Crimes of Opinion

Italy’s Laws on Opinions You’re Not Free to State

Italian law on “crimes of opinion” has recently (Jan 25th) been revised as follows (excerpted and translated from here):

“…Safeguarding of [all] faiths, instead of [just] the state religion [i.e., Catholicism] …Article 404 – (Offenses against a religious faith by means of vilipendio [~insult] or damage to property) – Anyone who, in a place designated for worship or in a public place or place open to the public, offends a religious faith, insults… things which are considered sacred or consacrated to a faith, or are used in the exercise of faith, or commits such acts during a religious function held by a minister of the faith in a private place, is punished with a fine of 1,000 to 5,000 euros.” (NB: Previously, the punishment was up to three years in jail, though I don’t know whether this was ever applied.)

“…Changes also to the Mancino law on racism, with punishment taking the form either of a fine or up to 18 months in prison for propaganda of ideas based on racial or ethnic superiority or hatred, and the instigation to commit acts of discrimination for racial, ethnic, national, or religious reasons. However, jail sentences of six months to four years are prescribed for anyone who instigates or commits acts of violence or provocation to violence for racial, ethnic, national, or religious motives.”

Hmm. How to reconcile the fact that inherent in some religions are bald statements of racial, ethnic, or sectarian superiority? Classical Hinduism encodes the idea that Brahmins are superior and Untouchables inferior to every other caste. A Brahmin’s forbidding his daughter to marry an Untouchable might therefore be punishable by law in Italy.

A “crime of opinion” seems to me a dangerous concept in itself. Who’s to decide what is and is not a reasonable opinion? Not so long ago, the idea that women should be allowed to work outside the home for equal wages as men was considered ridiculous in Europe – and is still considered ridiculous, if not illegal, in some countries.

Several European countries have laws against Holocaust denial, as recently applied in Austria to British “historian” David Irving. That, like the Italian laws about religion quoted above, is going too far. No country can (or should) make enough laws to explicitly protect against every possible kind of hurtful speech. People should be free to state whatever wacky stupidity they believe in, and other people should be free to refute it. If a nut job like Irving had a job in a reputable university, I’d be worried. But his views are anathema to most people; the resulting social and professional shunning should be sufficient punishment for him. To draw a parallel, there are white supremacists in the US who state that black people are genetically inferior to whites. They are free to state those opinions, but they don’t get hired as professors of biology (or anything else).

Trying to keep such beliefs down by law tends to be counter-productive: the believers can then present themselves as martyrs for their faith, attracting more adherents. Children raised to think for themselves will become adults who laugh at such views. Children raised to blindly follow the dictates of another person, or a book, or a way of life, are less likely to have the critical faculties needed to evaluate every opinion that comes their way.

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