The Realities of 'Hate Speech'

Language is the battleground for ideas.  Which words become common and which go out of style record the advances and retreats of competing beliefs.  People who use words as weapons understand that hijacking a country’s vocabulary is the shortest path toward claiming total control over a country’s thoughts.  In a war of words, what is forbidden from being said out loud is more important than what is allowed. 

Sometimes language bans are explicit, such as Ireland’s continuing crusade against so-called “hate” speech or Facebook’s policy directives to censor as “misinformation” any commentary questioning the effectiveness of COVID “vaccines.”  In other instances, certain words are stigmatized until populations learn to see them as “politically incorrect,” if not downright vulgar or taboo.  Whether enforced through official corporate policy, criminal statute, or polite society’s behavioral codes, the effect of limiting speech is identical: free expression is reduced to a verbal minefield.

Can I say that?  Should I say that?  Will I be punished for saying that?  Just asking those questions encourages a degree of self-censorship unpalatable in any truly “free” society.  If human innovation is a product of argument and debate, then any kind of debate that limits which words may be spoken also limits mankind’s capacity for discovery.  Stifled thoughts lead to closed minds.

A June poll from the Commonwealth Foundation in Pennsylvania found that nearly 60% of Americans feel their right to free speech has significantly eroded in the last decade.  Over 40% said that they or someone they know has self-censored during the last year to avoid punishment or harassment.  “We have heard from numerous individuals who are bullied into silence and fear retaliation if they speak,” Jeremy Samek, senior counsel at Pennsylvania Family Institute, told the Epoch Times.  “They fear retribution from their private employers, government employers, and even by those in the media.”  In the United States -- where free speech was once considered as quintessentially American as baseball and apple pie -- ordinary people are afraid to speak.  That fact should shock the sensibilities of any American who once believed totalitarianism died in the twentieth century.

Laws and corporate policies that censor words for their perceived “hate” open up a Pandora’s box for future censorship.  Often, what is today seen as “hateful” speech was not seen as “hateful” very long ago.  It is more than likely, then, that some speech viewed as harmless today will be condemned as “hateful” tomorrow.  The words and their meanings do not change but rather the subjective judgments of those who choose to police language.

If Michigan Democrats have their way, it will soon be illegal to use any “hate” speech that causes someone to “feel terrorized, frightened, or threatened.”  In an age when “woke” leftists require “safe spaces” to shield them from the possibility of ever hearing opposing points of view, any kind of speech that deviates from the left’s secular religion will surely be judged as “frightening” or “threatening.”  Just to be clear that Michigan is not targeting foreign terrorists but rather Americans expressing personal beliefs, the proposed law specifically defines “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression” as special groups that must be protected from scary words.  Rational Americans with a sound understanding of the biological sciences could face five years in prison and a ten-thousand-dollar fine for accurately stating that there are only two sexes and that men and women are distinct.  

Even more dangerous for free expression is the ennoblement of a class of people who are empowered to evaluate the language of everyone else.  What is “hateful” to one person may sound entirely reasonable to another.  However, when “experts” in “disinformation” or “hate” are given the power to veto another person’s spoken and written words, that “expert” is given a de facto power to veto another person’s thoughts and beliefs.  Whether a word or idea is banned is entirely dependent upon who is empowered to appraise language.  Why should any government or corporation have the power to restrict language that belongs to us all?

Consider the slippery slope of banning words and ideas for their perceived “hatefulness.”  Is it “hateful” to disagree with the United Nations’ contention that so-called “man-made climate change” threatens human existence?  Is it “hateful” to defend oil and natural gas as reliable energies for saving human lives?  Is it “hateful” to believe all humans should be treated equally regardless of skin color, during a time when the United States and other Western countries prefer to separate citizens by race?

In Ukraine, President Vladimir Zelenskyy has decided to ban Russian books and publications.  So sorry, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn -- your literary masterpieces have once again been judged “politically incorrect.”  Apologies to all the Russian-speakers living in Ukraine who now have nothing to read.  “I believe this law is the right decision,” Zelenskyy wrote.  Surely every government authoritarian ever committed to cracking down on dissenting opinion has said something similar.  For the time being, the whole of the Russian language is prohibited in Ukraine because it supposedly threatens “the information security of the state.”

Control over speech is control over thoughts.  When governments are permitted to criminalize “hate,” they soon define anything that challenges their power as “hateful.” Any wrongthink is “hateful.”  At some point, labeling certain thoughts and ideas as “hateful” becomes the most formidable cudgel in advancing actual hate.  We are not far from telling Christians and Jews that their beliefs are illegal.  Speech bans only grow over time.

Many individual rights -- such as assembling to protest government policy or attending religious services -- were deemed “selfish” during the global COVID outbreak.  Will “selfishness” one day be viewed as indistinguishable from “hate”?  Is it “hateful” to defend personal liberty whenever governments declare a health “emergency”?  Will any speech that elevates personal freedom above the perceived “common good” eventually be banned as “hate” speech?

That time is not nearly as far off as one might imagine.  In recent years, it has become far more common to hear politicians in the United States speak about “saving democracy,” rather than preserving rights and freedoms.  If understood as “rule by the majority,” the protection of “democracy” assures citizens very little.  After all, in a society of one hundred citizens where fifty-one are practicing cannibals, the other forty-nine will not long survive.  

It is respect for individual rights -- not democracy -- that provides the foundation for the American system of government and safeguards citizens from injustice.  The Declaration of Independence asserts “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as among those unalienable human rights that any legitimate government must protect.  The Bill of Rights articulates a partial list of American freedoms beyond the reach of federal government intrusion.  When politicians substitute “democracy” in lieu of “freedom,” they engage in a linguistic sleight of hand that deprives Americans of their birthright in liberty.

Because language is the battleground for ideas, any discussion of “democracy” at the expense of personal rights should be viewed suspiciously.  Right now, Americans are still permitted to speak of their freedoms.  But what about tomorrow?  Will there come a time when support for individual liberty will be deemed an expression of “selfishness” or even “hate”?

That is precisely the problem with language bans of any kind.  Those who claim the power to censor words and ideas will not consult the public, regardless of how often they invoke the need to preserve “democracy.”  Nor will they concede that the First Amendment’s protections for free speech preclude their trespass upon Americans’ personal liberties.  In the minds of those who wish to police language, governments and corporations are the highest authority.

Image: Tim Pierce

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