Conceptual Issues in Prohibiting "Hate Speech"

Article excerpt

"Hate speech," variously defined, is now prohibited in several countries and - despite the U.S. Supreme Court's sweeping support for free speech - is the subject of campus speech codes on many American university campuses. The author is among those who see the prohibition as a threat to serious scholarship in particular and freedom of speech in general. Unless "hate speech" is defined narrowly as virtually equivalent to what the U.S. Supreme Court calls "fighting words," he maintains, it is a concept that is in a number of ways profoundly flawed.

Key words: Hate speech, hate literature, prohibited speech, scholarly freedom, freedom of speech, censorship.

The widespread prohibition in recent years of "hate speech" and "hate literature" is so fraught with ambiguities, intellectual shallowness, and double standards that it poses a serious impediment to scholarship and to the values of an open society. The United States, with its Supreme Court that has long championed the strongest possible affirmation of the freedom of speech, is a notable exception to what elsewhere has been a powerful trend toward the punishment of certain forms of expression. This article will explore several aspects of the "hate speech" issue:

* Some leading examples of its use against scholarly endeavor;

* the varied definitions of "hate speech";

* the legislation and speech codes prohibiting it; and

* the category's many conceptual difficulties, which include:

* a failure to comprehend the vast extent of, and justifications for, human animosities;

* the extent to which the world Left has made the concept a weapon against competing ideas; and

* a wide assortment of other intellectual failures that flow from both the concept and its application.

1. Use of the "Hate Speech" Concept is Against Serious Scholarship

A little over a half-century ago, the world intellectual community was outraged when Stalin's Soviet Union made science an instrument of ideology. In 1948 the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences endorsed the theory formulated by biologist Trofim D. Lysenko that an organism passes environmentally-acquired properties on to the next generation. All teaching of Mendel's theory of heredity-only-through-genes was thereafter suppressed in the Soviet Union until more than a decade after the death of Stalin in 1953. Mendel's genetic insights were denounced as "bourgeois science."

The "Lysenko Affair," as it came to be known, scandalized the scientific world. The inconsistency of such an ideological manipulation of scientific inquiry with the nature of science as an on-going inquiry into facts and their implications, conducted in good faith and with strict honesty, was widely understood.

Today, in contrast, we find that broad areas of inquiry are sealed off from even the most objective and careful study. With regard to those areas, ideology, backed by the prohibiting powers of the state, reigns supreme. In the circumstances of today's world, there is no international outcry against the censorship. In its place, there exists a near-universal desire to conform thought to what respectable opinion considers ideologically acceptable (euphemistically known as "politically correct"). Given such a milieu throughout the Western world, today's threat to scholarship and true science is far greater than it was in Lysenko's day.

This was brought home forcefully to the author by a personal experience. I wrote a legal studies monograph, Lynching: History and Analysis2 - only to see Canada ban it as "hate propaganda." I was attracted to the subject of lynching twenty years ago while doing the background reading for my history of liberal thought.3 The research involved reading, among many other things, all issues of The New Republic (except one three-month volume that was missing from the shelves) from the time of the journal's inception in 1914 until early 1985.

I added the subject of lynching to my list of topics to research in the future when I found some surprising facts. …