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Is the Safe Schools and same-sex marriage debate harmful?

Posted by Anonymous
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Is the Safe Schools and same-sex marriage debate harmful?


Media player: "Space" to play, "M" to mute, "left" and "right" to seek.

VIDEO: Lyle Shelton, Dr Kerryn Phelps debate a question from a child of lesbian parents on Q&A (ABC News)

There's a difference between people feeling hurt by the views expressed in the Safe Schools debate, and actually being harmed by them. This distinction becomes crucial when people try to censor the conversation, writes Matthew Beard.

This week's episode of Q&A was representative of the ongoing debate about same-sex marriage and the more recent controversy surrounding the Safe Schools program aimed at reducing bullying of LGBTI children.

However, alongside the debate itself - which ranged from the ethics of commercial surrogacy, to the idea of a "stolen generation", to whether gender is a fixed concept or an ideology - was a larger ethical question: is it wrong to even have debates like these?

Referencing a heated discussion of same-sex marriage, Anna Burke said:

This debate alone shows why we do not need this plebiscite. Why it will be so harmful to so many in our community.

The message here is simple: speech like Lyle Shelton's is dangerous, and if a plebiscite is going to generate more of it then it should be avoided lest the debate harm same-sex couples and their kids.

It's a criticism we've received at The Ethics Centre over the last few months as we've produced a public debate on gender issues, entitled "Society Must Recognise Trans People's Gender Identity".

The prospect of being involved in the harm of others is morally serious and demands close reflection.

"Harm" is a central concept in modern discussions around public speech. For example, the inquiry into the Safe Schools program has been labelled as potentially harmful to LGBTI students. Questioning the validity of a person's gender identity has been labelled as harmful. University lecturers are being asked to assess their content for potentially triggering material on the basis that witnessing some things may be harmful to students.

There's nothing surprising here. Restricting freedom to prevent harm to others has been a basic tenet of liberalism since John Stuart Mill. However, if we're going to invoke the concept so frequently it's worth being clear on what harm is, and what it isn't.

As a moral category, harms need to be distinguished from hurts. There are plenty of things that hurt us which don't count as harms - getting an injection from your doctor might sting, but it doesn't harm you (with apologies to the anti-vaccination community).

Harms are, according to philosopher Joel Feinberg's widely-accepted definition, "wrongful setbacks to interests". Interests come in different kinds.

First, we have an interest in achieving those things in which we invest value - if I take great meaning in being a writer, I have an interest in writing a novel.

Second, we have an interest in those social goods that allow us to achieve goals like writing a novel, raising a family or starting a business - these are called "welfare interests". They include physical health, psychological wellbeing, minimal financial security and so on.

Anybody who wrongfully prevents me from accessing either of these kinds of interests has done me harm. So how do we tell whether a setback is wrongful?

Wrongful setbacks to interest lack either an excuse or a justification. Excuses show why a person didn't have responsibility for what they did (perhaps they didn't know what they were doing was harmful, and couldn't have known). Justifications argue for the permissibility of the setback by reference to some other moral good.

When public commentators, advocates or politicians use the word harm, they ought to outline how the action is harmful. Which interests has it set back? Why was the action not justifiable or excused?

Understanding this restricts the type of activities we can describe as harmful. For example, all things being equal, questioning prevailing views on same-sex marriage, trans identities or religious freedom isn't harmful because it doesn't prevent these people's ability to satisfy their interests.

Shelton might question the legitimacy of same-sex couples' parenthood, but this doesn't affect their ability to be parents. Similarly, people who ask questions about gender identity can do so without it being an attack on the intrinsic human dignity or basic rights of those people.

What public arguments like these can do is hurt people. Shelton's views about same-sex couples, for example, may create subjective feelings of displeasure. Some other same-sex couples were likely unaffected by his sentiments and none of their interests have been set back. Similarly, those who tweeted at Shelton to call him a bigot or wanting to "crush his genitalia between two bricks" didn't harm him (unless they went through with it). They probably hurt him.

This is really important. Being hurt sucks. And it's often wrong to hurt someone. But we don't have a rightnot to be hurt. And that means we don't have a right to censor someone else's speech to avoid being hurt - only speech that we can reasonably expect to cause harm (such as that which denies another person's basic moral dignity) ought to be regulated.

A few things follow from all this. First, when public commentators, advocates or politicians use the word harm, they ought to outline how the action is harmful. Which interests has it set back? Why was the action not justifiable or excused? Unless we start making space for harm as a unique moral category we risk devaluing the meaning of the word altogether.

Second, depending on how seriously we value political debate, autonomy and democracy, restricting free speech to prevent people from being hurt may itself be harmful. To commit harms in order to prevent hurts is likely to be a disproportionate moral trade-off.

Third, whether your actions harm someone has nothing to do with your intentions. Statements that preface a harmful comment by stating their intention not to be harmful don't change the moral consequences of the action. You've set back someone's interests in a way that requires restoration.

So, if people can make the case for why certain kinds of speech are harmful, we either need to show how these harms can be justified by reference to other moral goods, or we need to shut up.

Matthew Beard is a moral philosopher at The Ethics Centre, an independent, not-for-profit organisation focused on the promotion and exploration of ethical questions. Follow him on Twitter.

Posted by Anonymous on Apr. 20, 2016 at 7:34 PM
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