Tuesday, 11 February 2020

The package deal of 'hate speech'

Today the lines between violence and speech are increasingly blurred. And as I explain in this excerpt from one of my chapters in the recent book 'Free Speech Under Attack,' the blurring of the lines between speech and violence (and speech and force) are precisely the lines at which both New Censors and old have been attacking free speech for decades...

Free Speech is Under Attack from All Sides

"Do you remember the politicians linking arms at the march, the op-eds and cartoons after the Charlie Hebdo attack, fervently declaring a commitment to freedom of expression and the right to offend? That seems like a long time ago."
        ~ Juliet Moses

In the last two years, arguments about “hate speech” came front and centre into New Zealand life. To “stop the hate,” Labour’s Louisa Wall called for the press to either be muzzled or be made an arm of the state; the Greens’ Golriz Ghahrahman called for "a global effort to shut down hate speech" and demanded a “conversation” about hate speech; and as I write this, Andrew Little is preparing to pass a law to ban something called “hate speech.” The beauty of it, for those writing this law, is that if this thing they call 'hate speech' is banned, and it is they who effectively define what “hate speech” is, then they may effectively ban whatever sort of speech and speakers they themselves dislike. For all the debates and “conversations” about what hate speech is, or might be, if Little’s bill becomes law then hate speech will either be whatever these guardians of loose talk say it is. And they will have it banned.
    It really is a beautiful thing, censorship, when you're the one who intends to hold the whip. 
But it’s no accident that this anti-concept defies easy definition. Free-speech campaigner Suzanne Nosell reckons this notion of “hate speech” is just a muddle, an "incoherent concept that confuses more than it clarifies":

These diverse phenomena cannot all be lumped together and, collectively, either permitted or prohibited. It does not make sense to have a single approach to Donald Trump’s proposals from the presidential campaign podium to discriminate against Muslims, pro-Trump messages written in chalk on university walkways, and the trolling of feminists on social media or anti-immigrant comments by Dutch politicians. [i]

The package deal of 'hate speech' wraps up three distinct things, she says:

1.     direct threats and incitements to violence;
2.     garden-variety insults directed at a particular gender, race or religion; and
3.     speech such as Holocaust denial.

Since truth is an absolute defence to defamation, then we can already see that 

    [the] law has for decades recognised a category of speech – incitement to imminent violence – that is unlawful because of its potential to catalyse crime. But calls and steps to prohibit speech that is merely hateful yet still nonviolent broaden this definition considerably in ways that [the law] has until now consistently rejected. [ii]

In many parts of the world not so fortunate as to have either inherited a tradition of speaking freely (Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia), or to have steadily abandoning that tradition (South Africa, Canada) Nosell observes that in all these otherwise diverse places "the umbrella term 'hate speech' increasingly criminalises expression." Even in Britain, once the home of free speech.
    The BBC podcast Philosopher’s Arms posits the hypothetical case of an arm-waving rant by Racist Brian in a packed pub in which there stand two coloured brothers; one deaf who can’t hear but is hit in the face by the arms, the other who can hear but who remains otherwise unharmed. And they ask the question: which one was harmed the most? The audience struggles to agree on the answer.[iii]
    This notion of “harm” comes from John Stuart Mill, from what is taken to be his famous defence of liberty and freedom, and is widely considered the limit of what speech should be allowed. I argue [later in the book] that Mill’s notion is flawed, and that while speech that harms is much wider than “hate speech” (libel, for instance), this loose notion of “harm” providing some sort of line of demarcation has done much to empower the muzzling. It has proved to be a notion very easily attacked.
    These attacks have not just been from the Left. While the political Right in New Zealand has most recently protested over cancellations of talks by various right-wing figures, it was National’s Judith Collins who introduced the ill-named Harmful Digital Communications Act with these words:

The Harmful Digital Communications Bill sends a strong message to those who continue to harass and harm others online – time’s up… Cyberbullying can have a devastating effect on people’s lives, particularly young people. This Bill will protect victims and hold perpetrators to account. [iv]

Bookmark those words and come back to them when you finish this chapter. You will discover they have new resonance for you.
    Meanwhile, the political Right in the United States has been demonstrating that they have zero understanding of what censorship truly means, calling for the government to force private companies to carry their Right-wing messages.
    Misunderstandings of free speech, hate speech, and rights abound. The New Censors are adept at exploiting these misunderstandings. This chapter aims to clear up some of the most egregious.

What does your right to free speech look like?

A right protects your freedom of action in a social context. Protection of a right recognises your legitimate claim, keeping open the “moral space” in which you may pursue your right.
    Note that a right is not a claim to be given something; it is a right to pursue a thing. It is a right to take action in pursuit of that thing.
    Socially, your right to free speech protects your right to pursue speaking freely (but not to be given a microphone) – the value to society is a free and open contest of ideas. The value to you, individually, and fundamentally, is that your right to speak protects your freedom to think.   Fundamentally, violating that right to speak freely violates your ability to think freelyA gun can stop the expression of thought, but it cannot stop your thinking. It does however make formulating and integrating your thoughts much harder.
    Importantly, only physical force may violate a right. Simple speech does not. Violence and speech cannot mix.

The moment someone resorts to violence in response to speech is the moment that the issue is no longer about the merits of any side’s position or the character of the speakers but about whether we are going to have the freedom to take positions—that is, to think for ourselves—at all. If we fail to support those who are trying to speak, we necessarily end up condoning, and therefore supporting, those who are willing to resort to violence. There’s no middle ground in a dispute like this, because there’s no middle ground between speech and force. Free speech cannot exist when some people are willing to resort to force.[v]

[To be continued]

[i] Suzanne Nosell, ‘To fight ‘hate speech,’ stop talking about it,’ Washington Post, June 3, 2016
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Matthew Sweet et al, Philosopher’s Armspodcast: ‘Hate Speech,’ BBC Radio 4, 14 December 2018
[iv] Collins Calls Time on Cyberbullies,’ Press Release, NZ Government, 5 November, 2013, 
[v] Simpson, Steve. Defending Free Speech (p. 32). Kindle Edition.

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