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The issues of hate speech and harmful speech

So the discussion raises the issue of hate speech and the difficult question about whether it is ever appropriate to legislate against it. The message conveyed by a hateful pamphlet or poster, attacking someone on grounds of race, religion, sexuality, or ethnicity, is something like this: The society around you may seem hospitable and non-discriminatory, but the truth is that you are not wanted, and you and your families will be shunned, excluded, beaten, and driven out, whenever we can get away with it.

We may have to keep a low profile right now.

  1. The message conveyed by a hateful pamphlet or poster, attacking someone on grounds of race, religion, sexuality, or ethnicity, is something like this. But legislation may be necessary, because there is no guarantee and it is little short of superstitious to think that there is a guarantee that more speech is an effective answer to hate speech.
  2. Remember what has happened to you and your kind in the past.
  3. Such legislation, in the countries where it exists, aims to uphold important elements of basic social order — and in particular the civic status or basic dignity of all who live in the society.
  4. The Visibility of Hate the 2009 Holmes Lectures at Harvard University , hate speech legislation seeks to uphold a public good by protecting the basic dignitary order of society against this kind of attack. His discussion shows this by not dwelling on the effect or impact of hate speech and by implying that anyone who does dwell on the harm that may be done by hate speech is, for that reason alone, an enemy of freedom of expression.

Remember what has happened to you and your kind in the past. To the extent that they can, the purveyors of this hate will try to make it a visible and permanent feature of our social fabric. And members of the vulnerable groups targeted are expected to live their lives, conduct their business, raise their children, and allay their nightmares in a social atmosphere poisoned by this sort of speech. Not only that, but the aim of this sort of speech is to defame the members of the vulnerable groups in question — to do whatever they can do to lower their reputation in the eyes of others and to make it as difficult as possible for them to engage in ordinary social interactions.

His discussion shows this by not dwelling on the effect or impact of hate speech and by implying that anyone who does dwell on the harm that may be done by hate speech is, for that reason alone, an enemy of freedom of expression. A case can perhaps be made that legislation on these matters is chilling and counter-productive. We certainly need to discuss that. So, what I would most like to see added to our discussion of Principle 4 is some consideration of this harm — I mean consideration at length, not just shrugged off in a line or two — and some explicit attempt to defend the position, which I think is implicit in the existing discussion, that the harm of hate speech pales into insignificance compared to the chilling effect of any legislation on the speakers themselves.

Once we understand the harm that hate speech may inflict, we are in a better position to grasp the argument in favour of the legislation that restricts it. Such legislation, in the countries where it exists, aims to uphold important elements of basic social order — and in particular the civic status or basic dignity of all who live in the society.

Particularly in communities with histories of injustice or in modern conditions of religious or ethnic diversity, one cannot assume that the basic dignitary order will be upheld. There will always be attempts to stigmatise, marginalise, intimidate, or exclude members of distinct and vulnerable groups, and what we call hate speech the issues of hate speech and harmful speech often a way of doing this or initiating this.

As I have argued in Dignity and Defamation: The Visibility of Hate the 2009 Holmes Lectures at Harvard Universityhate speech legislation seeks to uphold a public good by protecting the basic dignitary order of society against this kind of attack.

The harm of hate speech

Legislative attention to hate speech is like environmental legislation; it seeks to preserve a very elementary aspect of the social environment against both sudden and slow-acting poisons of a particularly virulent kind.

Of course, we hope that attempts to underline the social order will be met with strong responses that are, equally, exercises of free speech. But legislation may be necessary, because there is no guarantee and it is little short of superstitious to think that there is a guarantee that more speech is an effective answer to hate speech.

Such legislation needs to be drafted with care.

It also needs to define alternative ways — non-virulent ways — of expressing the substance of the concerns that people may have about the behaviour of other groups or members in society, ways that will not attract legal sanctions.

The best hate speech legislation takes care to do this. Its aim is to confine the application of legal sanctions to speech-acts, which directly and deliberately seek to make it impossible for their targets to live lives of basic dignity in our society. This article was republished on Eurozine. March 20, 2012 with 11 Comments Share this article.

  • Such legislation needs to be drafted with care;
  • Of course, we hope that attempts to underline the social order will be met with strong responses that are, equally, exercises of free speech;
  • We may have to keep a low profile right now;
  • To the extent that they can, the purveyors of this hate will try to make it a visible and permanent feature of our social fabric.