Tuesday, February 23, 2016

"The category of hate speech is ridiculous... an ideological tool disguised as a force for moral good."

Brendan O’Neill - The myth of hate speech: "I completely reject the category of hate speech. I’m always surprised to find that so many people treat the category of hate speech seriously. You hear them having discussions along the lines of, “Is this hate speech? Is that hate speech?” And I find myself thinking: “What are you doing? Why are you treating the idea of ‘hate speech’ as a measurable, scientific thing when it’s nothing of the sort?” 

To my mind, the category of hate speech is as ridiculous, and as abominable in fact, as the idea of thoughtcrime. And my mission in life — or at least this afternoon — is to try to create a situation where people bristle and balk as much at the phrase ‘hate speech’ as they do at the phrase ‘thoughtcrime’. There are two reasons I reject the idea of hate speech. 

The first is that it is an ideological invention. It is designed, explicitly, to repress the expression of certain ideas, and it does so to great effect. It is an ideological tool disguised as a force for moral good. And the second reason is because the idea of hate speech encroaches into the realm of free communication in an extraordinary way, in a way that no other law or censor in modern times has done. 

For it polices not only ideas, but also emotion, feelings. It is the very definition of government overreach; it has all the ingredients of tyranny. On the first point. You can really see the ideological component of the modern idea of hate speech if you look at the history of it. After the Second World War, the keenest proponents of controls on so-called hate speech were the Soviets. There were various international gatherings in the 1940s and 50s to hammer out postwar international treaties, and at these the Soviets continually pushed for a global commitment to repressing ‘hate speech’, in particular fascistic and far-right speech. They wanted stipulations against ‘hatred’ and ‘incitement to hatred’.

Amazingly, the West resisted. Eleanor Roosevelt represented the Western powers at some of the debates on international treaties, and she argued that it would be “extremely dangerous” to outlaw hate speech, since “any criticism of public or religious authorities might all too easily be described as incitement to hatred”. 

But eventually the Soviets won out. In 1965, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination was adopted, and it included a proposal to criminalise “ideas based on racial superiority”. The keyword here was ideas. 

From the outset, treaties and laws against hate speech were about controlling ideas — obnoxious ideas, yes, but ideas nonetheless. It was clear very early on that the category of hate speech was an ideological tool for the repression of ideas. 

...the category of hate speech is a supremely elastic ideological tool of ideas-control. The most striking thing about it is how unwieldily and arbitrary it is. It has in recent decades spread from curtailing ideas of racial superiority to suppressing expressions of religious hatred. Some Scandinavian countries want to outlaw misogynistic speech. On campuses there are clampdowns on transphobic speech. Anyone who says that a person with a penis is a man can now be branded a ‘hate speaker’ and find himself No Platformed. 

This is the world we live in, folks, one where even saying ‘men are men and women are women’ has been encapsulated into the ideological category of hate speech. The category of hate speech has spread and spread, and now covers not only the Soviets’ original target of hard right-wingers — or just any right-wingers — but also people who despise religion (religious hatred), who oppose gay marriage (homophobia), who doubt gender dysphoria (transphobia). 

There is a seemingly unstoppable momentum to the category of hate speech, because once you accept the idea that some ideas are beyond the pale, then no idea is safe from restriction and punishment. To see how the category of hate speech continues to punish ideas, consider some recent examples. A Swedish pastor was given a one-month suspended prison sentence for saying homosexuality is a tumour on society. But he really believes that. He was punished for his beliefs. Brigitte Bardot has been fined 30,000 Euros for describing the Islamic ritual slaughter of meat as ‘barbaric’. She really believes that. She has been reprimanded for her moral convictions. Germaine Greer is hounded by radical students for saying that a man cannot become a woman with a click of his fingers. That is her deeply held belief. She is hounded for her beliefs. 

We must always remember that one man’s hate speech is another man’s real, genuine, heartfelt moral or religious belief. What the state or mainstream society or student leaders refer to as ‘hate speech’ is to someone else an acceptable and even good way of thinking. We are rebranding ideas — whether it’s racist ideas or religious ideas or traditionalist ideas — as hate speech. 

It is cynical and censorious, and in my view as equally as outrageous as rebranding criticism of the government a ‘thoughtcrime’. So when students seek to silence what they have decreed to be hate speech, they are helping to enforce a severe, top-down diktat. These students present themselves as radical, progressive, liberal… but in truth they are the obedient footsoldiers in an elitist, tyrannical repression of certain ideas that was kickstarted by the Soviets and later embraced by the Western powers. And then the second reason I reject the whole idea of hate speech is because of the extraordinary powers it grants to officialdom and other bodies. Powers to police not only what we say and think, but what we feel. 

Historically, censorship has been designed to repress ideological and religious convictions. The category of hate speech does that, but it does something else too, something even worse: it allows the monitoring and punishment of what we feel about certain things, people or ways of life...  It expands its power from the public sphere of discussion into the psychic sphere of thought and feeling. And it infantilises the public; it robs us of our right and responsibility to challenge what we consider to be wicked or wrong, preferring to ask experts to do that on our behalf. It is time to get serious about freedom of speech. It is unacceptable to repress the expression of ideas. It is unacceptable to repress the expression of hatred. It is unacceptable to repress the expression of prejudice. The title of this session asks, “Is hate speech free speech?” My answer is that hate speech is a nonsense. There is only speech, and speech should always be free."

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