The successful legal action (pdf file 324kb) against Catch the Fire Ministries for vilifying Muslims is being heralded by many as a blow to extremism and bigotry. Advocates of such a view would have us believe that if people are simply not allowed to speak hatefully, the hatred that underpins their speech will somehow evaporate and we can all welcome a new era of tolerance and understanding.
This is, of course, well-intentioned nonsense. While the Government has successfully outlawed the public expression of some ideas, it cannot possibly outlaw the ideas themselves. Although people may not be able to utter their thoughts publicly, it does not mean that they will abandon them or refrain from discussions in private.
In fact, when we attempt to silence ideas, it gives them legitimacy and strength. For instance, in this most recent case, a few nasty words about Muslims, spoken to a small gathering by a small group, transformed an unknown organisation into martyrs with an international platform.
Faced with offensive speech, the most appropriate responses are to ignore it or correct it. If we create an atmosphere where people cannot speak freely - however offensive that speech might be - it is impossible for these ideas to be appropriately repudiated or debunked in the public square.
With speech the only public indicator of one's thoughts, it becomes impossible for society to learn who are the extremists within it. For instance, we know about the extreme views of Catch the Fire Ministries because they were able to state in public their view that Muslims were planning to rape, torture and kill Christians in Australia. No doubt they will continue to hold this view, but will convey it in private: and any other groups will learn from their mistakes and be more secretive.
It is argued that anti-vilification laws are necessary to prevent speech that could lead to violence or crimes against religious communities. However, most people who might hate something do not graduate to violence or criminality.
That said, incitement to commit crimes and discrimination on the basis of religion were already outlawed before the introduction of these laws. These laws go further - making it illegal to express certain thoughts which, although not advocating violence or criminality, might inculcate in people substantial feelings of revulsion or dislike. Such thinking betrays a deep pessimism about the nature of our fellow Australians: that proponents of these laws view them necessary lest the general public be transformed into a lynch mob baying for the blood of religious minorities.
Religion is, in essence, simply a set of ideas about the world and how one conducts one's affairs. As religion is, unlike race, a matter of choice, it does not need the same legal protections. Instead, it is imperative to our pluralist society that all religions be able to compete freely in the marketplace of ideas. If an ideology or idea is defective, then it will be exposed and rejected with the same efficiency as substandard commodities are rejected in the commercial market.
Indeed, if we must protect religious ideas, then why not also protect all other systems of belief, such as communism, secular humanism, or even atheism - systems whose followers often display similar dedication to adherents of religion.
Of course, one can understand the appeal of such laws to religious communities and appreciate why action was then taken against Catch the Fire Ministries. However, there remains little evidence that criminalising "hate-speech" eradicates extremism or builds a more cohesive society. On the contrary, the application of such laws only gives strength to extremism, making martyrs of fringe elements and removing our ability to know who holds such thoughts.
With most Australians sensible enough to recognise and reject hateful ideas, social pressure is a far more effective mechanism for controlling such speech than law suits. It is also difficult to see how such laws build cohesion when they provide faith communities with legalistic cudgels that can be swung vexatiously at their ideological opponents and critics.
People must be free to agree with each other, but they must also be free to disagree, dislike and even hate. Perhaps this is the real test of our freedoms. Can it accommodate the right of one citizen to hate the beliefs of another, or is our democracy so weak that it feels threatened by a few words, regardless of how offensive and wrong-headed those words might be?