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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Hate speech

My daughter lives in Berlin, with her German national husband. Germany has something called Volksverhetzung, which translates to “incitement of hatred.” Here, we would call it hate speech. In Germany, it’s illegal.

According to Wikipedia, “the law requires that said speech be ‘qualified for disturbing public peace’ either by inciting ‘hatred against parts of the populace’ or calling for ‘acts of violence or despotism against them,’ or by attacking ‘the human dignity of others by reviling, maliciously making contemptible or slandering parts of the populace.’”

Many Germans are wary of hate speech. Hate speech preceded Nazism. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the more frequently people hear attacks on some group, the more likely eventual violence against them might be.

Such laws are not unique to Germany. In the aftermath of World War II, similar laws were adopted in many nations in Europe, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, Africa, India, Asia, and Australia.

In the United States, the First Amendment has been held to offer broad protection for most kinds of speech. The few exceptions are libel, immediate threats to public safety (shouting “fire” in a crowded theater), and “fighting words” (an immediate incitement to violence where such violence might reasonably be construed as likely).

It’s clear to me that the political speech of Trump during his campaign gave a lot of cover for hate groups - encouraging David Duke to run for the Louisiana Senate, for instance, and explicitly endorsing Breitbart messages. But Trump may be part of a larger coarsening of public speech. It’s hard to see Milo Yiannopoulos’s crude and racist Twitter attacks on Leslie Jones as a celebration of political opinion.

Yet, hate speech has also been defined by some as merely questioning a system of religious beliefs. Is saying that one does not believe in Christ’s virgin birth an insult to Catholicism? Is wondering about the effects of a verse in the Koran hate speech against Islam? Should there be criminal consequences? In some parts of the world, there are.

Political criticism of a regime has also been cast as hate speech. That’s a handy tool for tyranny, too.

As is always the case with censorship, it comes down to “who decides?”

I do not endorse speech whose aim is to harass or frighten people. Jesus wasn’t the only smart soul to state the Golden Rule: do unto others as ye would be done by.

It’s possible to express even difficult political or religious opinions without being a bully. Even when we can't be kind, we should be polite.

Nonetheless, though I condemn hate speech for the ignorant malice it represents, I oppose even more strongly the idea that the government should punish what people think and say, rather than what they do. Government policy, like library policy, should concern itself with behavior, not with opinions.

2 comments:

Coursera Dave said...

I have also noted the tough stance in Germany against so-called hate speech. Remember always that the definition can change and be merged with 'incorrect' speech, and eventually we'll be unable to speak about politics, religion, race or gender except to rubber stamp the ideology which has the strongest support in the current government. That's dangerous.

Much of what is now called 'hate speech' is really just speech which bothers someone. And some people are very easily bothered. I cannot and will not speak under someone else's shifting discomfort level. The Q in LGBTQ is a word which I was taught was insulting. I know I can't get away with using the words defined by the last two letters in the NAACP. I can't suggest building a wall at the border of my country, though many countries have such things. Donald Trump is called a racist for wanting to limit immigration from Mexico -- though that is official US policy.

If this odd 'hate speech' policy jumps the ocean, and takes strong root here, we'll all be silenced.

James LaRue said...

The Germans would say, hate speech also silences, and worse, can set the stage for genocide. That's not conjecture. It's history. I talk to a lot of people who see a difference between saying borders should be enforced, and saying all Mexican immigrants are rapists. Yet, like you,I fear the slippery slope. We can, and should, call out speech that crosses the line into bigotry and threats on someone's life. But making the former a crime opens the door to another kind of abuse. As for the latter, I think a case could be made, at least when the threat is public and credible.