The Problem with Hate Speech

Hate speech is a term that gets thrown around frequently nowadays. People on the left are suggesting we impose laws that would limit hate speech, while those on the right are advocating that we shouldn’t censor speech how hateful it might be. Obviously, this is a characterization as not all people on the left are against hate speech and as there are people on the right who advocate hate speech laws themselves. But as it goes with terms that get thrown around in public, the meaning often becomes obscure. In this post I would like to take a look at hate speech and if we should implement laws that limit that kind of speech.

            Let us first define what hate speech is. According to the UN hate speech can be identified as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.”[1] The Cambridge Dictionary defines hate speech as “public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation”.[2]

            There is some difference here in definition. The UN includes “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour”, while the Cambridge Dictionary only includes “public speech”. Also, while the UN includes any “other identity factor”, the Cambridge Dictionary makes a list, which seems to be non-exhaustive but shows the most important types of groups. I will thus focus on the Cambridge definition instead of the UN definition, because if one could show the Cambridge definition to be morally wrong, the UN definition is also seen as wrong since it includes the Cambridge definition and adds on it.

            There are two parts of the definition that I want to tackle. The first is “public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence” and if we should make regulations concerning this speech. The second part is about “a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation”, where I want to look if these categories are sufficient.

            Now then, should we limit speech that expresses hate and encourages violence. Let’s look at the violence part first. When does speech encourage violence? I would say when speech encourages people to commit violence. A clear example is: “you should destroy that house.” This is a clear encouragement to violence. This isn’t an opinion because I’m actively trying to persuade you to destroy a certain house. I might even give you a reward like a thousand dollars. This sort of speech should be limited and is actually limited in many western countries, including the USA.

            But should we limit speech which expresses hate? Expressing your hate towards something or someone is a form of opinion. You’re not encouraging people to violence towards the thing you hate. You are expressing your opinion. If I say: “I hate carrots.” Should we tolerate this? Obviously, the answer is yes, even though this is clearly a hateful expression. But you might say, carrots aren’t human beings. Fair enough, imagine I say: “I hate Nazis.” I have clearly expressed a hateful statement towards a group of people with a certain identity. Are we going to ban these words as well? If not, what’s the difference between saying “I hate Jews”? We could say that Nazis are evil, and I would definitely agree with you, but some people believe that Jews are evil, for example some Palestinians might very well believe that statement. Should we censor them as well? I don’t think so. We shouldn’t have a double standard.

            Now an argument that might be made is that when people read or hear hateful comments, they might become hateful towards that group as well and might commit violence towards that group. That might very well happen, but the responsibility here is not on the person saying the hateful things, but on the person committing the violence. Committing assault is illegal and should be but putting the blame on the hateful expressions instead of the committer of violence is to take away his moral autonomy. We are not allowing him to be a moral agent. We are not allowing him to have a certain responsibility. Instead of taking away the hateful expressions, we should take away the violence. Taking away the expressions doesn’t necessarily take away the violence. Sometimes it makes it even worse.

            Another argument might be that listening to hateful comments can make people feel anxious and even cause depression. Again, the argument here takes away the responsibility of the agent. We have all heard things directed at us that made us feel bad. This will always be the case. If we would censor all that speech, we would end up with saying nothing, because the interpretation of words can be subjective. There is always a loss of meaning during things that are said and something that might not have been hateful can be hatefully interpreted. Then the question is if we should listen to the subjective view of the hearer. If we do that, we wouldn’t have enough room in the prisons, I’m afraid.

            People can say really hateful things and those things might hurt a lot, but it’s on you to be able to cope with that sort of negativity. People will try to drag you down, insult you and say hateful things but it’s on you to be able to take it. It’s a part of growing up. You cannot choose what other people say to you. You can choose how you deal with it. As the saying goes: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.”

            The conclusion I make here is thus that we shouldn’t allow people to encourage other people to commit violence, because this isn’t an opinion. We should however allow speech that is hateful. These are opinions and we shouldn’t regulate which opinions we are allowed to have. Restrictions always come from a certain viewpoint. In a democratic society, viewpoints in the government shift depending on which party or parties are in power. If we implement laws that allow the restriction of speech from a leftist viewpoint, say we aren’t allowed to say hateful things about homosexuals, what happens when the right viewpoint (which it inevitably will at some point) takes over? You have then given them the power to limit our speech in other ways. This is too great a power to trust the government.

            What we can do is create a social taboo on saying certain words. Take the word “nigger”. This word has now reached certain taboo status (at least with white people) and it is looked down upon if someone uses this in a pejorative manner. This is completely acceptable since no government intervention was needed. Speech and words change but this change should never happen through government intervention.

            Now let us look at the second part. Where the UN includes “other identity factors”, the Cambridge Dictionary does not, but gives a list. But why stay with that list. What makes race more important, then the soccer team you are a fan of, when construing your identity? I believe that the UN is right to include other identity factors since you can ask the question why some factors are more important than others. If the answer is because more people are part of that particular group, then you’re just using a ‘tyranny of the majority’ argument. It’s not because more people are a part of your group that your group is more important. Otherwise, the white nationalists would be very happy.

            But including this also means the definitions downfall. I can use the same argument I used before. Because there are as much identity factors as there are people, every expression can be hateful to some person. So, we would have to limit all speech, or discriminate among people, but wouldn’t that also be hate speech? If we include “behaviour” in the mix, things would only be even worse to review.

            The way I see hate speech is that it is used as a rug. There is a stain on your floor, but instead of cleaning it up you put the rug over it. Out of sight, out of mind but still very much there. Instead of tackling racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on, we are tackling the symptoms. We shouldn’t attack the symptoms but the thing that is causing the symptoms. Limiting words will not make racism disappear. It’ll make it more covert and sneakier. Racist people will still be there even if we prohibit the use of the word “nigger”. We just won’t know where they are. And if we don’t know who they are or where they are, how are we supposed to help them. Instead of demonizing them (and thus doing the same we are accusing them of doing), we should try and show them that racism isn’t the way forward. But we can only do this with speech. Speech free from boundaries. Only then can we communicate in an honest way, and that is sorely needed nowadays.



By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

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