Free speech is the last defence of minorities, protecting them from the overwhelming power of the state and the ‘tyranny of the majority’.
Don’t be fooled; the war on “hate speech” is a war on free speech. Standing opposed to anything labelled “hate” is a guaranteed way to win friends and influence people. Who could resist such emotionally-charged appeals to cliché taboos like hate and racism? The rhetorical force of these loaded terms can be sufficient to end discussion and silence debate. These labels push the lefty group-think auto-sympathy button and thus are a quick way to get anyone with a high school diploma on side. The propagandist of censorship cynically uses loaded language and buzz words (“hate”, “racism”) to exploit people’s best sentiments, mobilising them against any opinion he wishes to prevent people from hearing.
“Hate speech” is a vague concept that gives censors far too much scope in interpretation. The malleability of the term was starkly illustrated when the LSE Student Union decided (on behalf of all LSE students) to ‘no platform‘ the chief executive of HOPE not Hate, for his allegedly ‘Islamophobic’ views. Nick Lowles clearly thought that he was to speak against hate, but the student union apparently regarded his ideas as a chief example of it. Whether or not the HOPE not Hate director’s views really are accurately described as ‘hate speech’ or ‘Islamophobic’ is exactly what needs to be proved, and the only way to do that is to hear them.
Even if a speaker’s views were ‘Islamophobic’ (another loaded term), hearing them would only serve to ‘protect’ the apparently persecuted group against ideas. Ideas have never harmed people’s permanent interests as progressive beings except in contexts where opponents are not allowed to challenge them, such as is presently the case in Muslim-majority countries.
Liberals draw a line between speech and the kinds of acts that might be truly harmful to a person – not just to his or her feelings. Speech is only a threat when someone says they are going to carry out illegal acts against a person, in contexts where there is a real likelihood that they could do so. Some uses of free expression might hurt the feelings, pride or ‘worldview’ of others, but only in the same way that being made to take bad-tasting medicine or to work out vigorously ‘hurts’ the body. That is, these views are uncomfortable, but enduring them (tolerating them) does no damage to the “victim’s” permanent interests as a progressive being … probably quite the opposite. All ideas, even bad ones, stimulate thought. Moreover, in a free country no one is compelled to listen to anything he or she does not find amusing. They can simply choose to avoid that which offends him.
It is true that ideas can be as pernicious as they can be enlightening, yet what is even more dangerous than bad ideas is the atmosphere of fear in which they may not be challenged by better ones. In every instance in which dangerous ideas have precipitated actual harms, from Nazi Germany to Rwanda, there has been a chilling silence from fearful listeners who (had their freedom to protest been protected) should have put a halt to the rhetoric by speaking back. It is in a climate of censorship and coerced conformity that the beast of bad ideas takes root and grows into a monster.
Those who defend European internet censorship laws which curb “hate speech” make constant reference to the illegality of the speech in question. There seems to be a vicious circle of question begging: when asked exactly what constitutes ‘hate speech’ the reply is “illegal forms of speech”, and when asked why these kinds of speech are illegal, the answer is that they are hate speech. The only thing that lends this definition some vague semblance of content is ‘incitement’, a concept that assumes adult individuals are not responsible for their own actions anyway, since other people are apparently to be blamed for making them do things. This deterministic concept completely demolishes the bedrock premise of European law; namely, that individuals are responsible moral agents.
Some will argue that we need to strike a balance between “fighting prejudice” and “the necessity of free speech in a democracy”. This claim merely erects a false dilemma between two compatible liberal values so that citizens will begin to view free speech as an obstacle to “fighting prejudice” when in fact it is the best remedy for prejudiced beliefs, since it allows us to test firmly entrenched ideas (prejudices) against the merits of conflicting viewpoints.
Another way of undermining freedom of speech is to argue that offensive words or material only “sows social discord”. In April, Ayaan Hirsi Ali had to cancel a scheduled speaking engagement (part of her ‘Hero of Heresy’ tour) in Australia after a prominent group of Muslim women, including Hana Assafiri, complained that Hirsi Ali’s discourse is “divisive” and constitutes “hate mongering”. This, of course, despite the fact that Hirsi-Ali had cited security concerns and has received death threats for her criticism of Islam. That is exactly why her speech is so vital: it separates ‘ordinary Muslims’ from intolerant Islamist extremists who would sooner kill critics of their religion than argue with them. The “social unity” her Muslim censors aim to maintain by shutting down liberal feminist dissidents is itself a political fiction manufactured by crushing dissent.
The UK Parliament’s ‘religious hatred’ offence came into force on 1 October 2007. It had the effect of criminalising threatening words or behaviour intended to stir up religious hatred (irrespective of the likelihood that it will succeed). The Crown Prosecution Service defines a religious incident as:
“Any incident which is believed to be motivated because of a person’s religion or perceived religion, by the victim or any other person“.
Among prosecutable offences involving the intent “to stir up religious hatred” are: use of words or behaviour/display of written material, publishing or distributing written material, public performance of a play, distributing/showing/playing a recording, and broadcasting/including a programme in a programme service. Any of these can carry a maximum custodial sentence of 7 years. Laws like this treat religion or its claims as “sacred”, which presupposes that religion and its taboos ought to elicit automatic deference from all Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Religious exemption from offence trades on the falsehood that some people have a special claim to emotional injury that others do not. It also underestimates the degree of offence and hurt that Islam and other religions inflict (including on members of their own communities).
Censoring offensive material, while it might make religious believers or identity groups “happier” by indulging an infantile wish to be protected from the realities of other people’s views, will not help them develop as individuals, nor will it help them think very deeply about their own beliefs. A believer has every right to promote the ideas and values he or she believes in. In a free marketplace of ideas, competition between rival beliefs makes it likely that the best of them will survive. The “testing” that our ideas must endure in this free context is what permits us to be more confident that we have good reasons for trusting the ideas that stand up to scrutiny, while less robust arguments wither away.
Moreover, “offence” is not quantifiable in any consistent way. No one can prove that his ‘hurt’ is more important or more profound than anyone else’s until we enter the realm of physical or material infringements upon one’s person – such as detention, rape, physical assault, property theft or murder.
Another argument is that rude critique of religion and its figureheads is “gratuitous”, which implies that it indulges in childish provocation or serves no vital social ends. This rests on mistaken assumptions. First, religious groups are by no means homogeneous in belief, practice or sentiment. The same remark or image that one member of the religious community experiences as deeply offensive, another may experience as cathartic, liberating or profoundly healing. To think otherwise is to generalise about all members of a religious culture. Censoring religious insult will not so much protect a minority culture from the outside host culture as it will suppress diversity of opinion and prevent free choice within the minority sub-culture. Free speech benefits all types of Muslims, whereas censorship only benefits extremists.
A community that is confident in its values and convictions is one that can tolerate dissenting views, and countenance the possible fallibility of its own. Genuine defenders of tolerance celebrate and encourage all manner of protest, demonstration, satire, and counter-argument, short of that which eliminates the opposing speech (or speaker).
Free speech has always been the last defence of minorities in a diverse society. Freedom of expression protects the unpopular individual or group not only from the overwhelming power of the state, but also against a ‘tyranny of the majority’ in society who, if permitted, would transform conventional beliefs into ironclad ideologies.
Battle of Ideas takes place at the Barbican Centre, London on 28-29 October.
Terri (PhD) is an author, blogger, and has taught philosophy and film studies in Secondary and Adult Education for over ten years