The Muddle of “Hate Speech”

What is hate speech? Dictionary.com offers two definitions:

  1. speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation
  2. speech disparaging a racial, sexual, or ethnic group or a member of such a group

But which is it? Definition no. 1 includes four categories; no. 2 includes only three. Should it not rather be five, to include disparagement of people with disabilities? And what about national origin or political beliefs? Not to mention marital status, gender expression, age, height, or weight — to cite some of the factors included in a nondiscrimination statement from the University of Michigan.

Those definitions do not make clear how “hate” enters the picture. They seem to say the focus, in hate speech, is on speech that attacks or disparages someone. Hate, according to various dictionaries (e.g., Merriam-Webster, Dictionary.com, The Free Dictionary), is not primarily a matter of attack or disparagement. Rather, those dictionaries define hate as something that involves feelings — of intense dislike, aversion, or detestation.

Feelings and speech are often very different matters. A person need not dislike someone in order to disparage them. For instance, a person can make a disparaging joke without any hostile feelings whatsoever — and as a Google search makes clear, disparaging or belittling jokes are very much included in what some people consider hate speech.

As an example of genial disparagement, in the following video, black comedian Tony Rock tells a comedy club audience about “the whitest thing I ever saw in my life,” involving odd behavior by a white man at the airport. If disparagement of people on grounds of race is hate speech, then Tony Rock is guilty of it.

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The point of that illustration is not just that people opposing so-called hate speech seem bent upon removing humor from our lives. It is that, oddly, the so-called hate speech in that example is directed at white people — and yet there they are in the audience, laughing and enjoying themselves. If “hate” speech brings enjoyment to the people who are supposedly being hated, then it seems our terms are nonsensical.

If the concern is with disparaging speech, why not call it that? Why bring “hate” into the mix, when there is no actual hatred? I suspect the answer is a matter of interpersonal politics rather than logic. People accuse others of hate speech in order to hurt them — to make them look bad and feel bad. The real hatred is in the accuser.

An accusation of hatred is much harsher than an accusation of disparagement. If you can accuse someone of hatred, and broaden the definition of hatred to include anything that you don’t want them to say, then you can really score points. You can make them out to be evil even if they were just telling a joke — a joke that was ignorant and hurtful, for instance, or perhaps even a joke that, in the specific circumstance, was neither ignorant nor hurtful, but that merely transgressed someone’s idea of what others should be allowed to say. The Asian-American Simon Tam of The Slants offers an interesting perspective on that.

Inflammatory accusations may be useful for those who have something to gain from setting people against each other. Lawyers and talk show hosts are examples, as are some social work professors. But as most people realize, flinging out extremist insults is pretty much the opposite of constructive problem-solving. The negative and narrowminded attitudes underlying such accusations could support a definition of hate speech offered by the Urban Dictionary:

Any non-PC statement about anything, especially on campus and among the pinko crowd. It’s ok to hate ordinary American middle-class yahoos, though.

The relevant Wikipedia entry demonstrates the kind of confusion that ensues from treating “hate speech” as a catch-all term for a wide variety of expressions that some consider undesirable. At this writing, the contents of that entry convey an impression that hate speech includes (a) the stated conclusion that there is little historical evidence of a Holocaust (Belgium), (b) advocacy for unequal taxation of the rich (Croatia), (c) criticism of the Genesis creation story (Denmark), (d) an article ridiculing those who refuse medical treatment in the belief that God will heal their sick or dying children (Iceland), and so on. Some such views or statements may be wrong, but is it really wise to criminalize them? And then, if you do criminalize them, what purpose do you serve by calling them hateful in addition, when they may simply not be?

There are a few kinds of speech (e.g., inciting a riot) that are dangerous and need to be restricted — or maybe not, depending on how you characterize someone like Paul Revere. Simpleminded attempts to prohibit broad varieties of speech are another matter altogether. People of all political tendencies do use parody, ridicule, critique, and analysis to identify and attack views and behaviors with which they disagree. A given type of speech may or may not be effective. It makes sense to keep seeking improved communication. But in any case, if it does not involve actual hatred, it makes no sense to call it hate speech.

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(This post previously appeared in my social work blog.)

 

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