The arguments for retaining the constitutional reference to blasphemy are riddled with internal inconsistencies.
Professor Colum Kenny deserves a certain amount of credit for his column defending the reference to blasphemy in our constitution[i]. He is, after all, stepping up and making the argument that no-one else wants to make (the Iona Institute look to be sitting this one out and the Bishops seem to be of the view that God can look after himself).
That said, Professor Kenny would receive far more credit from me if his column weren’t so full of internal-inconsistencies and nonsensical claims.
Kenny starts with a warning that we are being mis-lead and that, contrary to what is being put about by the “other side”, the Citizens Assembly did not simply recommend that the offence of blasphemy be removed from our constitution. Rather, it was recommended that the reference to blasphemy should be replaced with text prohibiting incitement to hatred
What the Professor says of the Assembly’s recommendations is correct but surely an issue needs to have received some coverage and been subject of some discussion before one can claim the public are being led, one way or the other. The truth is that the blasphemy referendum has, to date, received nearly no commentary at all. As such, Professor Kenny’s warnings are overblown to say the least.
Indeed, if there is any disingenuousness here it is on the part of Professor Kenny himself when he claims that removing the reference to blasphemy without also inserting a constitutional ban on incitement would be problematic. As the Professor must surely know, blasphemy and incitement to hatred are distinctly different things – one is about criticising ideas, the other is about real harm to real people. One need not ever utter an irreverent or unholy word while directing a pogrom just as one need not be anything but utterly humanitarian when speaking out against some religious dogma.
Besides, incitement is already against the law – with or without a constitutional reference and regardless of whether blasphemy is also illegal. Suggesting that a reference to incitement must be added to our constitution to mitigate the removal of the reference to blasphemy is just silly.
Other arguments put forward by Kenny are even sillier and can be dispensed with even more quickly; Kenny claims that the referendum is being put to the people as an empty political gesture by a Government intent on little more than virtue-signalling. Maybe so, but this is hardly an argument for a No vote. Are we to reject every good idea simply because we suspect the Government thinks it will make them look good (as good ideas tend to do)?
Kenny also argues that we should vote No because we, as a country, have bigger fish to fry. Again, this is less an argument for voting No to this proposal than it is an argument for voting No to almost every proposal. We will always have bigger fish to fry.
Kenny denounces the referendum as a waste of money. On the contrary, it is perfectly parsimonious to ask the Irish people to address a necessary piece of constitutional housekeeping when we’re all going to the polls for the Presidential Election anyway.
Somewhat more sensibly, Kenny argues that our blasphemy laws have done little to constrain free speech to date and that fair comment of genuine value is specifically and robustly protected. However, he only succeeds in undermining this point when he addresses an argument often made by those who favour removing the reference to blasphemy – i.e. that some Islamic regimes are pointing to Ireland’s blasphemy laws in defence of their own religious oppression.
Kenny claims that, in making this argument, his opponents “risk conflating all Muslims in a prejudiced stereotype”. So, at the same time as Kenny wants us to believe that free speech will always be protected, he tries to convince us that the ordinary people of Ireland are incapable of distinguishing between justified criticism of oppressive theocracies on the one hand and the offensive stereotyping of Muslims on the other.
If Professor Kenny truly believes that substantial numbers of Irish people are incapable of making such distinctions, then how can he defend a blasphemy law that would suppress fair comment on the grounds that “substantial numbers” of people are offended by it?
In arguing that our blasphemy laws will never have any negative effect, Kenny also does a great deal of damage to his claim that those same laws are necessary to hold back the onslaught of religious hate-speech that would otherwise spew forth. Are we really meant to believe that such a brief and vaguely-worded piece of legislation is powerful enough to hold back the forces of darkness while also being limited enough to ensure there are no negative side-effects on legitimate free-speech?
Homeopathy has no negative side-effects but only because it has no effects at all. A law that scares the bigots into silence is almost certainly scaring others into silence as-well.
And if our law against blasphemy does indeed have no effect, how is it any different to a law against, say, witchcraft? The Irish people are not going to start rounding up witches any time soon and no-one would suggest that witches are the most pressing issue of our time. Yet these would hardly be reasons for retaining a reference to witchcraft in our constitution.
The idea that the Irish people must be protected from blasphemy is as arcane and irrelevant as the suggestion that we need protection from black magic. It is precisely because it is arcane and irrelevant (and embarrassing) that we must remove the reference to blasphemy from our constitution.
[i] “Hell no: Blasphemy vote is facile”; Irish Times, 9th October 2018