The Rise of Hate Speech: Should We Even Use That Word?
Hey everyone! I am super excited to bring you this edition of Through Conversations Podcast, featuring the impressive Professor Katharine Gelber. Professor Gelber is Head of the School of Political Science and International Studies, and Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Queensland, Australia. Her expertise is in freedom of speech and speech regulation. Her most recent book is called Free Speech in the Digital Age where she analyzes from a range of disciplinary perspectives, how the new technologies and global reach of the Internet are changing the theory and practice of free speech.
This conversation was much needed, as we talked about an issue that has been increasingly influential in our society: Hate Speech.
The notion of speaking one’s mind has been one of the core principles of liberal democracies and one of the major factors of their progress. However, freedom of expression also opens the door for individuals to speak in a prejudicial manner, often using profane vocabulary against minorities.
In our conversation, Professor Gelber defined what hate speech really is: First, it must be expressed publicly; second, it has to restrain one’s access to powers, such as the right to vote; third, it must rank one as inferior and, finally, it must subordinate one.
For example, suppose there’s a politial commentator and he states that “X-Group should not be allowed to participate at the Town Hall meeting because their opinion does not matter, as they only complain due to their lack of abilities of formulating a good proposal, with solutions. Therefore, they should accept what we propose…always.”
This is a clear example of a case involving hate speech: A public figure states that people who are part of a certain group — often a minority — should not have access to their right to express their ideas, and only because they have inferior capabilities, relative to the one’s the public figure has, meaning that they are a lesser group compared to the one the public figure is involved with. Hence, they should be subject to being subordinated as a group.
Now, suppose the same political commentator states the following: “I don’t agree with some of the proposals X-Group stated at the Town Hall meeting; they suggest certain methods to tackle the problem which I think could be more harmful than beneficial. Moreover, they should consider removing the proposal that says everyone should abstain from work on Tuesdays, as their religion suggests, because a lot of us need to work on that day, and we do not follow that particular religion.”
Now, is this hate speech? Absolutely not. They were never ranked as inferior, never restrained from proposing their ideas, and the public figure did not incite any violent act towards them. This is a clear example where people can defer with one’s ideas freely — even if it means disagreeing with a minority group.
This is key: hate speech is not related with feeling offended, at all. When someone hurts one’s feelings it does not necessarily mean one is being a victim of hate speech. And it has become increasingly evident that we have associated hate speech with feeling offended.
This phenomena of tying up what can undermine a person with an unpleasant feeling will have severe consequences in human interaction; in the way we talk with one another freely so we can fix the deficiencies of our society. Moreover, if we cannot disassociate hate speech with feeling outraged, then the cornerstone of what we call a free society will be turned apart.
This is what concerns me the most: I keep asking myself if the merger between hate speech and free speech will have as an externality the punishment of freedom of expression, debates and civil discourse— in a manner of dialogue and not verbalized threats —and each time I try to convince myself that it won’t be the case, I know it will. And it already has.
I was just watching an interview between Bill Maher and Jordan Peterson and they were discussing free speech. Bill mentioned that there was an incident in Fresno State University involving a teacher tweeting something rather disrespectful about Barbara Bush, and the President of the Universisty stated that they were thinking of suspending her, as this tweet was ‘beyond free speech’, being that it was ‘disrespectful’.
This unfortunate event is the main version of expressing oneself freely nowadays: whatever one says, if it offends someone, it is not free speech but instead something closer to a crime commited.
If it is sensed as if one could be subject to punishments, such as being suspended from one’s work or being labeled as a person whose against minorities as a result of saying something considered disrespectful, how far are we from becoming a Totalitarian State? When radical ideals are considered as legitimate realities, problems arise.
In the long run, what we call a free society will be closer to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. How close are we from creating an imprisoned society, were using unpolitically correct words, debating or arguing are now supervised? How far are we from taking more “Orwellian measures” such as regulating speech in the private sphere?
Damaging freedom of expression, freedom of being will have a negative net effect. Here is where we need to rationalize our actions and project them into the future: hate speech does not mean offending someone. Free speech can — and inevitably will — offend someone. As Professor Gelber mentioned during our conversation:
“What Hate Speech is, is a verbal act of discrimination. And if we understood it more as a verbal act of discrimination, rather than the expression of dislike towards somebody, it would be easier for people to differentiate between things that hurt someone’s feelings, insult them, or offend them on one hand, and things that harm them in a discriminatory sense, on the other.”
It is not my intention whatsoever to minimize legitimate cases of hate speech, nor is my purpose to abolish protocols that regulate in order to prevent such situations, but it is my objective to point out that the continuous association between what we — wrongfully — label as hate speech with freedom of expression can become a precedent for policies that threaten free speech, and of being as an individual.
A campaign that sought the protection of vulnerable groups, subject to real hate speech, proudly began as something new, inclusive and really necessary, but it has transformed into a stalker, prying on people waiting for one to say something irritating to condemn what was said as hateful.
It is of the highest value to understand that there are multiple points of view and we must listen to every one, even at the cost of feeling provoked, since the foundation of a free society means challenging the unchallengeable, so we can create the unimaginable…together.