Why Hate Speech Should Not Be Illegal

When the nation had a debate on hate, hate lost. 
I hate racism. As a Christian, I consider hatred based on race to be a serious sin. And just generally, I find racism to be stupid, mean, and cruel. I also dislike other forms of hatred and bigotry. Use language traditionally called, "hate speech" around me and you can count on me responding with disapproval, correction, and general dislike. 

But as you may have picked up from the title of this article, I do not think we can or should make "hate speech" illegal. In other words, the KKK is a dumb, immoral, and evil organization but if they want to spew their dumb and hateful thoughts on race, I think a free society must allow them to. Why?

First, hate is a thought. It is an emotion inside our heads. We all have thoughts about lots of things. Some of our thoughts are good. Some are bad. Some are not fully fleshed out and therefore are neither. And they are our business. I hope we can all agree that the government attempting to institute thought control is evil and scary?  Thought crimes are never actual crimes in a free society. 
"The main reason I oppose hate speech laws is that I think giving the government power to parse our conversations, interpret meaning, rule on what words went too far, and exact punishments based on these findings is terrifying."
If we can all agree that thoughts (no matter how unpleasant) cannot be crimes,  then what about "hate speech?" If we define hate speech as verbalizing the hate we have in our heads, then hate speech is simply verbalizing a legal thought. Simply saying your emotion out loud. How can that be illegal in a free society?

But those in favor of hate speech laws argue that allowing hate speech will have terrible consequences including:

1) Inciting others to hate
2) Hurting those at whom the hate is directed
3) Leading those who hear the hate speech to commit violence against the hated group

Let's start with the possibility of inciting hate. How can we say that encouraging others to do something legal (thinking hateful thoughts) is a crime? If it is legal to think hateful thoughts, then inciting others to think legal thoughts cannot be a crime. As terrible as those thoughts might be, they are legal. The government cannot and should not attempt to stop the spread of legal thoughts. Thought control on the front end (stopping certain thoughts by coercion) is just as creepy as attempting to control it on the back end (making thinking certain thoughts illegal). Both are outside of the scope of government.

If we cannot agree that thought control is wrong, what can we agree on?

The way a free society stops the spread of  harmful ideas is by countering them with good arguments. Racism was taken for granted in this nation at one point in time and it didn't change suddenly by government fiat, speech controls, or thought-monitoring. It changed because of the good arguments made by countless civil rights leaders, Christian thinkers, and every day folks thinking about the issue. And, ironically, this change was made possible because people were able to verbalize their racist feelings. It is hard to engage someone and show them why racism is wrong if it is illegal for them to admit to being racist. 

"Defining legal speech by how it makes others feel opens a 1984 can of worms." 
What about argument that allowing hate speech permits people to hurt minorities with the hateful words? Without a question, it hurts to have someone express hateful thoughts about you. I have had it happen to me and it sucks. It is offensive. It is frustrating. But hurt feelings cannot dictate laws and regulations. They are too amorphous and subjective. Damage to personal property or assault of persons can be proven, observed and regulated. If someone throws a brick through my window, there is broken glass, a brick with fingerprints, and a breeze blowing in my living room. But how do I prove my feelings were hurt? And what about words that might hurt my feelings in some contexts but not others? Does the law really need to change based on how I feel? Because I, like most people, feel different every day. Something that a person tells me today might really hurt my feelings because I didn't get enough sleep and I am sort of a whinny wimp when I am sleep deprived. But that same thing might make me laugh and not hurt my feelings at all tomorrow after a full night's sleep when I am back to my normal thick skinned self.
"In a Kafkaesque world, you will soon wake up every morning with the question, 'Which rule I didn't know existed did I violate yesterday'?"
Defining legal speech by how it makes others feel opens a 1984 can of worms. If your speech's legality depends on how it makes me feel, then you never can know what is legal and you can live in fear for every word that comes out of your mouth lest I happened to not get enough sleep on the day that you say something. As NN Taleb once wrote, "in a Kafkaesque world, you will soon wake up every morning with the question, 'Which rule I didn't know existed did I violate yesterday'?"

 Which brings us to the fact that there is an ever changing definition of hate speech in popular culture. I know many people that think it is hate speech to suggest that gay marriage should be illegal. But when Obama ran for president the first time, he ran opposing gay marriage! Barack Obama ran on a platform of hate speech! You might respond by saying that culture and mores change which might be true but unless you want to live inside a Kafka novel, our laws can not be in a constant state of flux based on how the zeitgeist feels. Hate speech, rather than a narrowly defined set of laws, is often defined with no more specificity than 'speech I don't like.' And this is not the sort of foundation for law that any stable society can build on.

No. Feelings being hurt cannot constitute a crime. That doesn't make it nice. We all hate it when people are a**holes. In the old days, men would come to fisticuffs if the wrong thing was said. But the government would not and could not intervene based on words alone. Because the definition of harm should not and cannot be defined as words that you do not like. Free speech necessarily includes the ability to say things that might offend some people.

What about the idea that 'hate speech' might lead to violence?

It is true that groups such as the KKK have stirred up violence in the past. Isn't the spread of racist ideas sure to contribute to violence being inflicted on minorities? I think that the answer to this has be a qualified yes. It is possible that racist language leads to violent behavior.

But before we say, "see? We should ban racist speech!" we need to consider some other aspects of the situation. First, racism is not the only sort of hatred. Most of us hate some group of people. For example, I hate pedophiles. If I say I hate pedophiles out loud and go on and on about how bad they are it is possible that someone listening to me might hear what I say, agree, and download the sexual offenders list for his neighborhood and start beating his ex-con neighbors up. Now, if I said nothing about violence and actually condemn the violence, should I still be prevented from stating my hatred for pedophiles because someone *might* do violence after hearing it? I don't think that makes sense. I think we should be allowed to express emotions verbally. And one of our emotions is hate. We should not incite violence directly or do the violence ourselves but simply expressing hate for a person or group should not be a crime. Socialists should be able to say they hate capitalists. Capitalists should be able to say they hate socialists. Red Sox fans should be able to say they hate Yankees fans. Yankees fans should be able to say they hate Red Sox fans. Of course, someone could take this hatred and do violence. If they do, the blame for the violence should go to the person that did the violence not the person who said the hate. Hatred is legal (an emotion) violence is not. Big difference. Prosecute the violence not the speech. Instead of trying to control speech that "might lead to violence" a free society must simply control the violence itself.

But the main reason I oppose hate speech laws is that I think giving the government power to parse our conversations, interpret meaning, rule on what words or ideas have gone too far, and exact punishments based on these findings is terrifying. I explained yesterday how Twitter and Youtube monitoring comedy channels for speech ruins humor. I think that having a government monitor speech ruins freedom. I have no idea why the left is so trusting and willing to give government so much power. Four out of the last six presidents have been republican! Stop giving power to people who you cannot even trust to balance the budget! Keep the government small and toothless and you will never fear the government no matter who is in power.

Debate hate speech. Condemn hate speech. But don't use the government to silence it.  


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