The Harm in Hate Speech

Article excerpt

The Harm in Hate Speech. By Jeremy Waldron. Harvard University Press. 304pp, Pounds 19.95. ISBN 9780674065895. Published 31 May 2012

This is a wonderful book. It conveys complex ideas in an accessible and convincing way. Perhaps I was easy to convince, being one of those who fall on the pro hate-speech laws side of the debate to which this book contributes. Nevertheless, Jeremy Waldron has put together a clear and compelling rationale for hate-speech laws - the harm that it causes to human dignity.

Waldron utilises John Rawls' idea of a well-ordered society to consider what one might look like, literally in a visual sense. He says the "look of a society" is part of how we convey "assurances to its members about how they are likely to be treated". The social contract to protect individuals from exclusion, indignity and subordination needs to be represented so that ordinary people are assured that their lives can be lived fully. He is careful to frame his argument as aiming to understand how sensible people might construct a case in favour of hate-speech laws, and not as advocating their adoption.

Waldron makes the extremely important point that the term "hate" is a misnomer. It implies that what is at stake is primarily how a person feels about something said to them. He argues instead that the point of hate- speech laws is not to address offence, it is to address harm to human dignity.

I would add that the use of the term "hate" blurs an understanding of the valid grounds for government intervention. This is potentially a problem not only in the hate-speech arena but in anti-discrimination law. Some advocates (eg, in a current discussion on the consistency of anti- discrimination laws in Australia) argue that the grounds on which discrimination is actionable should be expanded beyond those currently agreed (such as race, gender and sexual orientation) to include new ones such as political opinion, industrial activity, criminal record or medical record. It is true that over time new developments in thinking lead to healthy reconsiderations of the parameters of laws designed to achieve justice. However, these suggestions may loosen the connection between anti-discrimination laws and historically identifiable marginalisation and prejudice, thus risking a loss of coherence in the anti-discrimination rationale. …