How to Deal with Hate Speech

by Benjamin Studebaker

Now that I’m once again at a university doing university work, I have the pleasure of having my mind pointed at different subjects and writings that I otherwise might not get around to investigating. I’ve been looking at a book by Corey Brettschneider entitled When the State Speaks, What Should It Say? In this book, Brettschneider seeks to resolve an interesting dilemma in liberal political theory–namely, how liberal states, which are committed to liberty and equality, should deal with citizens who have illiberal opinions. Here, Brettschneider calls these illiberal opinions “hateful views”, and argues that a view is hateful if it seeks to undermine the liberty or equality of groups of people on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, and so on. I’d like to discuss Brettschneider’s view with you a bit today.

Brettschneider observes two primary ways in which liberal theorists attempt to deal with hateful views:

  1. Neutralism–some liberals prioritize free speech over eradicating hateful views from society. These liberals propose that the state should be neutral, and should allow citizens to debate these issues without any interference from the state. The United States generally follows this model.
  2. Militant Democracy–other liberals prioritize preserving and advancing liberal values over free speech. These liberals propose that the expression of hateful views be criminalized. Many European countries follow this model, particularly formerly fascist countries like Germany and Italy.

Brettschneider sees both views as having potentially dystopian outcomes. Under neutralism, hateful views may grow unchecked throughout a society until they grow strong enough to commandeer the state and redirect its laws in blatantly illiberal, hateful ways–the most obvious example of this is Hitler’s Germany. Militant democracy, on the other hand, produces a society in which some citizens’ views are disrespected by the state, which becomes an instrument of repression. A militant democracy is not merely repressive, but its repression may even garner further sympathy for those whose views are being repressed, ultimately strengthening the hateful views.

Brettschneider proposes a third way, one in which the state does not restrict speech but is also not entirely neutral. He draws a distinction between two kinds of state action:

  1. Coercion–cases in which the state actively prevents proponents of hateful views from expressing themselves.
  2. Expression–cases in which the state uses education/legal opinions/media to broadcast propaganda opposing hateful views and expressing liberal values.

Brettschneider believes that states act wrongly when they coerce those who hold hateful views, but that it acts rightly when it expresses disapproval of those views and makes arguments against them.  He calls his view, “value democracy”. On the face of it, this seems like a neat compromise between the neutralist and militant views he describes. That said, I think there is a critical oversight in the work.

This oversight is that there is not neat agreement among political theorists about which views are unreasonably illiberal and which are liberal but merely express reasonable disagreement with the specific theorist in question. The most obvious example I can point to of a view that some theorists consider illiberal while others consider within the bounds for reasonable debate is libertarianism. In writing my undergraduate dissertation last year, I ran across a paper by Samuel Freeman entitled Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism is Not a Liberal ViewFreeman argues not merely that libertarianism is illiberal, but that it is illiberal in a way that is very similar to racism, sexism, and so on. I agree with Freeman on this point. To see how this is so, we need to examine the reasoning racists and libertarians use.

The racist argument:

  1. Distributions of liberties, opportunities, and other resources are distributed among the races meritocratically.
  2. To the extent that some races get more liberty, opportunity, or other resources than others, it is because these racial groups are superior.
  3. Therefore, racial inequalities of liberty, opportunity, and other resources are justified, and there are no grounds for redistribution or legal protection of inferior races.

The libertarian argument:

  1. Distributions of liberties, opportunities, and other resources are distributed among the classes meritocratically.
  2. To the extent that some classes get more liberty, opportunity, and other resources than others, it is because these classes are superior.
  3. Therefore, classist inequalities of liberty, opportunity, and other resources are justified, and there are no grounds for redistribution or legal protection of inferior classes.

The very same forces that prevent a young, otherwise capable black person from succeeding prevent young, otherwise capable poor white people from succeeding. They are denied the same access to educational resources, they are culturally discriminated against, and so on. There are millions of Honey Boo Boo’s in western countries without their own television shows whose educations are truncated due to poor home environments and insufficient educational resources. It is a significant disadvantage to be born into a stereotypical “white trash” environment, just as it is a significant disadvantage to be born into a stereotypical “black” environment. Just as racists are completely unwilling to do anything to help black people in the United States overcome the disadvantages their blackness imposes upon them, libertarians are completely unwilling to do anything to help poor people overcome their own disadvantages–they are militantly opposed to redistribution for that purpose. A similar comparison could be made with sexism–sexists deny that they have any duties to equalize the opportunity of women, just as libertarians deny that they have any duties to equality the opportunity of those born into poor backgrounds.

Insofar as libertarianism is like racism or sexism, it is also a hateful view and deeply illiberal. This poses two problems that Brettschneider has not, in my view, overcome:

  1. Disagreement over which views are hateful–if we do not universally agree on which views are hateful (and we don’t–not everyone agrees with myself and Freeman that libertarianism is a hateful view), how do we determine which views the government is entitled to speak against? We cannot make this determination by majority view, because historically a majority of the population did not consider racism, sexism, or any of the other views we presently think of as hateful as such. Even if a majority presently does not consider libertarianism hateful, it may still be hateful, just as racism was hateful even when a majority of people were racists and did not believe themselves to hold a hateful view.
  2. The state expressing a view that the majority disagrees with–at least half the United States holds views that are to some degree libertarian. If libertarianism is indeed a hateful view, then under Brettschneider’s value democracy, the American government is morally required to use say, the education system to persuade children not to be libertarians. In practice, this means that Brettschneider’s view implies that the US government has a duty to discourage children from supporting say, Rand Paul. I do not imagine that republicans would take that very well. Most would probably feel quite alienated.

Brettschneider’s view seems to assume that we know which views are hateful and which are not, and that hateful views are fringe opinions. But if they are fringe opinions, why do we need to use the state to discourage them in the first place? And if they are not fringe opinions, surely many citizens would object strongly to say, the use of their own tax money to propagandize people into rejecting views that they themselves hold? I’m not sure how Brettschneider would handle these issues.

This inclines me back toward are more neutralist view. I still find Mill’s argument persuasive regarding attempts to drill specific political beliefs into citizens:

However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.

That said, I have in the past made exceptions to my neutralism in certain scenarios involving children whose parents are attempting to drastically reduce their life opportunities in the name of cultural practices or religious views, as detailed here.