The problem of hate speech never goes away. What to do about people who say or write the most hateful things is problematic to say the least. The freedom to say whatever one likes is not absolute even in the US where the First Amendment provides robust protection for almost any kinds of speech. There are certain things that you cannot say, and this article summarizes the kinds to things that are allowed and not allowed. You are not allowed to “incite actions that would harm others” or to “make or distribute obscene materials”. Interestingly, you are allowed to “engage in symbolic speech, (e.g., burning the flag in protest)” but you are not allowed to “burn draft cards as an anti-war protest”.
But where does this leave speech that is widely considered beyond the pale, such as Holocaust denial or other forms of speech against specific groups? In some European countries such hate speech is banned and one can be charged for indulging in it. In the US, there are no laws banning such speech. Instead the response is usually to say that we should combat hate speech with more speech in the belief that good speech will eventually win out. The problem is that the media landscape we have now provides plenty of venues for speech but is so fractured that it seems like the audiences for the two kinds of speech do not overlap. In other words, those who are drawn to hate speech do not enter the world where such speech is condemned and vice versa. So the marketplace of ideas sees almost no competition. Rather, in the hate speech world, we seem to have increasing escalation as people are sucked into a vortex of ever more harsh rhetoric, almost as if there is a competition to see who can be the most extreme. This actually forms the business model of many platforms that depend on people spending more time on their sites who find that the best way to achieve that is to feed their basest tendencies.
This strikes me as an unstable situation. As we see marching armed crowds chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans, at what point will it become seen as a threat to the communities that are being targeted? We may well reach a stage where we adopt the European model and ban some kinds of hate speech. Of course, that might have the effect of driving such speech underground and possibly make it even more toxic. The chief fear is of course is that once you start banning speech that is being used by those you dislike, what is to prevent the authorities from also at some point banning speech that you like? That is the slippery slope argument. As far as I can tell, the European countries that have banned certain types of hate speech have not as yet slid down that slippery slope. But it may be too early to tell.
Joshua Yaffa writes that the proliferation of outlets for speech has qualitatively changed the discussion.
In the twentieth century, the main threat to free speech was suppressive states. This model “presupposes an information-poor world,” Wu wrote. But now a plenitude of online outlets for expression have led to an abundance of speech. And this “cheap speech,” as Wu put it, “may be used to attack, harass, and silence as much as it is used to illuminate or debate.” The notion of more and better speech conquering ill-informed or malevolent speech looks outmoded. In fact, it seems that the opposite is true: the distinction between “good” and “bad” speech is lost amid the information deluge.
France, Germany , and the UK all have laws that restrict what they describe as hate speech while the US still pursues the idea that the way to counter hate speech is with more speech. The issue has come to a head with private business interests like Facebook and Twitter because of their ambiguous status. Are they merely platforms that are not responsible for the content put on them by users? Or are they publishers and thus can exercise the same right of editorial control that any publication has and thus can be accused of censoring unpopular ideas? Right now they seem to be trying to straddle both sides of that line.
In the November 2, 2020 issue of the New Yorker, Luke Mogelson writes about his experiences after he embeds himself with right wing groups like Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys and also with Anitfa groups to try and understand their motivations. He writes that the problem of what to do with fascist speech is an old one.
In “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook” (2017), the scholar and activist Mark Bray writes that, after the Second World War, Jewish veterans created the 43 Group, which stormed fascist assemblies with the aim of knocking over the speakers’ platform. Though conservatives and liberals alike now criticize “no-platforming” as a violation of free speech, antifascists take the 43 Group’s view that incipient fascism tends to metastasize if left unchecked; given that fascist movements ultimately aspire to mass oppression, or even genocide, they must be stifled early.
This is one heated debate that is going to remain with us long after the election, irrespective of who wins. If Trump wins, these fascistic groups will feel vindicated and thus emboldened to take even more actions while if Trump loses, they will feel aggrieved and thus emboldened to take even more actions.