There is a long predigree in liberal public discourse about the dangers of punishing hate speech. The oft-quoted aphorism goes something like “the antidote to hate speech is more speech”*. The basic idea is that in a marketplace of ideas, bad ideas will be forced out by good ones, and thus the solution to hate speech is to marginalize hateful voices by speaking up vigorously in the defense of those who need it. This has been, proponents of this view claim, the way our society has moved overt and hateful racism from the mainstream to the margins: good people decided it was time to push racist voices out of the mainstream, and nobody had to pass a law making it a crime to be racist.
The truth, of course, is far more complicated than that. This account moves the agency of black people to the back of the bus (yeah, I went there) and makes the provisional successes of civil rights groups in eradicating racism the work of the goodwill of the majority rather than the work of organized people who fought against the system. It also ignores the fact that, even to this day, racist language might be gone, but the racism it described has just found more palatable words to convey the same message it always has. Finally, it ignores the role that craven politics and opportunism played in whatever cultural shift has genuinely happened.
That being said, the point remains: it is not necessary to criminalize hate speech to reduce it. The argument then (often) follows that we should therefore not criminalize it, because of some non-specific harm that may come to some white person down the road who will be mistakenly blamed for saying something that hurts a brown person’s feelings. Or something. I have, in recent years, moved away from the “absolute free speech” position I held for many years, and it’s partially because of stories like this: [Read more…]