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Hate Speech

November 24, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

Is censorship of controversial speech a good thing? There have been many opinions stated, and many debates conducted on this subject. The problem is that the answer tends to be framed in terms of yes or no. Like most subjects related to society and human behaviour there is no yes or no answer, because the ultimate response depends on how the terms are defined and on a partly subjective view on where a dividing line should be.

First, I should say that above I used the neutral term “controversial opinions” rather than anything more emotive like “hate speech” for a reason. Few people who are accused of hate speech would agree that they have actually engaged in it. And as soon as any opinion is elevated to the level of “hate speech” it almost automatically becomes justifiable to subject it to censorship.

So to remove an awkward opinion all that needs to be done is label it as hate speech and it can be suppressed. Clearly this is not a good thing.

The reason I am discussing this here and now is that recent cases of this type of censorship have appeared in the news. So let’s look at a few examples…

First there was “Bishop” Brian Tamaki who claimed that earthquakes might be caused by immoral behaviour such as homosexuality (note that is immoral by his standards, not mine). This was just before a major earthquake caused significant damage here in New Zealand, so it gained some prominence as a result.

Second, there was an Islamic cleric, Shaykh Dr Mohammad Anwar Sahib, who preached a lot of what were deemed hateful, misogynistic, and anti-semitic ideas. After the public outrage over this he was stood down by the Federation of Islamic Associations from his role as secretary of their religious advisory board.

Third there is our old friend, the populist politician Geert Wilders, who is being tried by a Dutch court for engaging in hate speech, mainly towards Muslim immigrants.

Then there was a local man, Nelson Cross, who was fired from his position as a government adviser for writing a satirical or humorous work which was labelled “offensive”. It describes Maori (the orignal inhabitants of New Zealand) as enjoying “KFC, the TAB and sedentary living”.

Finally there is Donald Trump, but I have said enough about him in previous posts so I won’t go into detail about his alleged racism, sexism, etc here.

Note that in the cases above people have suffered severe consequences (possibly prison in the case of Wilders) for stating their opinions. They haven’t actually carried out any hate crimes, such as attacking immigrants.

I’m not saying I agree with any of the opinions stated (in fact I specifically reject most of them) but I think we are going into a very dangerous place when we repress these ideas simply because they don’t fit into the politically correct framework of current society.

To show just how much political correctness is involved look at the case of Nelson Cross. His story made derogatory comments about white New Zealanders as much as Maori but no one said a thing about that. It was only comments made in a humorous style about a “minority” group that were criticised, and resulted in the severe penalty of the loss of his job.

But what are these dangers of censorship I alluded to above? I think there are two main problems…

First, the obvious one that by suppressing opinions which are contrary to the current whims of society we lose the ability to critique current norms. We also seem to lose the ability to engage in satire, entertainment, and even just to exercise basic freedom of speech.

The second problem is slightly more nuanced. It is that by suppressing expression of an opinion you don’t make the underlying ideas behind it go away. In fact in some ways you might make those ideas stronger because they go underground and build on a feeling of repression.

Since Donald Trump’s win in the US presidential election I have heard a lot of people admit to being his supporter (I don’t know why should they have to “admit” to this). Before he won there was almost no indication of support for him at all, because it just wasn’t politically correct to admit to that. But people still supported him in secret and now we see the “surprising” result of his victory.

So the correct response to opinions which go against the mainstream is to listen to them fairly and respond accordingly. If Trump supporters had been treated with a bit more respect their opinions could have been listened to and, assuming they were invalid in some way, responded to. Also the true level of support for him would have been known and Clinton’s shock loss would not have been so hard on her supporters.

And while I think that Geert Wilders has some extreme views which I disagree with, his opinions on excessive immigration of people with very different social values than his own is hardly unique. He is a “populist” politician, meaning he represents a repressed opinion held by many people. Is it really a good idea to tell people that they aren’t allowed to express that opinion? That isn’t going to make the underlying anti-immigration ideas go away.

Even crazy religious ideas, like saying that Jews want to take over the world, or that gay people cause earthquakes, should be allowed. It should also be OK to ridicule these ideas. If a public discussion happens then there is an opportunity to correct these irrational ideas. Many people with extreme views won’t change them no matter what the facts are, but there will be a proportion who might be dissuaded from their beliefs, but only if discussion of them is OK.

There should be limits though. I think attacking individual people should be discouraged unless that person is a public figure or has initiated a controversy themselves. And I think that when controversial ideas are aired in public, contrary views – especially those pointing out errors – should be strongly encouraged.

Oh and one other thing: people shouldn’t be so sensitive. They should take negative remarks as humour if that was how they were intended, take them as the clueless ramblings of a religious nutter if that’s what they seem to be, or maybe look at them from the perspective of the other group. Maybe, just maybe, they have a point.Hate Speech

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