On banning the Christchurch manifesto

The mosque murders in Christchurch on March 15, 2019 made me aware that New Zealand has a “chief censor”, which seems a somewhat quaint title in the 21st Century. It’s nevertheless true that someone (or some group of people) have to make determinations about when – if ever – something should be deemed unsuitable for public distribution, and the title of “chief censor” is at least unambiguous.

I’m not going to discuss if speech should ever be censored in this post, having addressed it on numerous prior occasions, for example here and here. To summarise my view, I regard free speech as a very important value, that should be among our top priorities, but I don’t think it always, or necessarily, trumps any other value.

The banning of Tarrant’s manifesto (he is the man accused of the Christchurch shootings, in which 49 people were killed at two separate mosques) again raises the question of the limits of free speech itself, and also the question of which measures are justified in limiting our access to information. In a Sydney Morning Herald article on the chief censor’s ruling, we’re told that the ban on the manifesto:

means [that] anybody caught with the document on their computer could face up to 10 years in prison, while anyone caught sending or forwarding it could face 14 years.

The impulse to respond with outrage and draconian measures in cases such as these is obviously understandable on an emotional level – we are talking about a horrific crime, which should fundamentally disturb any complacence we might have about how civilised a world we live in, in 2019.

In that context, it could perhaps sound callous to address the possible long-term consequences of a legal response like this. However, it’s also important to remember that policy should (usually) not be made on the basis of exceptions, but rather upon consideration of the long-term impact of those policies, and whether they are justified in principle.

It seems to me that, in principle, books should almost never be banned, especially in such a sweeping way (by contrast to, for example, banning a book for consumption by a subgroup of humans such as children). First and most obviously, because it would usually be pointless to do so, in that anyone who wants to find a banned book would easily be able to do so, thanks to the Internet.

Their reasons for wanting to read it might indicate unpleasant things about their characters, yes, for example that they have a ghoulish fascination with suffering. But if that’s all that there is to it, the value of free speech would to my mind trump the reasons for banning the book (or manifesto, in this case).

People who want to read it will find a way to do so. What we should be concerned about is whether the manifesto is likely to cause or at least encourage the behaviour Tarrant is accused of. And here, we don’t have good reason to believe that it does.

For years – thanks to events like James Bulger’s killing in 1993 being blamed on video games, or the Columbine school shootings (1999) being blamed on the game Doom – many believed that violent games caused people to become violent, even though that hypothesis turns out not to be supported by the evidence.

Similarly, it seems highly unlikely that the 2008 South African case of Morne Harmse killing a fellow school student was due to his fondness for the heavy-metal band Slipknot. Instead, people who are inclined towards murderousness will likely be attracted to media that express their particular strain of antipathy towards others, and that banning such media will do nothing to stop such people from feeling the urges they do.

Yes, it’s possible that we can make the families and friends of the victims of such crimes feel reassured through such bannings, but we’re doing so at the cost of giving an authority (government, in this case) a license to decide what we can and cannot consume, on the basis of proximate outrage rather than principle. I worry about a slippery slope here, and how the qualifying criteria for what can/should be banned could end up expanding.

Furthermore, as the Sydney Morning Herald article notes, banning such things risks turning their authors into attractions or martyrs. So, if you are concerned that reading a manifesto such as this will make people reach for their guns, turning that manifesto into a forbidden fruit is perhaps a strategy that could backfire.

There’s also a possible positive consequence of reading the outpourings of disturbed minds. Their reasoning could perhaps reveal overlaps with sentiments expressed by people in your surrounds, and offer a sort of early-warning signal that someone you know is heading down a conspiratorial or otherwise bonkers path, and maybe offer a way to intervene before it becomes a problem.

An awareness of the ideological underpinnings of a man like Tarrant could, in other words, be useful in spotting similar sentiments (even if they are under development) in people who have not yet acted upon those sentiments.

I don’t think this is a simple issue, at all. And, I’m open to the idea that we could entertain short-term bans on certain publications, if only we could ensure a) avoiding the slippery-slope discussed above and b) ensure that those bans are revisited on a regular basis.

For example, Mein Kampf was banned in Germany just after the war, and the ban remained in place until 2016, when it presumably was deemed to no longer be likely to encourage anti-Semitic sentiment. We can quibble about whether the ban was lifted too late, but that’s the sort of model I might be willing to entertain.

Another example that I personally experienced was Derek Humphry’s Final Exit, a book on how to kill yourself, that was published while I was working in a bookstore in Bethesda, MD, USA. It was in great demand – and we did stock it – but many bookstores did not (it’s still a banned book in France).

At the time, it might have made sense to ban it, but it would not make sense now, when the assisted dying and euthanasia debate has evolved to the point where it is pointless to try and ban a book that discusses this topic, given that you can find such information all over the Internet, or even have a sympathetic conversation about it with your physician.

Lastly, I’m worried about an inconsistency here (yes, a common theme, I know): Religious texts are frequently the source of prejudicial attitudes towards people of different genders, races or sexual orientations, but they continue to get a free pass on any discussion regarding censorship. If we’re going to have a proper discussion on whether we need to control media that might make people anti-social, they need to be included in that discussion also.

(John Maytham invited me to discuss this issue on his CapeTalk show last week. Here’s the podcast, for those who want to listen.)

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.