The Moral Weakness of Hate Speech Laws

by Benjamin Studebaker

Yesterday, at the United Nations, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi expressed support for laws banning hate speech, claiming that, while he respects freedom of expression, he restricts this respect to only one that:

is not used to incite hatred against anyone. One that is not directed toward one specific religion or cult

You can listen to the entire speech here; I was unable to locate a transcript.

The President of Yemen, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, was more to the point:

There should be limits for the freedom of expression, especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.

This policy of illegalising what has become known as “hate speech” is held by many leaders in the Middle East, and enshrined in many legal codes not only in the developing world but even in many western countries. Today I would like to put forth an argument that these laws and the beliefs that sustain them display tremendous moral weakness.

Whenever free speech comes up, the man to look to for guidance is 19th century Britain’s John Stuart Mill. In his great work, On Liberty, he argued that, when ideas go unchallenged, their intellectual strength wanes:

even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.

When we refuse to hear criticisms of the ideas that currently hold sway, even the ideas most universally recognised as valid and correct, we undermine the strength of those ideas. People should be actively opposed to racism, religious hatred, and other bigotries. When we ban hate speech, we do not weaken the bigotries, we weaken the opposition to the bigotries. Instead of hearing the bigotry and having the opportunity to denounce and refute it intellectually, the public is insulated from the idea altogether.

We can see this in school children. Campaigns against racism, ethnocentrism, and the other bigotries in school tend to have the precise opposite impact. As I recall vividly from going to school not too long ago, the more intensive the efforts to silence bigotry, the more pernicious the bigoted language becomes. By driving bigotry underground, it becomes associated with rebellion, defying “the man”, and consequently with coolness. Many people express bigoted opinions humourously for precisely this reason. While in our society formal bigotry is widely considered wrong, the constant emphasis upon this point has made informal bigotry socially acceptable as a form of “edgy” humour, in the same way that banned or socially unacceptable drugs, music, and other media become, simply by virtue of having been banned, popular. If most of the bigotry we regularly encountered were genuine formal bigotry, our reaction against it intellectually would be far stronger than it presently is, where most bigotry we encounter on a day to day basis is being used as humour. The real bigotry has been driven underground and become all the more entrenched by the various efforts to eradicate it.

Such bigotry becomes entrenched because the very act of banning it, in addition to making it appealing, also makes it seem as if the argument against bigotry cannot stand on its own intellectual feet. When Innocence of Muslims mocked the prophet, the best response logically was for Muslims to point out the flaws in the film’s argument (an argument that was almost entirely founded on deliberately offensive attacks for shock value), to look down upon the films’ creators as ignoramuses and fools. The violent reaction demonstrated an inability to respond to the really appallingly poor argument in the film intellectually–it makes Islam look incapable of defending itself against even these astonishingly poor attacks with words. This demeans Islam, weakens its reputation, and makes mocking Islam seem cool as an expression of social rebellion. Events like “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” are the result.  We get more similarly offensive and stupid argumentative content–people begin behaving not unlike the conventional “internet troll”, deliberately offending Muslims to provoke a violent response with then affirms the offending content and encourages more of it. Muslims who do violence in response to speech actually damage Islam far more than any badly made, stupid film ever could.

While even Morsi and Hadi denounced the violence, their effort to get the United States to ban hate speech is, intellectually, every bit as ridiculous. It creates the perception of an inability on the part of the Muslim community to refute the film intellectually and makes the film’s despicable content seem legitimate. Their non-intellectual reaction to the video, calling for it to be banned rather than addressing it or dismissing it as a ridiculous, unfounded attack, has the same effect that doing violence has on Islam–it makes Muslims appear immature, infantile, and incapable of rational argument. It demeans Islam and harms its reputation in the same way.

Mill observes the very same thing in reaction to deliberately inflammatory speech even in his time:

it is fit to take some notice of those who say that the free expression of all opinions should be permitted, on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the bounds of fair discussion. Much might be said on the impossibility of fixing where these supposed bounds are to be placed; for if the test be offence to those whose opinions are attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent.

The reaction from many members of the Muslim community fuels just this response. Of course we know that many Muslims are perfectly happy to respond to even stupid criticisms like the one in question with intelligence and clarity. It is imperative that these Muslims stand up and make themselves heard. Those who would seek to ban speech rather than answer it cannot be seen to stand for all of Islam, or even for all of Egypt and Yemen, for that matter.

Of course, hate speech laws are not a uniquely Muslim or Middle Eastern phenomenon–many Western nations, including countries like Germany, Britain, and France, have laws against hate speech on the books (Germany even has a law against expressing support for fascism). These nations are just as guilty of weakening the consensus against bigotry and perversely encouraging it by stifling debate on the subject and ensuring that wretched, despicable views are not publicly heard and confronted intellectually.

It is in this area, the United States should receive serious praise for considering hate speech a civil right. It remains one of the few remaining areas in which the United States decisively protects freedom and liberty more seriously and comprehensively than any other nation. Hats off.