Special feature: The Hate Speech Debate

Many of you know that I am a volunteer with the Vancouver branch of the Centre for Inquiry. One of the regular events that CFI Vancouver hosts is called Cafe Inquiry, which is a moderated group discussion on a variety of topics. This past weekend, I was honoured to be asked to moderate a discussion on a topic of my choosing. Given that I’ve previously given a presentation on the subject of racism and skepticism, I thought I would try and tackle one of the other tent-poles of this blog: free speech.

The issue I chose to present for discussion was Canada’s hate speech laws, and whether or not they are a good thing. This is a topic for which there are strong arguments to be made on both sides, and I thought it was particularly well-suited to a group discussion rather than a didactic presentation. I brought this question to the group, as well as a number of other questions that were of particular interest to secularists and atheists.

My purpose at this event was to moderate a discussion rather than to present my own personal opinion. While I do have a position on this issue, it was not my place to defend that position to the group, although I was prepared to be the only one in the room to advocate it. Luckily, there were an abundance of opinions on both sides of the issue, allowing me to fulfill my role as facilitator rather than partisan. I gave a brief presentation outlining the parameters of the debate, and then tried to step back and let the discussion take its course.

I’ve posted the video of the discussion, which took place over 2 hours. The battery on our camera died before the end, but I will summarize the group consensus. You can see the slides here. (Please note: Having problems with Youtube, and have to re-up all my videos. Process is taking longer than I would have liked – hopefully it will be resolved by the end of the day, but my apologies for the fact that this isn’t ready on time).

Overall, I was very happy with how the discussion turned out. I was disappointed that the group didn’t spend more time talking about the effect that hateful speech can have in terms of discrimination, but other than that I think we hit all of the high points. We took an informal poll at the beginning, asking people whether they supported laws against hate speech. As I suspected, the number explicitly supporting them dropped from 6 to 4 (out of about 20 people) – many people maintained that they were “fence sitters”, which is really the only logical position to have in a discussion that has such depth and difference of opinion. The argument that seemed to hold the most sway was the open question of whether or not hate speech laws actually reduce hate speech, or if they are redundant with the social pressures that do a pretty good job of accomplishing that already.

While I am a proponent of unrestricted free speech, even hateful speech, I am cognizant of the fact that there are a number of reasons why it is desirable to reduce the amount of hate speech in society. Primarily, we have to be concerned with the safety of others, and hateful speech can and does lead to hateful actions against people. Secondarily, hate speech leads to systemic discrimination, which violates the idea of the rule of law. Finally, hate speech is morally wrong, and those who violate moral precepts should be punished.

My problem with outlawing unpopular speech is that it often doesn’t work – by setting up “dog whistle” phrases for certain prejudiced attitudes that don’t qualify as “hate speech” but communicate the same ideas, we drive attitudes underground where they can fester. Putting bigotry out in the open allows us to deal with it, and gives us opportunities to learn from it. Secondarily, I am concerned by the arbitrary way in which we select which groups are protected by these laws. I can see the same arguments about “hateful speech” used to censor legitimate criticism of religion, or criticism of any majority group just as easily as a minority group. The ‘victim card’ that majority groups like to play to cast themselves as on the receiving end, rather than behind the wheel, of discrimination will surely see them deputize hate speech laws in this way. I am not comfortable with legitimate criticism being cast as hate in any circumstance, and I am concerned that these laws will be used to accomplish this.

Anyway, all that being said, I think it was a great event and I really enjoyed being part of the conversation. Enjoy the video.

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  1. says


    I’m so bummed that I missed this. With the new baby in the house and all my commitments for the federal election (non-partisan, of course), it was just at a bad time for me. Now that the election is done, I finally have a chance to come back and at least take a look at some of the vids.

    Glad to hear that the discussion was very open! I find that this topic often gets the hackles up (kinda like abortion). I also agree spot-on with your assessment of the problem, together with the primacy of arguments, and hope that most of the attendees saw it your way.

    My only point of objection would be the importance that hate speech leads to rights violations. Every hateful action begins with hateful thoughts and is often preceded with hateful words. it’s not only impractical to combat the precursors of hateful actions, it’s impossible, not to mention that it sets up systems that can be used for the oppression of ideological minorities.

    To use an example, it’s not exactly socially desirable for people to get pissed drunk (you might debate that, but just play along). It can be proven that those who drink heavily are much more likely to drink and drive. Yet it would be a violation of fundamental liberty to outlaw binge drinking with the justification that it will reduce vehicular homicides.

    In the same way, I think it’s dishonest to justify drug prohibitions on the theory that it will cut down on drug-induced crime. Not only is there little (if any) evidence that it works, it is not in itself a justification for the necessary suspension of liberty.

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