Should Hate Speech Be a Crime?

By Greenspan, Edward L. | Queen's Quarterly, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Should Hate Speech Be a Crime?


Greenspan, Edward L., Queen's Quarterly


On television screens across the nation, millions of Canadians watched Ernst Zundel and James Keegstra making their way through the media throng, each ready for his much awaited day in court. But "day in court," when referring to these two cases, should more properly be recast as "days, months, and years in court." The Canadian justice system has devoted much time and energy to stifling the hateful speech of these individuals, and others like them. But, in doing so, have we been stifling our society's ability to deal effectively with the very hate that threatens us?

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WE HAVE been witnessing in Canada a fairly significant change in attitude about speech. The distinction between talk and action has almost disappeared. People are now offended by words. The change in attitude began as an effort to protect the weak; people who were offended by words saw themselves as protecting those too weak to protect themselves. They were weeding out hateful and hurtful ideas-racist ideas, sexist ideas, homophobic ideas. They wanted to try to make Canada a nicer place in which to live. To quote Jonathan Rauch,

  Somehow the idea that "liberal" means "nice," that the liberal
  intellectual system fosters sensitivity, toleration, self-esteem,
  rejection of prejudice and bias, found favour. That impression is
  totally misguided. The truth is that liberal science demands
  discipline as well as license, and to those who reject or flout its
  rules, it can be cruel. It excludes and rejects as well as tolerates.
  It thrives on prejudice no less than on cool detachment.... It allows
  and sometimes even encourages offence. (1)

But how do we decide or determine the right standard for distinguishing the few true beliefs from the many false ones? (2) Rauch sets up five decision-making principles in contention today.

[square] The Fundamentalist Principle:

"Those who know the truth should decide who is right."

[square] The Simple Egalitarian Principle:

All sincere persons' beliefs have equal claims to respect.

[square] The Radical Egalitarian Principle:

Like the simple egalitarian principle, but the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups get special consideration.

[square] The Humanitarian Principle:

Any of the above, but with the condition that the first priority be to cause no hurt.

[square] The Liberal Principle:

Checking of each by each through public criticism is the only legitimate way to decide who is right. (3)

The last principle, the only acceptable one for me, has been abandoned for another principle-that people who hold wrong and hurtful opinions should be punished as criminals for the good of society. This most dangerous principle has now been established as a social right or, as Rauch puts it, "Thou shalt not hurt others with words." Ten years ago, Rauch believed that this principle was a menace--not just to civil liberties, but to everyone's liberal inquiry, a principle to create a society where the primary rules are: be nice, think nice, say nice.

THEN CAME a defining moment. In February of 1989, fundamentalist Muslims rose up against the British writer Salman Rushdie, who had written a novel which they regarded as deeply, shockingly offensive to Islam's holy truths and to the Muslim community. The Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed that it was the duty of all good Muslims to kill the writer.

Quite a few people thought that the death penalty was bad, and that Khomeini should not have done that-but that Rushdie certainly did write a book which was offensive to Islamic truths, and he should not have done that either. The chief rabbi of Great Britain said that the book should not have been published. He said that both Mr Rushdie and the Ayatollah had abused freedom of speech. That was the sense in which the Rushdie affair was a defining moment.

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