Critically Thinking About Hate Speech

Difficulty in definition yields difficulty in evaluation.

Posted Feb 21, 2020

When I write a piece for this blog, I generally invite readers at the end to leave a comment and let me know what they think, given that an aim of this blog is to open discourse on topics that require critical thought—perhaps readers disagree or maybe I missed an important point that needs consideration. For the most part, comments are engaging, encouraging and elicit further dialogue and thought.

However, in one of my recent posts, I had two commenters open dialogue with one another and somewhere within, something was misinterpreted and a heated argument erupted (i.e. not an academic argument). After I got some popcorn, I returned to read the comments and, what I found interesting, accusations of hate speech kept getting thrown back and forth. As an unbiased third-party, I can tell you objectively that there was not a morsel of hate speech in any of those comments, just expressions of frustration from misinterpretation and the occasional ad hominem. I found it amazing how someone could be accused of hate speech simply for disagreeing, especially when not a single hateful word was presented. Just what is it about the concept of hate speech that fires people up and why do people misconstrue even that?

Given my research area of critical thinking, I try my best to stay informed about what is happening in the world, especially ideas and concepts that have the potential to become important trends in society. Hate speech is one of those concepts I find interesting and, so, in an informal setting, I asked some academic friends (from diverse academic backgrounds, including law, sociology, microbiology, and psychology) their opinions as it came up in conversation. Despite the fact that these are intelligent and generally informed individuals, like any other complex terminology, I received varying replies as to what hate speech refers. For example, one response referred to speech that encourages harm towards an individual; another referred to any speech derogatory to a person based on certain characteristics, such as race, sex or creed; and yet another referred to it, simply, as speech that’s insulting to another individual (e.g. ad hominem).

Now, I grew up in a time and an environment where free speech was "guaranteed" and, as long as you weren’t yelling "fire" in a theatre, you could pretty much say anything you wanted, regardless of how ignorant. Of course, there was an unwritten rule regarding certain words and phrases – you just don’t say them. In certain contexts, that unwritten rule was enforced and the speaker punished in some way. Sometimes, it wasn’t; and other times, it simply resulted in people thinking less of you. However, at no time did the legality of such an action cross people’s minds.

Hate speech is a reality in this day and age, with many countries around the world adopting legislation relevant to it or concepts like it. I make reference to this notion of "concepts like it" because not every governing body is entirely sure to what hate speech refers. For example, the European Council for Human Rights emphasises opposition to hate speech; but makes no effort to define it; rather, it offers parameters for decision-making in specific cases (e.g. lest it should fall within a case of free speech). In some countries, hate speech laws focus specifically on religion and others on the denial of historical atrocities. It seems everyone has a different perspective on it.

With respect to my academic friends, most seemed to agree (informally anyway) about the legality of hate speech: it should really only be illegal if it encourages or incites physical or prolonged harm against another or others (which I guess is an operational definition of sorts in its own right). Though the topic of conversation changed before we got into the rationale for this informal agreement in too much detail, I’d reasonably speculate that the line drawn in this description might be for reasons associated with free speech (with which I would agree). Despite this, it was made clear to me that the concept of hate speech was not really clear to anyone.

Overall, the point is that this phrase, hate speech, gets thrown around a lot—people get accused of it and people are warned against it all of the time. Though such accusations and warnings may be sometimes warranted, perhaps, they are often not. A major problem with throwing a term like this around a lot is that we really don’t know what hate speech is—hence why I haven’t dared to offer my own definition. With that, I imagine I might get some feedback from readers "advising" me what it is, but that would be from the perspective of the individual advising me—they would either be coming up with it themselves or presenting a definition from elsewhere with which they agree (see confirmation bias). So, to clarify, we don’t know with certainty what it is meant by the term from a consensus perspective.

Furthermore, a problem with this problem—that is, the problem with the lack of such a definition, as I describe—is that a notion of hate speech does exist but without adequate parameters. As this notion exists, individuals will fill in the blanks as they see fit; but without guarantee of consistency across usage. For example, the accusation of hate speech in the comments section argument I discussed above may not have been inaccurate per se, rather consistent with that person(s)’s perspective of it. But, as I noted, it isn’t consistent with my perspective.

For some, it would be at this stage of the exposition that the subjectivity of one’s existence, maybe even "their truth" would be cited and explained in terms of "their experience" (which any critical thinker knows is a poor evidence-base), as if this somehow gives them the authority to define the phrase for others... in a manner that suits them (again, see confirmation bias). No, that is not the case. If there is no clear guideline for what hate speech is—if there is no credible, consensus definition—then it’s not entirely unreasonable to argue that it doesn’t exist at all. But that’s not the reality of it either. Of course it exists; we know this because we can see its damaging effects in many cases.

However, better efforts need to be made, not just by governments, but by all, to work together in eliminating nonsense accusations and towards a definitive description of the phrase for the purposes of making genuine advances in working against it and, at the same, protecting freedom of speech so that open dialogues can be engaged without worry or fear