Destructive Messages: How Hate Speech Paves the Way for Harmful Social Movements

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Destructive Messages: How Hate Speech Paves the Way for Harmful Social Movements. Alexander Tsesis. New York and London: New York University Press, 2002. 246 pp. $45 hbk. Few would disagree that hate speech and prejudice are terrible relics of our past that have been difficult to erase from our culture. Even the most ardent supporter of free speech rights will agonize over how to balance the need for broad protections for expression against the ugliness of hate speech. Yet, the task of "line drawing" between hate speech and other types of expression is a precarious and dangerous one.

Nevertheless, Chicago-Kent Law Professor Tsesis has taken on that job in this book. He argues that over a long period, hate speech creates a culture in which discrimination, repression, and even genocide against historically oppressed groups becomes acceptable. Because governments have an obligation to protect the rights of all citizens and promote their well-being, laws are needed to prohibit hate speech that is intended to result in discrimination or oppression.

Tsesis, the son of Jewish immigrants who witnessed the anti-Semitism of Communist Russia first hand, uses four examples of violent racism to support his claim that unchecked hate speech eventually leads to repression. He begins with an excellent overview of the growth of German anti-Semitism during the first half of the twentieth century. The next two sections on the American experience with slavery and Indian removal lack depth. His fourth example is an interesting, yet not particularly relevant, description of present-day Mauritania, where the ancient practice of enslavement of African Muslims (black Mauros) by upper-class Berber Muslims (white Mauros) continues.

The historical analysis of how hate speech too often results in open oppression is followed by a tedious explanation of what is essentially the social construction of reality theory. The two sections on how language contributes to the making of culture and ideology are filled with such obvious statements as "the vocabulary of hate speech dehumanizes its targets. . . ." or "hate speech is integral to maintaining hierarchies by helping to legitimize degrading stereotypes and dangerous attitudes."

Because the language of hate is so powerful, government must step in and protect its citizens against its psychic and physical damage. Tsesis takes his cue from the well-articulated arguments found in Canadian jurisprudence on the proactive obligation of government to prohibit that which undermines the self-esteem of citizens or delegitimizes their participation in the political forum. …