Archives for posts with tag: Hate Speech

You know that old saying, “When I criticize you it’s free speech, but when you criticize me it’s suppressing my free speech”? Well nobody actually says that because it would require an unheard of level of self-reflection, but it’s still an important thing to consider. What is a suppression of free speech, and is there ever a situation that would merit it? Obviously when society collectively tells you to shut the fuck up, that is not a suppression of your speech, but if you are prevented from speaking under threat of state violence, that is. Free speech is the right to speak; it’s not the right to be heard.

I want to look at free speech from its Classical Liberalism origins, and not from a Libertarian perspective for two reasons. Firstly, Libertarians, in the current definition of the term, aren’t actually supporters of free speech. They want to transfer power from democratically elected government who at least is partially beholden to the public to unelected autocrats in the private sector whose only obligations are to profit. They believe that if the government stifles speech then that is oppressive, but if a company wants to prevent their employees from even speaking about unionizing or blocks certain peoples from the rights given to others, well, that is their right! Transferring suppression from one sphere to a measurably worse one is not reasonable thinking, so I will ignore it. The other reason is that Classical Liberalism demands individual freedom so long as the individual does not commit harm against others. This is crucial to my argument. Libertarians think that if a company puts lead in their paint, then it is up to me to start up an entirely new industry of lead-free paint in a vicious, unregulated market with my extremely limited time and funds, as if that is somehow a possible thing. There is no worry over harm so long as the market is free to regulate itself. I prefer the world where we work to prevent unnecessary corpses, but maybe that’s just me.

How does harm fit in with individual freedom? It is fairly uncontroversial to assume that actively killing people is not okay, even under the most free of circumstances, so the idea is that individual freedom is great so long as nobody else gets hurt. Any impositions on the individual outside of these extreme circumstances are immoral. Harm is a difficult concept to nail down, which makes its application to speech tricky, but not impossible.

Consider the fact that uttering threats is illegal. It is nothing more than speech, but it projects an implication of harm that must be taken seriously, therefore it is not allowed. Or sexual harassment laws: it is generally agreed upon that a workplace feels unsafe if a woman experiences unwanted sexual advances, so laws exist to ban this type of speech. Bullying is a little more grey, but consider the case of Amanda Todd who was followed online by her harasser until she ultimately committed suicide, a clear indication that harm had occurred.

Now we’re working under the premise that we don’t want to commit harm to others. Murder is bad, remember. Harm to an individual via the medium of speech is regulated to some degree as seen in the examples I just mentioned, but what about harm to groups of people? This is where people defend free speech with the greatest enthusiasm because they’re fine with some restraints on their ability to harm an individual, but don’t you dare try to take away their right to harm black people. I hope that this appears starkly absurd to most people, and I’m sure those advocates of free speech don’t necessarily see it this way, but that is mostly due to the lack of self-reflection I was discussing earlier. If we accept that harm to individuals is unacceptable when it comes to speech, then we must accept that harm to a group is equally impermissible. Now there are those who will say that the harm that minorities face through hate speech is less than the societal harm that would come to be if absolute free speech (which already doesn’t exist) was leashed by regulations. It’s funny that it’s always disenfranchised groups that are the ones who have to suffer so that liberals can enjoy their free speech.

What about the slippery slope fallacy that curbing hate speech will result in cracking down on political dissent? That’s like saying that making jaywalking illegal will lead to the criminalization of walking on the sidewalk. Cracking down on a single aspect of something does not mean that universal suppression will naturally follow. I mean consider the despotic nations of Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, the Netherlands, and many others with hate speech laws. Meanwhile the country that demands free speech to the point that it overtly encourages hate is doing just fine, right?

What makes an aspect of speech harmful toward a group? This is the biggest question, and the reason that I’m rewriting a previous blog is that now I have something of an answer (an answer that I actually gained from writing another blog! Ain’t it grand how much I’m getting out of writing this stupid thing?) The harm caused by hate speech is expressed through its criticism of an unchangeable aspect of a group instead of focusing on a group’s mechanisms to change. Let’s look at the examples I used from my the previous blog to explain:


Example A: Obvious Antisemitism

Criticism of Israel

Example B: Genuine critique of Israel which may be mistaken for Antisemitism

The first is critical of something that the group cannot change: their Jewishness in this case. The second is critical of the disproportionate response of Israel against Palestine which could be quite easily rectified. If someone were to say that Muslims are violent, uncultured, and irrational, it could be argued that Muslims could change this by being less violent, gaining cultural significance, and achieving rational enlightenment. However, by generalizing these behaviours, it becomes clear that it is the Muslimness that is being criticized, and not the behaviours at all.  If one were to look only at individual instances of violence and irrationality under the pretense of finding mechanisms for change, then we would be forced to seek the causes of those things rather than disperse the blame on the entirety of the group.

It’s not hard to distinguish hate speech from genuine criticism, just as it is not hard to suppress hate speech without suppressing dissent. Punching someone in the face is assault, but boxing is completely legal. Potentially harmful dialogue can certainly exist in regulated settings, just as violence can exist in a boxing ring with rules governing its exhibition, without allowing it to go unfettered in the streets.

The big news of the day seems to be the Charlie Hebdo shootings, and what has erupted is a big hullabaloo about free speech, and how it is necessary and super awesome and how all the cool kids have it. However, there is a catch: it is a packaged deal that allows terrible people to espouse their terrible opinions.

America is the prime example of this. America is a country that allows a certain crazy-as-fuck family to protest the funerals of soldiers, not because they’re against war, but because they believe that God is punishing America for not murdering all the gay people. The belief is that if we disallow people to say crazy, offensive and oppressive shit, all of a sudden we won’t be able to say bad things about the government and we will literally become Stalinist Russia.

In Canada, however, we have hate speech laws that forbid certain aspects of speech. For example, that crazy-as-fuck family is not allowed into our country. We also can’t spray-paint swastikas on synagogues for reasons other than trespassing or defacing private property. The idea behind hate speech laws is that when people engage in hate speech, it propagandizes that belief, normalizes it, and either incites violence or fosters apathy towards other violence that might be going on elsewhere. For example, if you were exposed to the open and unquestioned public ridicule of Islam, you might be more apathetic to the subjugation of the Palestinian people. Think of it like anti-bullying. It would be like if the suicide of Amanda Todd went unpunished, as the man who harassed her was merely expressing his freedom of speech. Or if sexual harassment laws were merely suggestions rather than the rule.

Anwar al-Awlaki is an American who quite voraciously engaged in hate speech against the USA. He was a normal, everyday Imam that was actually interviewed as a moderate Muslim after the 9/11 attacks on the WTC, but became disenfranchised with the West, to say the least, and went over to join Al-Qaeda. Anwar al-Awlaki’s main function was to serve as an English-speaking mouthpiece for the organization, and he espoused all sorts of terrible things: saying America sucked and deserved bad things to happen to it, this and that, you know, regular terrorist-y type stuff. The US, recognizing the power of hate speech, sent al-Awlaki a firm cease and desist order via the courts to put an end to his widespread hate-mongering. This surprised the world because America is so firm on its beliefs in regards to freedom of speech, and to impinge on someone’s right to vocalize their hatred goes dead-against those beliefs.

Of course I am kidding. America straight-up murdered Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike, and then drone-striked his teenage son. They’re dead now. They didn’t get a trial.

So it seems that America doesn’t really love its free speech as much as it might think. Even outside of the extrajudicial assassination of its own citizens, people are punished socially for hate speech all the time. Has Michael Richards had work since he called that heckler a “nigger”? Wasn’t the owner of the Clippers banned from the NBA after he made a racist comment? The social cost for hate speech is quite high, and the completely insincere public apologies that inevitably follow are proof that pure free speech does not exist, even in the States.

Is that bad? Well, killing folks for talking is probably a little much, as both the Charlie Hebdo and Anwar al-Awlaki incidents are both horrific tragedies in their own separate ways, but I believe that quashing hate speech trumps freedom of speech. Perpetuating oppression and instigating violence/hatred are, you know, bad things. If you believe that those are necessary evils for civil discourse and dissent, well here’s a little test for you. Since this began with a cartoon, let’s see if you can tell the difference between these two images:

AntisemitismCriticism of Israel

To the untrained eye, these two images appear identical. However, upon closer examination, one can be identified as hate speech, and the other as criticism. See if you can work out for yourselves which is which.

The common example of an acceptable exception to the rule of free speech is yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded movie theatre. I honestly don’t know how this example came to be, because honestly why a movie theatre? Why not just a generic room? But anyway, the idea is that it would cause a panic and could potentially injure somebody. Yelling “FIRE!” is usually done for superficial or trivial reasons, without much logic behind it. So superficial reasoning leading to potentially injurious actions is an exception to free speech. To me, that sounds an awful lot like hate speech, especially if the intent is the injurious actions.

Post-script: I don’t know how much this is actually in contention, but a depiction of Mohammed, especially a vile one, would be considered hate speech. Islam has a long, proud history of avoiding imagery in its art, and has made-do with beautiful text-based artwork. There have been a few exceptions to this rule, but to trivialize the anti-idol mandate of the Quran is to be ignorant of the history of that belief, as well as to purposefully disrespect, degrade, and further disenfranchise the already internationally ostracized culture of Islam.