Should we ban 'hate'?

For some years I've had half a mind to attempt a move to the UK or some Commonwealth country. But if I ever did, I might quickly find that I'd rather be back in the good ole' USA. Probably my main impediment, besides the weather, from moving to the UK or Canada is my discomfort with those countries' policies towards free speech.

I have been reminded about this issue because of a story I caught wind of on several news outlets about a week ago: The UK sent a Dutch poltician home to the Netherlands, who had come to the UK to screen a film he made criticizing Islam.

Britain's government sent Geert Wilders' home for his anti-Islamic views. He was, of course, dis-allowed from showing film, in fact he was presented with a letter from Britain's Home office as soon as he got off his plane, explaning that his views "threaten community security" and that he would not be allowed to express them.

In defending their action, officials of the UK government claim that while it allows freedom of speech, hate speech is not protected - just as, to use the classic example, shouting "fire" in a crowded theater is not protected speech in most free societies.

That sounds good. After all, hatred is a horrible corrosive thing that shouldn't be spread. And it is certainly true that when a community adopts attitudes of hate toward certain minorities, it often follows that their civil rights are curtailed - usually through informal means rather than actual laws. And we must guard against this in a free society.

But there are other things we must guard against as well.

This whole situation does not sit well with me for several reasons and I worry that some US lawmakers, most likely on our political left (now in power here in the US), will succeed in enshrining 'hate speech' bans in our own legal world.

My first problematic question: just what is "hate speech"? How can one define what is "hateful"? More to the point, who gets to define it? In our case that would probably be un-elected federal judges. Do we really want to give THAT power to them?

For that matter, what is "hate"? Is hate just a subjective emotion? How can one regulate that?

Or maybe "hate speech" is just a label that people use, when they could use some other label to describe the exact same speech. You know, "one man's hate speech is another man's criticism." How can we differentiate between hate speech and legitimate (if passionately delivered) criticism? When one is on the recieving end, it may be very hard to tell the difference, since criticism is very seldomly delivered without passion or conviction.

And isn't banning criticism one of the defining characteristics of a totalitarian state?

I submit there are two possibilities. Either we must practice censorship (that is what we are talking about) in very VERY careful ways the necessity of which can be seen by folks on all parts of the political spectrum. Or we should not regulate speech at all.

Of course this brings up the prickly question of what is speech. In our society pornorgraphy and "porno-horror" films (the sort where we watch people being tortured and slowly dismembered in graphic detail) are considered "free expression" and deemed to be protected speech. I think that their obviously corrosive influence on the human soul should cause us to at least reconsider that. So I guess I'm not an abolute Libertarian on this issue. I'm not so sure where I stand on flag burning as a form of protest either.

But what of the most basic meaning of "speech", that is, verbal sentences coming out of someone's mouth (or written sentences coming out of their fingers)?

I believe with regard to this basic sense of speech - verbal and written speech - all free societies should allow a free exchange of ideas and debate rather than picking which ones to ban (obviously this would exclude explicit calls to violence and sedition and such, as it always has). Yes, this means that odious people will say and write odious things. But it also means that thoughtful people can respond with thoughtful things. It lets ideas compete on their own merits in the marketplace of ideas. The truth is that on the internet it is going to happen anyway.

This seems to me to be better than the government coming in and closing down the open debate process by choosing some ideas to validate and others to ban. That potentiality is extremely discomforting to me, since the government may not get it right.

Consider Geert Wilders. The man probably does harbor "hate" for Muslims and Islam. But that does not mean he may not also have some good points to contribute to an open debate. He has criticized Islam as inherently violent. That is offensive to many, but considering the number of death threats he has recieved, it is at least a potentially valid point that deserves a full out debate that considers the definition and content of "Islam" and all of the historical evidence. If such a debate were to happen we might discover things are not so simple as saying "Islam is _____." We might have to say more nuanced things like "most Muslims believe ______, but many believe ______." We might all learn something.

Perhaps most disturbing in all this is why that particular debate is not being allowed to occur. The British government has said that Mr. Wilders' views "threaten community security." I wonder if that is not a back-handed way of saying that "angry British Muslims threaten community security" since, presumably, they would be the source of a violent protest reaction?

Now it may simply be the case that the Government has an overly negative view of some of its citizens and doubts their ability to recieve criticism in a mature way. This might reinforce my contention that the Government is not wise enough to regulate speech in a just manner anyway. On the other hand, the Government's may be a well-founded fear. If it is well-founded that would, ironically, at least appear to lend some measure credence to Mr. Wilders' banned views, wouldn't it?

If the Government believes it has an angry and potentially violent minority in its society, maybe banning certain forms of free speech is not the best way to address the problem? Maybe asking "why are they angry?" "why are they potentially violent?" and then seeking ways to address whatever social problems contribute to that would be better. Otherwise the Government will be walking on eggshells forever, banning more and more speeches and movies and controversial public figures that might trigger a reaction. And of course even as free speech diminishes, they will eventually miss one, some totally unexpected event will trigger the violence that is simmering under the surface - if there is any such tension to begin with - and it will all have been for naught.

All the more reason to communicate honestly, and criticize openly, whatever social issues and problems we see in our societies. We may turn out to be wrong in our criticisms, and those who know better than us will show us why.

Of course, society's committment to free speech is in the best interest of the Church. For one thing, we are already accused of being 'hateful' from several quarters. For example even reading parts of the Bible, or indeed church law, that condemn certain lifestyle choices (homosexual practice, divorce, fornication, etc.) might be considered "hate speech" and banned or restricted. During the hoopla surrounding the theatrical release of The Passion of the Christ I heard a Rabbi on the radio saying that the four Canonical Gospels were simply inherently Anti-Semitic, no matter how they were presented (this brings me back to my question about who gets to define what is and isn't "hate speech"). And of course the Church believes it has a "prophetic role" in announcing God's condemnation of certain social evils. No doubt such criticism could be construed as "anti-American" (read: hate??) speech by somebody.

I believe if ideas are allowed to compete honestly and openly, the Truth will be found out; because he is Lord of the Universe and wants to be known by men. He is working in and through our clumsy, even ugly, debates to call all people to himself. So I don't think that the expression (written or spoken expression) of ideas should be banned (as I said above, this does not mean that I am currently in favor of ALL forms of expression being protected...I'll have to think more on that one).

So that's where my thinking is at the moment on this issue of free speech and hate speech censorship. But I have reconsidered this very important issue several times - and leaned in different directions - and it is a very difficult one for me. What do you guys think about it?

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Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Interestingly (to me) and very reflective of our cultural mood: Blogger (the guys who host this blog and thousands like it) does permit explicit adult material to be posted onto blogs as a matter of "free expression." However, "hateful" material is not allowed on Blogger.

I would prefer that they either allowed or disallowed both kinds of content for consistency (both are acid to the human soul). But it does raise questions in my mind...

9:24 AM, May 02, 2009  

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