Japan should tell the UN where to stick its hate-speech laws

There is an unseemly domestic situation brewing in Japan as the far-right nationalist group Uyoka Dantai intensifies its ongoing campaign against Korean residents with vocal public protests and marches. Uyoka Dantai is a backward-looking group that violently mourns the racial purity of Imperial-era Japan and resents the shift in Japanese national identity since the Second World War. It believes that the nation’s wrongdoings in the war have been overstated and the country’s proud nationalist spirit has been wrongly cowed – and it blames immigrants for this process.

The organisation’s right to express these sentiments is constitutionally protected as free speech, but the United Nations has recently leaned on prime minister Shinzo Abe to introduce hate-speech laws in order to criminalise the group’s activities. Primarily, the revision of a sovereign nation’s constitution is not the UN’s concern, and, at any rate, there is no evidence that the introduction of hate-speech laws would achieve what should be the ultimate goal – a more tolerant Japan.

Similar hate-speech laws are currently in place across most of the world’s liberal democracies, with the notable exception of America, yet the notion that policing the expression of a nation leads to a more tolerant environment is seriously misguided. Introducing legislation to curtail hate speech is a matter of treating the symptom rather than the underlying malady. In France, where hate-speech laws are in full effect and Holocaust denial is explicitly banned, anti-Semitism is rising. Banishing unsavoury sentiments from the public view does nothing to counter deeply ingrained racism, and in the case of far-right groups like Uyoka Dantai – and similar outfits in the UK – it exacerbates their sense of alienation from a new pseudo-liberal establishment.

The aim of these laws is often to protect the marginalised group under attack. But, in contravention of the principles of any respectably disinterested justice system, such legislation places the execution of the law in the emotional response of the injured party. There can be no objective criteria to establish hateful intent or injurious reception – if somebody claims to be offended, it constitutes hate speech. How can a process as inconsistent as this circumscribe the realms of appropriate public discourse?

Where hate speech is illegal, the laws have been used by marginalised groups to police political statements. In the UK Christian preachers have been arrested for saying that homosexuality is a sin. Not for saying that homosexuals should be killed, not for saying that they should be thrown out of the country, but for stating that, according to the foundational text of their religion, such behaviour is condemned.
The current American system is the best on offer and the path that Japan should take. Free speech in America is constitutionally enshrined but extreme individual cases of aggression towards minorities – similar to Uyoka Dantai’s behaviour in Japan – are referred to high-court judges who deem whether or not such actions are threatening or disturbing enough to warrant prosecution. Minority groups are offered respite when it is most needed and the freedom to dissent politically and express unpopular views are legally safeguarded. Simply banning hate speech is a cosmetic measure in the fight against intolerance, and it allows popular thought to be monitored from the margins.

Jack Prescott is a spiked intern.

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