Freedom of Speech vs Hate Speech

There is always a debate to the extent of which individuals are allowed to express their views and rightfully so, speech is a complex topic. However, a current politically correct environment puts even more pressure on this fundamental right in democratic societies and threatens the progressive nature of western civilisation.

Currently the laws surrounding freedom of speech are limited. The limitations are comprised in the Human Rights Act of 1998 (as well as other acts) stating that you can not say anything that threatens national security, threatens public safety, promotes disorder and crime or discloses personal and confidential information that was given in confidence. In simple terms, you can not incite any form of violence or danger such as shouting “FIRE!” in a crowded cinema. The issue facing freedom of speech is the distinction between what people hear and do not like verses hate speech.

It is without question that hate speech exists and is intrinsic with the past of many societies. It unfortunately still impacts some people of certain genders, races, ethnicities and religions today. Hate speech, as a whole, is despised by the vast majorities of people and has done since the 1960’s civil rights act in the US and the various equality acts in the UK. It would be absurd to think that society is anything remotely similar to times before these unifying, societal changes, however, it still exists and is morally and lawfully unacceptable.

Many political commentators, journalists and academics such as Jordan Peterson, Steven Crowder, Ben Shapiro and Candice Owens would argue that freedom of speech is being threatened by a developed political correctness that has emerged through identity politics and that many who claim hate speech are in fact acting upon a victim mentality, which has also been linked to identity politics. They would go as far to say it is being manipulated to silence opposing views, which puts discussion and solving genuine social and political problems in jeopardy.

What is hate speech?

Hate speech is outlined within many different laws. One of which being the Public Order Act of 1986. In section 4 of this act it determines an offence being committed if a person has intent to cause harm or provoke someone else to cause harm to the individual or group being targeted. In addition to this, the Terrorism Act of 2006 deems the encouragement of terrorism as an offence as well as glorifying and/or celebrating extremist acts. Covering online platforms for free expression, section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003 considers an online message or post that is indecent or obscene as well as false in nature. The fact that speech is covered in multiple laws testifies the complexity of this human right.

It is also important to distinguish hate speech from hate crimes. Hate crimes are specific to physical actions that cause harm to others because of the demographic they belong to. Hate speech is the causation and/or justification of these actions. The two are closely linked in nature and can be handled differently in the eyes of the law.

In the past, we have seen many examples of hate speech. Germany, after WW1, saw the rise to the orator and later, German Leader, Adolf Hitler. His political ideologies and blame seeking encouraged and justified the mistreatment of the Jewish Community, which later developed into a mass genocide of the Jewish community, disabled and racial minorities. Another example occurred in the American State of Tennessee 1865. A group of confederate veterans formed a secret society known as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). This group encouraged and endorsed the ideology of white supremacy and acted violently to cripple the social reconstructions being made to improve the lives of African Americans. Their speech promoted and justified their political aims at the cost of African American lives.

Unfortunately, we still see hate speech within our communities today. An example of this would be the English Defense League (EDL). The group express openly that Islam immigrants are promoting a terrorist culture. They also blame the larger Muslim community for all manor of offences. Similar to Hitler’s blame game, they promote aggressive and violent acts such as ‘vigilante patrols’ through their protests and speeches.

These examples should not imply that only groups can commit hate speech but merely demonstrate clearly what hate speech is. Hate speech can be committed by individuals on a much smaller scale but have similar impacts to members of the targeted demographic.

Political Correctness

The definition of political correctness is the avoidance of language that may marginalise, exclude or insult certain individuals who are socially disadvantaged and have been discriminated against. The term is designed to prevent others from being deliberately inflammatory or discriminatory to marginalised groups. The issue with political correctness in recent times, is that it now encompasses people that are being offended from a differing opinion. This exaggerates the definition of political correctness to the point now where it is used as a political tool to quell certain views and create moral ultimatums that act similarly to sheep herding in order to gain a majority or popularity. Therefore, based on this definition, if you can identify within a marginalised group (intersectionality), you can enforce language that you do not agree with if it offends your identified group or does not fit its ideology or opinions.

Is offensive speech, hate speech?

Just like all crimes, hate speech produces victims. It is also extremely common for these victims to not only be offended by what is said, but be physically hurt by the actions it has endorsed. It is here where unfortunately, the lines between what is offensive and what is hate speech have been blurred. Something factual or opinionated can be socially classed as hate speech on the sole factor that it offends someone. As mentioned earlier, hate speech would not only have to promote violence towards a person based on their group identity, but be false in nature. We may not like to hear facts or opinions, but this does not imply hate.

Steven Crowder, a political commentator in the US, often visits universities to film videos for Youtube titled “Change my mind…” where he tries to have rational debates over controversial topics. Such topics have included “Hate speech doesn’t exist: Change my mind”. During debates around topics such as this, it is common for members of the public to accuse him of hate speech and promoting hatred. Their premise is that the failure to adhere to the issue being discussed through the eyes of the victim, devalues the the problem and makes it more acceptable for others to do it, subsequently promoting harm. The problem with this argument is that it reduces the responsibility and accountability of the individual who is promoting hatred and acting violently on it as the causality of their actions is partly being placed elsewhere. Is this not promoting violence and hate speech? Giving people an opportunity to escape facing full responsibility for their actions entices people to do it more.

An interview on channel 4 between Cathy Newman and Jordan Peterson, produced the overwhelmingly logical answer to being offensive and freedom of speech. When Peterson was asked “How should your right to freedom of speech trump a trans right to not be offended?” To which Peterson replied “In order to think you have to risk being offensive.” He further gave an example of how Newman was willing to offend Peterson in order to get the truth in the interview. There was no come back after this. The logic behind it makes so much sense. How can you develop morality if you are confined to think a certain way?

What is the problem?

Prioritising someone’s personal distaste for a particular phrase or view risks measures being implemented to control what we can and can not say, which in turn impacts our right to even hold certain opinions – such tactics are attempted within identity politics. Canada were the first country to bring in legislation to protect LGBTQ people – Bill C-16. This law makes it a crime to refuse to call someone by their preferred gender pronoun and deliberately call that person by the pronoun they perceive them to be. The premise of such a bill is great; morally, everyone would be on board to protect an individual from being discriminated against. But the issue of gender identity is such a complex topic that genuine mistakes can be claimed as discrimination to the point where police are involved. That does not sound fair at all. The bill made it acceptable to attempt to criminalise anyone who did not see the issue through the eyes of the ‘victim’. Someone may disagree with the idea of gender identity outside of male and female, never act upon it or try to confine someone to their view, but because their view is deemed offensive by a minority, they are deemed to be promoting hatred and accused of hate speech.

Psychologists such as Jordan Peterson claim that making it acceptable to limit or control our speech is the start of full language control by governmental powers. Jordan Peterson came into celebrity status after he protested at his university campus after they set in rules stating that you had to refer to students by their preferred gender pronoun. He did not protest people’s choice to have preferred pronouns, he did not want his language controlled. Obviously, this view was condemned by many students who claimed he was spouting hate speech and promoting violence towards the LGBTQ community; this was not at all his intentions. He made it clear that if a student of his asked him to call them by a preferred pronoun he would. Despite this, the attempt to silence his views because he did not agree and see the issue through the eyes of the victim classed him as a homophobe and a promoter of hatred.

Saying anything that is deemed offensive is now sought to be stopped – “cancel culture”. We see regularly in society, shows being banned on certain platforms, celebrities having entire careers tarnished because of a prehistoric view that was acceptable at the time. Russell Howard recently stormed off stage after asking a woman to stop recording his performance, which was a lot of material testing. He told the woman that “comedians are a dying breed because they are scared of people filming their potentially unseen content and putting it on YouTube, which could ruin their act.” The fear of being cancelled and having their livelihoods ruined because the career he chose plays with the tentative line of offensiveness is dangerous and only hinders the progress we can make as a society.

Russell Howard cancels performance and storms off stage after ...
Russell Howard’s comedy show where he experiments with new content.

The power of being a victim has enabled the control of language, the silencing of views and “cancel culture”. Unfortunately for some, being a victim has become desirable because it gives them notoriety as well as power. This diminishes the seriousness of real victims and real hate speech. By branding anything offensive as hate speech as if it is everywhere, means the real perpetrators are not demonised as harshly as they should be by society and thus, the problem never really goes away.

Solution?

No laws can stop an entire population from being offensive or for the minority spouting hate speech. You see this with every other form of crime. Stealing is against the law though people still steal. Control of language to the extent that certain views are deemed as hate speech would never work and would not impact people’s morality positively. As discussed earlier, this whole topic has only further divided people as well as possibly and plausibly promoted such hate speech. For us as a society to be less offensive and discriminatory to certain groups of people, we have to tackle the sources of where people gain morality. It is a taught and developed attitude and culture, but everyone has to be on board. Creating divide does not help the real victims subsequently meaning that these issues are never really solved.

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