The Paradox of Hate Speech

“Hatred is the Winter of the Heart” – Victor Hugo

According to the French geneticist, Matthieu Ricard, who left his scientific career to become a Buddhist monk in the Himalayas:

 Of all the mental poisons, hatred is the most toxic. It is one of the chief causes of unhappiness and the driving force of all violence, all genocide, all assaults on human dignity’

It would seem obvious therefore that those things that might seem to create hatred pr propagate it and sustain it, should be countered or avoided.

Traditional societies almost exclusively practiced retribution when they felt individuals were wronged. The Old Testament taught an appropriate response was an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. Even in traditional Australian indigenous societies “payback” was extensively practiced which often culminated in an endless cycle of retributory acts of vengeance.

In the New Testament, however, Jesus advised we should “turn the other cheek”. And similar to the ethos of Buddhism, Christianity promoted the notion of tolerance and forgiveness.

So long as one person’s hatred generates another’s, the cycle of resentment, reprisal and suffering will never be broken. The Buddha Taught:

If hatred responds to hatred, hatred will never end.

And unfortunately whilst our hatred is meant to be directed at our enemy, it inevitably takes a toll on us. As the Dalai Lama has written:

By giving in to anger, we are not necessarily harming our enemy but we are definitely harming ourselves.

Or indeed as Nelson Mandela said:

Seeking vengeance is like taking poison and hoping it will kill your enemy!

I won’t labour the point any longer. Suffice is to say that it is easy to establish that hatred in all its forms is destructive to a civil society and injurious to individuals whether they are the purveyors or recipients of anger.

In this essay I want to explore whether shutting down so-called “hate speech” is a useful tool in this endeavour.

It is hard to pin down exactly what is hate speech. Various countries have tried to legislate against hate speech but each individual legislature has sought to frame its own definition

In general terms we might say that hate speech is usually thought to include communications of animosity or disparagement of an individual or a group on account of a group characteristic such as race, colour, national origin, sex, disability, religion, or sexual orientation.

The problem that we face, however, is that whilst we might want to eliminate hatred, doing so by labelling something as hate speech and therefore censoring such speech is also an assault on free speech. In a liberal democracy we need to carefully consider how we can draw the line that hate speech is intolerable enough to censor our free speech.

The decision is made more difficult by the fact that the appellation of hate speech is usually made to avoid confronting differing views. Hence the definition of hate speech for an individual will reflect the particular area they have a vested interest in defending.

And this all, of course, is a reflection of identity politics.

The core precept in identity politics is that a person’s sense of self is immutably tied up with identifying with others on the basis of their beliefs, their gender, their sexual proclivities, their race or nationality. As a result there arises immediately some inherent weaknesses.

To begin with it is surely a much weaker statement to say for example, “I identify as a woman” than it is to say without any qualification, ”I am a woman.”

Secondly, it indicates that the self-concept is insecure if it relies on the confirmation of others. This insecurity results in an aversion to having this identity being challenged. Consequently such people can’t afford to have the ideas on which they base their identity questioned. So, thus, dissenting voices must be silenced. Such voices are then accused of promoting hate speech and their discourse shut down to avoid the identitarians having to confront ideas that are not consonant with their own.

This is the whole foundation of cancel culture of which hate speech is just a part.

As journalist, Brendon O’Neill, has written:

Words make us feel ‘unsafe’ people say. Witness the rise of Safe Spaces on university campuses, designed to ensure students’ psychic security against the terrible threat of their hearing an idea they disagree with  Safe Spaces recreate the state of childhood, complete with colouring books and ice cream, speaking to how  determinedly some long to retreat from the adult world of hurtful chatter and brickbats.

But O’Neill warns us against trying to appease these fragile souls not to be afraid because the objects of their fear are “merely words” , because words matter. That’s exactly why we don’t want to be shut down by the cancel culture and in particular having our opinions excluded from debate on the basis they are hate speech.

The beliefs of most people haven’t been honed by wide consideration and debate, And why is this so?  It is because one of humanity’s strongest needs are social needs – these are our needs to be accepted and belong.  As a result we will often unquestioningly take on the beliefs of our family, our peer group or, in the case of identity politics, the identity group we seek to belong to.

(Remember this old joke?

The Democrat asks the Republican, “How come you are a Republican?”

The Republican responds, “I am a Republican because my father was a Republican and his father before him also was a Republican.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” replies the Democrat. “What if your father had been a horse thief.”

“Ah well, then of course I would have been a Democrat! )

When these basic needs seem to be threatened by contrary ideas the identitarian is fearful and seeks to counter the threat by shutting down the expression of contrary ideas. And for many of them this fear is manifested by hate.

So this is the inherent paradox of hate speech. Those who claim to be victims of hate speech often exhibit more vitriol in their protestations about hate speech than the people they claim have aggrieved them by the use of hate speech!

A powerful case in point is that of the author, J K Rowling, of Harry Potter fame. She has been subject to hatred and vilification by the identitarians. What was her crime? It is simply that she has expressed the opinion that men are not women. Her belief is that despite what drugs a man may take, or whatever surgical procedures he subjects himself to, he can never be a woman. He might like to identify as a woman but as I intimated above that is a far cry from actually being a woman!

I can see nothing from her public utterances that she actually hates men who want to pose as women, but has merely articulated a point of view that logically this seems to her impossible and she disagrees with the underlying thesis of such gender transitioning. But for those who are heavily invested in gender politics this point of view is a heresy that should never be allowed to be promulgated. Rowling, as a result, has been subjected to vile personal criticism and prevented from expressing such a viewpoint in public forums.

Or consider the case of the fabulous indigenous senator, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. She has been accused of hate speech merely because she denies that current indigenous people are victims of colonisation. She has been accused of hate speech and consequently reviled by aboriginal activists whose self-serving interests are threatened by such a claim. Senator Price’s comments are measured and sensible. But as I said above they are met with appalling vitriol. So again I would declare that if there is any hate, it doesn’t come from her but from those who accuse her of hate speech,

So cancel culture and hate speech in particular have no interest in advancing our understanding of contentious issues. They are designed to protect “woke” culture from being exposed to any sort of proper examination.

The progress of Western society has largely been because of a determination to seek the truth.

Philosophy is the discipline that has evolved to help us seek truth. The most famous technique for approaching truth was invented two millennia ago. It was devised by Socrates. Socrates was a Greek philosopher from Athens who is credited as the founder of Western philosophy.

The Socratic Method asserted that we should weigh up competing points of view and evaluate them. But how can we reliably test our points of view if those holding conflicting points of view will not even admit, for the purpose of debate, the possibility of contrary ideas? This deliberate manifestation of ignorance, if it persists, will certainly lead us back to another Dark Age where the progress of human thinking is reversed by removing the benefit of the contest of ideas.

If some of us feel that hearing ideas that are different to their own is so confronting, then I would attest that they have no place in public debate. Let them hide in their safe places. Let us ignore their complaints about hate speech. But let the rest of us continue to debate conflicting points of view with equanimity, curiosity and good will. For that is where intellectual advancement lies and where societal progress is enhanced.

2 Replies to “The Paradox of Hate Speech”

  1. If we institutionalize ‘hate speech’ (whatever that means, to the extent it needs policing, it raises the age-old question “who will watch the watchers”?
    Let’s support free speech instead.

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