In Defence of Hate Speech

People enjoy taking offence to things. It is a strange concept - having ones sensibilities upset isn't generally considered a good thing - and yet the old saying that some people will complain about anything stands truer today than it ever has.

Someone who knows this better than most is Milo Yiannopolous, a right-wing journalist and public speaker who recently fell afoul of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and received a permanent ban from the service. Milo's precise infraction remains a mystery - contrary to the suggestions of The Guardian and other outlets, Yiannopolous himself published no racist material, nor any material more indelicate than his usual fare.

The incident concerned Leslie Jones, an actress who starred in the recently-released reboot of the movie Ghostbusters. After the movie was released, Yiannopolous wrote a scathing review that in one line referred to Jones' character as "a black character worthy of a minstrel show" in stark contrast to the original African-American Ghostbuster, Winston Zeddemore, who was "the character with his feet most firmly on the ground in the entire movie". 

What followed was a short spat between Milo and Ms. Jones on Twitter. It might have been a longer spat, but for the fact that one party found themselves permanently ejected from the social network as a result. The charge levelled against Yiannopolous was one of hate speech. It's a nebulous charge, made moreso by the fact that Jack Dorsey has never stated that Milo himself is guilty of it - rather that accounts associated with him are. Suffice to say it is the opinion of myself that the ban is wrongful, but that is not the thrust of this article. That would be the term "hate speech" itself. 

What qualifies as "hate speech" is subjective, which is the major problem for people who prize being sensitive above all other virtues. Would, for instance, suggesting that members of an ethnic group all look alike qualify as hateful speech? I think so, and you might too, but Twitter disagrees as shown by a delightful Leslie Jones tweet from August 24th 2014. The truth is that because of the subjectivity inherent in the "hate speech" label, the arbiters of what speech is or is not hateful become either those individuals with power in any given interaction (such as Jack Dorsey in the Leslie Jones case) or the fire-and-pitchfork mob.

Threats to Freedom of Speech, Writing and Action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.
— George Orwell

Hate speech laws are unworkable for precisely this reason. When Scottish Police announced that they would be investigating "offensive tweets" (one totalitarian policy among many of Scotland's Nationalist overlord) Scots reacted broadly with confusion. What constitutes offensiveness? Offence is taken, surely, rather than given? How do I know what will be offensive before the police arrive at my door? 

The solution to this issue, the only way to make hate speech laws more workable, is to make them incredibly specific. For instance, the ban on Holocaust Denial in Germany. Or a hypothetical ban on membership of a political party. These things are, at best, well-intentioned but daft. At worst, they are the weapons of Bolsheviks. The solution to hateful, bigoted and stupid opinions is not to lend them legitimacy by censure, but to expose them to society. To open them up to the world. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1914 "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants" and that holds as true today as it ever has.

If a society wishes to be healthy, it needs to give its idiots room to be idiots. It needs to give its hatemongers room to hate. And it needs to acknowledge the vitriol and the stupidity, consider them, and reject them of its own collective volition. And if it doesn't, perhaps the speech is not quite as vile as it seems.