Blogging requires a bit of a thick skin, or at least a certain amount of self-assuredness. The more people scrutinizing your ideas, the more likely you are to have people openly disagree with you. I recognize that I am breathing fairly rarefied air, here at Freethought Blogs – most of the people reading my posts already agree with most of my basic premises. There are perhaps a handful of topics that I introduce in a given month of blogging that are foreign to 90% of the readership here. I recognize that. I also recognize that by the virtue of not owning a uterus, I will escape a lot of the uglier side of attacks (since everyone knows racism is bad, but misogyny still seems to be okay).
This is why I’m always somewhat buoyed whenever I come across someone who can express my opinion for me:
For the record, I fully support gay rights. I also fully support free speech. That means anything this side of incitement to violence. I believe the current law is dreadful, because even the wisest people find it tough to draw the line between speech that’s merely offensive and speech that’s downright hateful. And in my limited experience, even human-rights bureaucrats aren’t always the wisest people. In any case, that line will always be hopelessly subjective.
I will make a confession – I would be in support of hate speech laws if two important things happened: 1) a specific definition of ‘hate’ could be developed and consistently applied that separates, say, criticism of Islam or misgivings about immigration from Islamophobia and racism; and 2) it can be demonstrated that banning hateful speech has a measurable effect of reducing hate. The first one I think is the toughest. I can spot racism a mile away, and my radar for sexism and homophobia are becoming pretty well-tuned. I despair, however, at the ability of any person or group of persons to define ‘hate’ speech except circularly. When it comes to legal punishment, definitions are important. If it were just a question of labeling, then go nuts – call whatever you like “hate speech” at that point. In the absence of a clear definition, I can’t support the idea.
Second, as someone who spends a great deal of time trying to explain to people who “aren’t racist or anything but…” that racism still exists in the absence of clear, unequivocal hatred, I am unconvinced that banning hate speech will be helpful. We didn’t have to enforce bans on the word ‘nigger’ to phase it out of popular usage. We just needed to educate people (which I think we’ve done a half-assed job of, but whatever). We didn’t need to ban the use of the words ‘faggot’ or ‘retarded’ – those are losing popularity as people become more aware of the unintended harms those words convey (which isn’t to say that they aren’t used anymore, or that they aren’t still causing harm – only that our reaction to them is very different than it was, say, 10 years ago). To another point – if we, as a society, have to deal with bigots, I’d prefer they be as open and notorious in their bigotry as possible – makes ‘em easier to spot.
I also particularly liked this paragraph:
For that matter, if we’re determined to ban speech that’s truly hateful, then why not start with the Bible and the Koran? Our holy books are laced with homophobia, intolerance, anti-Semitism, ethnic cleansing and wife-beating. It’s astonishing that we allow our children to be exposed to them. Or, as Mr. Justice Louis LeBel put it at Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing, if we were serious about banning hate speech, “the Human Rights Commission would be in the position of reviewing the scriptures.”
Well that part I could get behind, perhaps.
The discussion of hate speech is certainly not an abstract one for me. As a black Canadian, I’ve been privy to the kind of racist hatred spewed by those that the social progress of the last century left behind (although, thankfully, comparatively little has been directed at me personally). Every time I hear about a cross burning or a hateful graffiti tag, or when reviewing the nonsense justifications after a black man is physically attacked for the crime of being black, I recognize the harms that hate speech cause. Not in a diffuse “oh this is an interesting issue” sense, but in an “I could be next” sense.
Yet my stance remains fixed. Hate speech laws are too poorly defined to have any legal legitimacy, and are far too likely to end up criminalizing legitimate speech. There are those who say that “it couldn’t happen here” – I find that an incredibly naive argument that was likely used by Americans prior to the rise of the Religious Right. All it takes is a few zealots, the right political climate, and legal precedent, and we end up losing the most precious freedom that is the bedrock of our democracy – the ability to speak. I am in favour of recognizing and condemning hate speech (in fact I think politicians and other public figures should be doing more of that). I can be persuaded into supporting additional fines for hate-based crimes (although I am not currently in favour of them). I simply cannot accept the virtue of deeming certain types of speech illegal.
I realize my stance puts me at odds with many that I would otherwise consider allies. I realize that my stance puts me in the same camp with many people whose beliefs I despise. I realize that there are people who are more directly victims of hate speech than I am who heavily favour these laws. None of these realizations are sufficient to sway me from my position – they simply make me desperate to hear a compelling argument refuting it.
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