diatribe 
against Stalin. 
If you want to criticize Islam's treatment of women, don't stray into 
criticizing the clothing preferences of Arab men.  There is nothing 
like gratuitous off-topic insults for giving the impression that you 
are up to no good.  Don't fall into the trap of 'too much 
Often it is very helpful to state your purpose up front, e.g. "I am 
writing about the evils of the Hindu practice of suttee".
2.	Check your facts. 
That one is obvious.
3.	Don't say things you don't have adequate evidence for. 
Obvious again.
4.	When you have a choice, take your information from the most 
authoritative and original source you can.
"The Bible says X" will trump "my granny says the Bible says X". 
"The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported X" is better than "The 
Readers Digest said X".  Always go to and check up a more original 
source if you can.  Don't rely on third-party information (hearsay) 
if you can avoid it.  For example if you want to make a claim about 
Muhammad, look up and check the original Islamic sources for 
yourself, even if it is in English translation.
5.	If your source has some limitations (and most do) be aware of 
this and if necessary acknowledge it.
Part of due diligence is  assessing the reliability of your source 
you do use, and being aware of its limitations, e.g., are you quoting 
from a translation?  Do you speak the original language of your 
source?  Do others accept your source as authoritative?  You can't be 
the world's expert on everything, but you can exercise due diligence 
with the information you use, not only in using the best source, but 
also being aware of the limitations of your source.
6.	Be dispassionante and avoid emotive judgements.
It can be hard to restrain yourself, but really it is better to let 
people make their own emotive judgements about information they 
receive.  Offer people your arguments and evidence rather than your 
emotive perspectives.  For example, it is one thing to explain that 
Muhammad married a five-year old girl and consummated the marriage at 
9 years old, and quite another thing to call Muhammad by derogatory 
words usually reserved for people who might want to do things like 
that today.  Let the hearer or reader come to their own conclusions 
about such labels.  Don't command people's emotions.  There are some 
exceptions of course.  If your whole presentation is to communicate a 
specific negative judgement (e.g. 'modern-day Mormon polygamy abuses 
women') then that judgement can be stated up front and central (point 
1 above).  But don't sweat all the value judgements along the way. 
Hold your emotional fire for when you really need it, and have 
confidence in your audience to make up their own moral minds.  People 
want to be informed, not coaxed.  If something deserves contempt, you 
usually don't need to tell people 'this deserves contempt'.  This can 
often just come across as 'shouting'.  Your audience probably won't 
like it, and it will come across as coercive.  Let the evidence speak 
for itself.
7.	Avoid stereotyping.
Stereotyping is all about attributing to the group the attributes of 
the few.  Don't say 'Christians believe X' unless you are really, 
really sure that virtually all Christians do believe X.  Be 
especially careful about attributing intentions to groups, e.g. 
'Christians want to take over the world'!  Or 'Muslims don't tell the 
truth'. There are many ways to avoid stereotyping.  One is to use the 
words of representative voices and explaining their standing.  For 
example, you might say "The Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual 
leader of Anglicans around the world has said X."  This is better 
than "Anglicans believe X".  Another way of avoiding stereotyping is 
to acknowledge contrary voices.  E.g. 'The pope says X, but many 
Catholics disagree'.  Another way when speaking about religious 
matters is to make a clear distinction between what texts or 
authorities say, and what individuals believe and do.  E.g. 'The 
Qur'an says "Kill the unbelievers" but many Muslims don't believe 
that applies to them.'  Another technique is to make a clear 
distinction between practices and beliefs.  Someone can believe 
something, but not act upon it.  (Be aware also that stereotypes can 
be negative or positive, and both types of stereotyping can be 
8.	Refer people to original sources, so people can check things 
for themselves.
If at all possible, always point people to a way to check what you 
are saying for themselves.  Some specific contexts don't allow this, 
but there are ways around this.  For example if you have published a 
book on a subject, with the sources clearly acknowledged, you could 
have more freedom to make claims in an interview, knowing that an 
audience could check things in your book and look up the sources for 
9.	Take appropriate responsibility for inferences others may come to.
There are things you actually say, and things people think you said, 
because they inferred it from what you said.  Part of the due 
diligence of communicating with others in a reasonable way is to be 
aware of how they might interpret what you say, and taking an 
appropriate degree of responsibility for this.  You should make what 
you say as informative as required.  If you leave key points open to 
interpretation, that probably means you didn't give enough 
10.	Be clear.
One of the most important things when talking about sensitive subject 
is just to be clear and orderly in the way you present your material. 

Much of the above points are expressions of Grice's 
<>Maxims of communication 
and the 
principle. It's all about being a responsible, cooperative 
communicator.  And Mark Durie's fifth maxim of anti-incitement 
communication is that the more sensitive and inflammatory a topic is, 
the more careful and 'cooperative' you need to be in addressing it.

Finally, one must acknowledge that there are many complications 
surrounding this subject.  One is that victims of abuse have rights. 
One of their rights is to have strong feelings about their 
experiences of abuse.  Demanding that they be dispassionate about 
being raped, tortured, killed etc can be inhumane.  The advice given 
above is designed for the careful communicator.  But the testimony of 
first-hand witnesses can rarely afford such luxuries.  When victims 
are speaking, the audience has responsibilities too.  And one of 
these responsibilities is to allow that the testimony of victims is 
often not orderly, dispassionate, well-sourced, verifiable, to the 
point, bleached of stereotypes etc.  A listener has a duty of 
compassion to listen carefully to the testimony of victims.

Of course there are those whose sense of victimhood is out of all 
proportion to reality, and their testimony can demand that their 
audiences make the most unjustified allowances to uncooperative and 
unreasonable communications - let the reader beware.

Mark Durie is an Anglican pastor and author of 
<>The Third Choice: 
Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom.