The Growing Danger of Defining Hate Speech

The Growing Danger of Defining Hate Speech

A couple of weeks ago, I warned  that free speech as a shared cultural value had become endangered by media and academics more interested in dictating outcomes than debating ideas. Little did I know just how badly and broadly the culture of liberty has eroded. In the wake of high-profile debates about the nature of politics, religion, and global strife, Americans have become more inclined than ever to shut other people up.

A new YouGov poll of almost 1,000 Americans released on Wednesday shows just how much of our birthrights we Americans, like Esau of old, are willing to trade for a morsel of self-congratulation.  A plurality of Americans, 41 percent, would support a law that would criminalize speech for content if it “intended to stir up hatred against a group” based on ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Only 37 percent --barely over a third of Americans – would oppose it.

Related: The Coming Demise of Free Speech in America

The demographic data probably will surprise few. A majority of Democrats support laws for making hate speech illegal on an almost 2:1 basis, 51/26, while slightly more Republicans than independents oppose it (47 percent to 41 percent, respectively). The only demographic in the entire poll to oppose government censorship in this instance are those whose household incomes exceed $80,000, although several demos have pluralities in the mid-to-high 40s.

One might be tempted to blame younger Americans, or perhaps the schools that educate them, but while they slightly exceed the overall at 42/26 in favor of hate speech bans, they’re not the worst generation. That distinction belongs to seniors at 65 years of age or older, 49/33. The same result can be found in every region of the country except the West, where hate-speech bans only get a 30/45.

One might be tempted to believe that this question highlights ignorance over the First Amendment rather than support for changing it. However, YouGov asked a clarifying question as well, testing whether respondents understood that so-called “hate speech” is protected by the Constitution. A majority of 56 percent did understand it – but apparently disagree that it should continue to do so. In most demographics, correct interpretation of the First Amendment far exceeds absolute support for it.

We can conclude that Americans are not distancing themselves from liberty over ignorance, or at least ignorance doesn’t play as significant a role in this choice as one might suspect. Neither can this just be a phenomenon of impact from the media and academics as I’d optimistically argued earlier, especially given the distribution among age groups.

Related: Charlie Hebdo, Terrorism, and the Cost of Free Speech

Make no mistake about it – this is an explicit ends-justifies-the-means calculation. The end is impossible to oppose -- a society free of bigotry, with full equality to all members, and accepting of all cultures. Few people would seriously object to that goal for any society, and when framed in that manner, opposition to the means perceived to be the quickest route to the goal seems downright churlish.

However, there are numerous problems with the means, and even the assumptions built into the ends. First, not all cultures are equal, at least in terms of overall benefit. The easiest example is the culture being built in the desert of Iraq and Syria by ISIS, but we can also cite some of the other cultures in that region – Saudi Arabia and its oppression of women and absolute suppression of competing religions comes to mind. We hardly have to go that far to offer examples; the Jim Crow culture of the old South was repulsive to many Americans decades ago, and is even more so now.

Of course, we demolished that culture decades ago, thankfully, and few people miss it. But how did America finally rid ourselves of the century of oppression of civil rights? Through unfettered use of the freedom of speech. Activists marched at Selma, demonstrated on street corners, took to the airwaves to scold the nation for its indifference, and changed the hearts and minds of Americans through the power of their argument and their truth.

What would have happened had we carved out this rather large exception to the First Amendment in, say, 1945? Had we handed the government the power to determine which speech was “hateful” and which was allowable at that point, would the civil rights movement succeeded as it did? Or would government have simply jailed people for upsetting others through their speech, imprisoning them for “hating” America as it was at that time?

Related: University of Michigan Fires a Shot at Free Speech

For that matter, consider the anti-war movement that followed that era, in opposition to the Vietnam conflict. How would that movement, with its “America – love it or leave it” counter-response, have unfolded if the federal government decided that it was “hate speech” directed against the military? That could be considered a fair description of a significant amount of that rhetoric at the time.

Some will scoff at that hypothetical, but it actually did take place – fifty years earlier. The Sedition Act of 1918 did precisely that at the end of World War I, and the US prosecuted people for their dissent to the war. Railroad tycoon William Edenborn was arrested for scoffing at the idea that Germany could threaten the national security of the US in much the same manner as others do today about radical jihad in the Middle East.

Eugene Debs, a Socialist organizer, got a ten-year prison sentence for protesting the draft and exhorting people to refuse conscription. The law, along with its parent Espionage Act of 1917, allowed the Postmaster General to dictate the kind of speech that would be delivered. More than 1500 people were arrested for their speech, and only 10 for actual acts or attempts of sabotage.

Related: The Closing of the Millennial Mind on Campus

We have had plenty of precedent for what happens when government controls speech, from Robespierre to Mao’s Cultural Revolution to A. Mitchell Palmer. All of those precedents involve people wanting to take a short cut to Utopia by the silencing of dissent, political and cultural. The people who trade off freedom for action value a forced and phony multiculturalism based on imposed participation over a true blend of people through free association.

The latter takes work, and more importantly, true tolerance, even for those who remain locked in their peculiar kinds of bigotry. The former only takes power – and power will always be more attractive. Only freedom, including the freedom to speak unpopularly, can ensure true and sustainable tolerance. Too bad that so few of our fellow Americans understand that, but thankfully we can still remind them of their birthright of liberty … for now, anyway.

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