Against secular blasphemy laws


So Donald Trump created quite a bit of a stir with this tweet suggesting flag burners should be punished with jail or revocation of their citizenship. No, don’t even try to think too deeply about the legal intricacies of stripping many, including native-born, Americans of their citizenship. Trump is the ultimate Twitter and social media troll, but the judgment is still out whether he is very very dumb or actually devilishly clever. Take this flag burning tweet – it’s a thought bubble that is unlikely to get actioned in any way, but the left will ties itself into knots and contradictions over free speech and hate speech, while its more feral sections will burn even more flags to stick it up Trump, which will make the middle America even more disgusted with them and therefore more sympathetic to Trump. And of course Fox has already reminded everyone how in 2005 the then Senator Hillary Clinton co-sponsored the unsuccessful Flag Protection Act, which made flag burning with the intent to incite violence or disturb the peace punishable by a year in jail and a $100,000 fine (though no citizenship revocation).

Trolling or no trolling, this is a serious discussion, which we need to have in any case.

I see laws that seek to “protect” state symbols as akin to old blasphemy laws. In the past, religion united the community (or at least it was thought it did or should), hence the attack on God was attack not just on the deity him/her/itself but also on the community. Nowadays, just about the only thing that unites a diverse community is a shared citizenship of a state. If you burn a flag, or insult the head of state (and many countries do have laws against that), you are in effect sinning against your community.

In both cases, however, the laws prohibiting, criminalising and penalising such acts are a mistake. Blasphemy and flag-burning are victimless crimes (if you choose to see them as crimes at all). All you really do through your words and actions is cause offence to some people; Christians were offended by “Piss Christ”, Muslims were offended by cartoons of Mohammed, patriots and veterans in particular are offended by flag burning. But just because someone is offended it does not mean that something should be banned. I see this as essentially a free speech issue, just like a long line of American courts do. It’s something I would personally not do, and I think that people who burn flags (or Bibles or Korans) are f***wits, but being a f***wit should not be a crime – quite the contrary, allowing people to do these things helps us as a society to better identify the f***wits in our midst, and subject them to ridicule and contempt, without turning them into martyrs.

Those of us who support free speech and liberal values should be consistent. Those of us in Australia specifically cannot stand for the repeal of section 18C but support laws against flag burning. Leave criminalisation of differences and prohibiting offence to the left, where it belongs, and fight it there, not on the home ground.