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.
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
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
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
your purpose and stay on topic.
If you want to criticize the Khmer Rouge, don't stray into a diatribe
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
Often it is very helpful to state your purpose up front, e.g. "I
am writing about the evils of the Hindu practice of
That one is obvious.
say things you don't have adequate evidence for.
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
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
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.
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 unhelpful.)
people to original sources, so people can check things for
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 themselves.
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
One of the most important things when talking about sensitive subject
is just to be clear and orderly in the way you present your
Much of the above points are expressions of Grice's Maxims of
and the cooperative
. 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
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.