With the topic of hate speech at the forefront of the public mind in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests, it is worth considering the traps we set by advocating the limitation of free speech.
370 years after John Milton published Areopagitica, the classic case made to British parliament for free expression and against censorship, some of us have convinced ourselves that ideas can be legislated out of existence, that the answer to the question “can opinion be limited?” is subjectively determined, and that the incitement of offensive and extreme ideas rather than violence is the boundary which shouldn’t be crossed.
Legislation prohibiting hateful and/or discriminatory speech is, in the context of history, a positive development. We’ve come an encouragingly long way from a place where certain (most) people were regarded as inherently inferior, to a place where saying that others are inherently inferior would likely prompt a criminal investigation. To their credit, the ideas our governments have deemed as legally unacceptable are those of hatred and intolerance, and their forced exclusion from the public sphere reflects a progress which has been hard-fought, but we as a society walk a dangerous and well-worn path when we defer to the state the authority to decide what ideas are permissible under the law.
Good intentions aside, speech-limiting legislation is based on several misconceptions, chief of which are that a person exposed to a disgusting or dangerous ideology will embrace it, and that an idea banned from the public will simply disappear or even stop spreading.
If suppressing ideas deemed harmful was effective in getting rid of them, we would have no concept of revolution as there would never have been one, nor would we have had an enlightenment era. What banning speech does is make it much more difficult to identify hate mongers, as the prospect of prison is a powerful motive to keep one’s bigotry on a subtle level, hidden from the public eye.
Regulating speech works well to sanitize the airwaves, it lets us pat ourselves on the back and it provides us with the tangible means by which we can convince ourselves and the world of how tolerant we are. In so far as actually combating hateful ideology, however, they do absolutely nothing. Hate speech is symptomatic; simply a vocalization of much larger problems within society, and by prohibiting it instead of confronting it, we do the opposite of addressing the mentality which produces it in the first place.
It’s a fallacy to assume that legally denying hate speech a bigger platform stops hate from spreading, or that at least it minimizes exposure to such ideas. Can we say with straight face that legislation is having an effect in stemming rising bigotry in France? Or in the UK?
The logistics of conducting a debate you are not allowed to have are complicated, as it is impossible to criticise a point of view you are barred by law from even becoming aware of.
I do not argue that a person should be allowed to walk up to a random individual on the street and yell abuse at them, that still constitutes harassment and would do so even if the content of the abuse was the word “idiot” rather than a racial slur. Insofar as the ability to convey my beliefs regarding the state of affairs of anything in the world is concerned, however, limitations should only be social, not legal.
In the aftermath of the January shootings in Paris, the term “free speech absolutism” began making its rounds through the public debate, which at the time was ubiquitous. Disappointingly, its use was almost invariably disparaging in nature and used primarily in the context of arguing for limits to free expression. While I don’t personally regard Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons as hate speech, if the concession were to be made that they were, it should still be of no consequence to whether or not they should have been allowed to publish them.
“Free speech absolutism”, as it relates to the expression of ideas, opinions, and convictions about the nature of the world etc., is a term much like “cat felinity” or “Christian Catholicism”; free speech is absolute by definition, there is no such thing as free expression of opinion within parameters.
Next to our basic survival needs, our ability to express what is on our minds is the most fundamental, intimately personal right we have as human beings. No tyranny on earth has ever been able to directly control people’s minds, but there has never been a despot who didn’t understand or exploit the fact that controlling speech is the next best thing.
Again, it’s important to acknowledge that the driving force behind hate speech laws is generally the protection of minority communities from having their dignity attacked, which of course is a noble pursuit per se, but the backhanded gift of being unburdened of our need to critically attack hate directly at the source is a poisoned chalice from which we’ve been drinking merrily, and whose effects are becoming increasingly clear.
The prospect of having anyone decide for the public what ideas we can’t be exposed to or discuss is terrifying, not to mention condescending. It should be insulting to any member of a free society to be told that they can’t be trusted to listen to an idea, lest they be corrupted by it.
In spite of this, every nation on earth, with the exception of the United States by virtue of its First Amendment, has laws in place that limit opinion within constraints deemed permissible. This is to be expected in non-democracies. But Europe, the continent that gave us the age of enlightenment, that produced the ideas of John Stuart Mill and Voltaire, of Spinoza and Thomas Paine, still struggles with the concept of free expression.
While the activity being banned today is quite obviously and importantly different from what was being restricted during Europe’s darker chapters, we too easily assume that we know where to draw the line, that our subjective assessment of what is palatable is the right one. While the ideas that are found deeply offensive in the west are bigoted ones, how can we be comfortable with the idea of prosecuting someone like Katie Hopkins because we find her remarks deplorable, while condemning other governments for prosecuting secular bloggers for saying things they find deeply offensive in their cultures? The ability to speak one’s mind must be universal, transcending cultural differences.
This is not to say that there should be no response to people spouting hateful or extremist ideas, of course there must. But it cannot be a legal one. It is up to the rest of us to be present and vocal in the face of hate-mongering. It is not enough to have vague propositions that “racism and extremism are bad”; racist ideas are specific, whether they describe patterns of behaviour or inherent genetic traits, and must be met with specific counterarguments or we have no chance or eliminating them. In order to relegate a bad idea into the dark, we have no choice but to let it out into the light.