When Speaking on Sensitive Topics

When Speaking on Sensitive Topics

This blog post is about how to speak reasonably about sensitive topics, and specifically ones which can give rise to charges of vilification.

In ideal world, speech would be free, and everyone would use their freedom responsibly.  But human nature being what it is, speech is never completely free, and human beings often act up in bad ways.

How then can we talk about difficult and reactive topics, such as destructive forms of religion, or the negative attributes of particular classes of people such as nations, cultures, races or tribes?

One of the challenges to freedom of speech in the west today is the emergence of so-called hate-speech laws, also known as (racial or religious) vilification laws.  These laws are built upon the concept of incitement.  They attempt to make illegal certain forms of speech which could incite or provoke others to have bad feelings towards particular groups of people.  An example in Victoria, Australia, is the oddly-named Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, which aims to ban conduct that incites ‘hatred’, ‘serious contempt’, ‘revulsion’ or ‘severe ridicule’ against classes of people on the basis of their religion or race.

One problem with the concept of anti-incitement laws is that some realities about human beings’ attributes really are beyond the pale, and deserve robust critique precisely because they should incite strong negative emotions.  A bad effect of anti-incitement laws is that they can make a person who speaks about such things responsible for the negative emotions which could and even should arise from their subject material.  For example if I accurately describe the actions of communists under Pol Pot, including their genocidal slaughter of the Khmer population, this should incite feelings of revulsion towards the Khmer Rouge.  Irrespective of whether that is a good thing, it would still be incitement.  Usually anti-incitement laws provide a way around this.  The Victorian law includes escape clauses known as ‘exceptions’ which mean that under specific circumstances, a person will not be held accountable for their incitement.  These escape clauses involve acting ‘reasonably and in good faith’ for a specific purpose, such as an academic or scientific purpose, giving comment on something in the public interest, or creating a work of art.

Another problem with anti-incitement laws is that truth is not a defense in the way it is for anti-defamation laws.  You cannot defame someone by speaking the truth about them.  But you can incite hatred, contempt etc against a group by speaking the truth about them, if the truth itself is unpleasant.  So a problem with anti-incitement laws is that they can make speaking unpalatable truths illegal.  That can be a big problem.  There is however usually a partial protection for truth tellers, in that getting your facts right can help demonstrate that you have acted ‘reasonably and in good faith’.

I’m no fan of anti-incitement laws, whatever name they go by (whether ‘hate crime’ laws, ‘anti-vilification laws’ or ‘defamation of religion’ laws). For one thing they can inflame tensions between groups by inciting complaints and court cases.  These are inciteful laws which can easily provoke racial and religious tensions.

But my purpose here is not to complain about anti-incitement laws.  The purpose of this post is to  suggest a few principles which speakers and writers might be wise to follow when dealing with sensitive topics.  These principles, if followed, may help to provide some protection against complaints of incitement.

Essentially these are tips for acting reasonably and in good faith, or to put it another way, for cooperative communication.

(Please note that I am not a lawyer, but a cleric and a linguist, and I offer no guarantees about the effectiveness of these principles!)

  1. State your purpose and stay on topic.
    If you want to criticize the Khmer Rouge, don’t stray into a diatribe against Stalin.
    If you want to criticize Islam’s treatment of women, don’t stray into criticizing the clothing preferences of Arab men.  There is nothing like gratuitous off-topic insults for giving the impression that you are up to no good.  Don’t fall into the trap of ‘too much information!’.
    Often it is very helpful to state your purpose up front, e.g. “I am writing about the evils of the Hindu practice of suttee”.
  2. Check your facts. 
    That one is obvious.
  3. Don’t say things you don’t have adequate evidence for.
    Obvious again.
  4. When you have a choice, take your information from the most authoritative and original source you can.
    “The Bible says X” will trump “my granny says the Bible says X”.  “The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported X” is better than “The Readers Digest said X”.  Always go to and check up a more original source if you can.  Don’t rely on third-party information (hearsay) if you can avoid it.  For example if you want to make a claim about Muhammad, look up and check the original Islamic sources for yourself, even if it is in English translation.
  5. If your source has some limitations (and most do) be aware of this and if necessary acknowledge it.
    Part of due diligence is  assessing the reliability of your source you do use, and being aware of its limitations, e.g., are you quoting from a translation?  Do you speak the original language of your source?  Do others accept your source as authoritative?  You can’t be the world’s expert on everything, but you can exercise due diligence with the information you use, not only in using the best source, but also being aware of the limitations of your source.
  6. Be dispassionante and avoid emotive judgements.
    It can be hard to restrain yourself, but really it is better to let people make their own emotive judgements about information they receive.  Offer people your arguments and evidence rather than your emotive perspectives.  For example, it is one thing to explain that Muhammad married a five-year old girl and consummated the marriage at 9 years old, and quite another thing to call Muhammad by derogatory words usually reserved for people who might want to do things like that today.  Let the hearer or reader come to their own conclusions about such labels.  Don’t command people’s emotions.  There are some exceptions of course.  If your whole presentation is to communicate a specific negative judgement (e.g. ‘modern-day Mormon polygamy abuses women’) then that judgement can be stated up front and central (point 1 above).  But don’t sweat all the value judgements along the way.  Hold your emotional fire for when you really need it, and have confidence in your audience to make up their own moral minds.  People want to be informed, not coaxed.  If something deserves contempt, you usually don’t need to tell people ‘this deserves contempt’.  This can often just come across as ‘shouting’.  Your audience probably won’t like it, and it will come across as coercive.  Let the evidence speak for itself.
  7. Avoid stereotyping.
    Stereotyping is all about attributing to the group the attributes of the few.  Don’t say ‘Christians believe X’ unless you are really, really sure that virtually all Christians do believe X.  Be especially careful about attributing intentions to groups, e.g. ‘Christians want to take over the world’!  Or ‘Muslims don’t tell the truth’. There are many ways to avoid stereotyping.  One is to use the words of representative voices and explaining their standing.  For example, you might say “The Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader of Anglicans around the world has said X.”  This is better than “Anglicans believe X”.  Another way of avoiding stereotyping is to acknowledge contrary voices.  E.g. ‘The pope says X, but many Catholics disagree’.  Another way when speaking about religious matters is to make a clear distinction between what texts or authorities say, and what individuals believe and do.  E.g. ‘The Qur’an says “Kill the unbelievers” but many Muslims don’t believe that applies to them.’  Another technique is to make a clear distinction between practices and beliefs.  Someone can believe something, but not act upon it.  (Be aware also that stereotypes can be negative or positive, and both types of stereotyping can be unhelpful.)
  8. Refer people to original sources, so people can check things for themselves.
    If at all possible, always point people to a way to check what you are saying for themselves.  Some specific contexts don’t allow this, but there are ways around this.  For example if you have published a book on a subject, with the sources clearly acknowledged, you could have more freedom to make claims in an interview, knowing that an audience could check things in your book and look up the sources for themselves.
  9. Take appropriate responsibility for inferences others may come to.
    There are things you actually say, and things people think you said, because they inferred it from what you said.  Part of the due diligence of communicating with others in a reasonable way is to be  aware of how they might interpret what you say, and taking an appropriate degree of responsibility for this.  You should make what you say as informative as required.  If you leave key points open to interpretation, that probably means you didn’t give enough information.
  10. Be clear.
    One of the most important things when talking about sensitive subject is just to be clear and orderly in the way you present your material.

Much of the above points are expressions of Grice’s Maxims of communication and the cooperative principle. It’s all about being a responsible, cooperative communicator.  And Mark Durie’s fifth maxim of anti-incitement communication is that the more sensitive and inflammatory a topic is, the more careful and ‘cooperative’ you need to be in addressing it.

Finally, one must acknowledge that there are many complications surrounding this subject.  One is that victims of abuse have rights.  One of their rights is to have strong feelings about their experiences of abuse.  Demanding that they be dispassionate about being raped, tortured, killed etc can be inhumane.  The advice given above is designed for the careful communicator.  But the testimony of first-hand witnesses can rarely afford such luxuries.  When victims are speaking, the audience has responsibilities too.  And one of these responsibilities is to allow that the testimony of victims is often not orderly, dispassionate, well-sourced, verifiable, to the point, bleached of stereotypes etc.  A listener has a duty of compassion to listen carefully to the testimony of victims.

Of course there are those whose sense of victimhood is out of all proportion to reality, and their testimony can demand that their audiences make the most unjustified allowances to uncooperative and unreasonable communications – let the reader beware.

Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

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