The Case for Censoring Hate Speech

For the past few years speech has moved online, leading to fierce debates about its regulation. Most recently, feminists have led the charge to purge Facebook of misogyny that clearly violates its hate speech code. Facebook took a small step two weeks ago, creating a feature that will remove ads from pages deemed “controversial.” But such a move is half-hearted; Facebook and other social networking websites should not tolerate hate speech and, in the absence of a government mandate, adopt a European model of expunging offensive material.

Stricter regulation of Internet speech will not be popular with the libertarian-minded citizens of the United States, but it’s necessary. A typical view of the case for expunging hate speech comes from Jeffrey Rosen, who argues in The New Republic that,

“…given their tremendous size and importance as platforms for free speech, companies like Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Twitter shouldn’t try to be guardians of what Waldron calls a “well-ordered society”; instead, they should consider themselves the modern version of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s fractious marketplace of ideas—democratic spaces where all values, including civility norms, are always open for debate.”

This image is romantic and lovely but it’s worth asking what this actually looks like. Rosen forwards one example:

“Last year, after the French government objected to the hash tag “#unbonjuif”—intended to inspire hateful riffs on the theme “a good Jew …”—Twitter blocked a handful of the resulting tweets in France, but only because they violated French law. Within days, the bulk of the tweets carrying the hashtag had turned from anti-Semitic to denunciations of anti-Semitism, confirming that the Twittersphere is perfectly capable of dealing with hate speech on its own, without heavy-handed intervention.”

It’s interesting to note how closely this idea resembles free market fundamentalism: simply get rid of any coercive rules and the “marketplace of ideas” will naturally produce the best result.  Humboldt State University compiled a visual map that charts 150,000 hateful insults aggregated over the course of 11 months in the U.S. by pairing Google’s Maps API with a series of the most homophobic, racist and otherwise prejudiced tweets. The map’s existence draws into question the notion that the “twittersphere” can organically combat hate speech; hate speech is not going to disappear from twitter on its own.
The negative impacts of hate speech cannot be mitigated by the responses of third-party observers, as hate speech aims at two goals. First, it is an attempt to tell bigots that they are not alone. Frank Collins —the neo-Nazi prosecuted in National Socialist Party of America v Skokie (1977) — said, “We want to reach the good people, get the fierce anti-Semites who have to live among the Jews to come out of the woodwork and stand up for themselves.”
The second purpose of hate speech is to intimidate the targeted minority, leading them to question whether their dignity and social status is secure. In many cases, such intimidation is successful. Consider the number of rapes that go unreported. Could this trend possibly be impacted by Reddit threads like /r/rapingwomen or /r/mensrights? Could it be due to the harassment women face when they even suggest the possibility they were raped? The rape culture that permeates Facebook, Twitter and the public dialogue must be held at least partially responsible for our larger rape culture.
Reddit, for instance, has become a veritable potpourri of hate speech; consider Reddit threads like  /r/nazi, /r/killawoman, /r/misogny, /r/killingwomen. My argument is not that these should be taken down because they are offensive, but rather because they amount to the degradation of a class that has been historically oppressed.  Imagine a Reddit thread for /r/lynchingblacks or /r/assassinatingthepresident. We would not argue that we should sit back and wait for this kind of speech be “outspoken” by positive speech, but that it should be entirely banned.
American free speech jurisprudence relies upon the assumption that speech is merely the extension of a thought, and not an action. If we consider it an action, then saying that we should combat hate speech with more positive speech is an absurd proposition; the speech has already done the harm, and no amount of support will defray the victim’s impression that they are not truly secure in this society. We don’t simply tell the victim of a robbery, “Hey, it’s okay, there are lots of other people who aren’t going to rob you.” Similarly, it isn’t incredibly useful to tell someone who has just had their race/gender/sexuality defamed, “There are a lot of other nice people out there.”
Those who claim to “defend free speech” when they defend the right to post hate speech online, are in truth backwards. Free speech isn’t an absolute right; no right is weighed in a vacuum. The court has imposed numerous restrictions on speech. Fighting words, libel and child pornography are all banned. Other countries merely go one step further by banning speech intended to intimidate vulnerable groups. The truth is that such speech does not democratize speech, it monopolizes speech. Women, LGBTQ individuals and racial or religious minorities feel intimidated and are left out of the public sphere. On Reddit, for example, women have left or changed their usernames to be more male-sounding lest they face harassment and intimidation for speaking on Reddit about even the most gender-neutral topics. Even outside of the intentionally offensive sub-reddits (i.e. /r/imgoingtohellforthis) misogyny is pervasive. I encountered this when browsing /r/funny.

Those who try to remove this hate speech have been criticized from left and right. At Slate, Jillian York writes, “While the campaigners on this issue are to be commended for raising awareness of such awful speech on Facebook’s platform, their proposed solution is ultimately futile and sets a dangerous precedent for special interest groups looking to bring their pet issue to the attention of Facebook’s censors.”

It hardly seems right to qualify a group fighting hate speech as an “interest group” trying to bring their “pet issue” to the attention of Facebook censors. The “special interest” groups she fears might apply for protection must meet Facebook’s strict community standards, which state:

While we encourage you to challenge ideas, institutions, events, and practices, we do not permit individuals or groups to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.

If anything, the groups to which York refers are nudging Facebook towards actually enforcing its own rules.

People who argue against such rules generally portray their opponents as standing on a slippery precipice, tugging at the question “what next?”  We can answer that question: Canada, England, France, Germany, The Netherlands, South Africa, Australia and India all ban hate speech. Yet, none of these countries have slipped into totalitarianism. In many ways, such countries are more free when you weigh the negative liberty to express harmful thoughts against the positive liberty that is suppressed when you allow for the intimidation of minorities.
 As Arthur Schopenhauer said, “the freedom of the press should be governed by a very strict prohibition of all and every anonymity.” However, with the Internet the public dialogue has moved online, where hate speech is easy and anonymous.
Jeffrey Rosen argues that norms of civility should be open to discussion, but, in today’s reality, this issue has already been decided; impugning someone because of their race, gender or orientation is not acceptable in a civil society. Banning hate speech is not a mechanism to further this debate because the debate is over.
As Jeremy Waldron argues, hate speech laws prevent bigots from, “trying to create the impression that the equal position of members of vulnerable minorities in a rights-respecting society is less secure than implied by the society’s actual foundational commitments.”
Some people argue that the purpose of laws that ban hate speech is merely to avoid offending prudes. No country, however, has mandated that anything be excised from the public square merely because it provokes offense, but rather because it attacks the dignity of a group—a practice the U.S. Supreme Court called in Beauharnais v. Illinois (1952) “group libel.” Such a standard could easily be applied to Twitter, Reddit and other social media websites. While Facebook’s policy as written should be a model, it’s enforcement has been shoddy. Again, this isn’t an argument for government intervention. The goal is for companies to adopt a European-model hate speech policy, one not aimed at expunging offense, but rather hate. Such a system would be subject to outside scrutiny by users.
If this is the standard, the Internet will surely remain controversial, but it can also be free of hate and allow everyone to participate. A true marketplace of ideas must co-exist with a multi-racial society open to people of all genders, orientations and religions, and it can.

E-mail Sean: seanadrianmc@gmail.com

This piece originally appeared on Alternet.org

4 thoughts on “The Case for Censoring Hate Speech

  1. Jason McHugh

    As a liberal, when you talk about restricting freedom of speech, you lose me. When you attack science (not you, but I’ve seen a lot of “progressives” do it) and freedom of speech, you become my enemy. I have no leeway on those two issues. I will ALWAYS pick freedom of speech and science over any political group or ideology. If i have to choose between conservative republicans and a bunch of asswipes who want to restrict freedom of speech, I’ll choose by not voting. Both should be as absolutely free as possible. Your article highlights a disappointing trend in the mindset of “progressives” these days, and I’m starting to wonder if I want to be associated with people like you anymore. Freedom of speech protected people when they voiced unpopular opinions that are now the mainstream. I guess you got what you wanted, so now we can do away with it. You’re no better then the conservative assholes who try to shut people up in the 50’s.

    Reply
  2. loverofamerica

    I find your hate speech towards Libertarians offensive. So, I agree with you. It should be illegal for such “speech” to be written down, which is an “action” as you put it.

    Therefore, I am assuming you will immediately turn yourself into the authorities for engaging in the disgraceful activity of criticizing others.

    On a side note. What standard are you using to determine that your speech is not “hate-speech” or “offensive” but that the speech of others is? My guess is you are your own standard; which of course is as ridiculous as your argument.

    The point of “free speech” is that there is no standard, because all standards are subjective, therefore no speech should be restricted. Of course the short-sightedness of your argument is quite amusing. As soon as your picture of perfect speech were created, then those with the “power” would impose their subjective view of what is offensive…wait…that sounds like every totalitarian society in history.

    Amazing how the end result of your point is to end up eliminating everyone’s freedom is the pursuit of not hurting some people’s feelings. What’s worse? Hurt feelings with free speech or forced to live under a totalitarian form of government that will engage in their version of hurting people’s feelings that they make legal?

    The answer is obvious. Your article is the first step of being the totalitarian defining what speech is allowed vs. what’s not allowed. Of course, you’re okay with that because you are the totalitarian, but if you weren’t, you would not be okay with it. Therefore, your position is inconsistent and exactly why no one’s subjective views of what is “hate”, “hurt”, “offensive”, etc. should ever be used to define what speech is restricted. Allowing that is the first step of totalitarianism and the “cure is worse than the disease”.

    For claiming to be a “philosopher”, your article not very philosophical. Instead it is an emotional plea based on your emotions. The funny thing is you’re fine with emotionally hurting those you disagree with because they emotionally hurt you; and you do so while arguing that people shouldn’t be allowed to emotionally hurt each other. There’s a word for that…I’m forgetting what it is right now…hmmm. What is that word?

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  3. Jim

    The article mentions Frank Collin and suggests he was prosecuted. This is not correct. He was a well spoken head of a group which identified themselves as an American Nazi Party and he initiated a lawsuit to be allowed to march with his small Nazi band who dressed in exaggerated Nazi uniforms, in the town of Skokie, Il; a town where none of them resided but was known to have a substantial population of Jews who had immigrated from post WW II Europe and had been in Nazi forced labor camps. The ACLU provided Frank Collin with a Jewish attorney who iterated that free speech must be protected and the assaults on free speech always occur on the fringe with unpopular speech to place precedents to build on for further curtailment, or such was my understanding at the time as the law case was much publicized for at least a year approx 1978 going through the IL state court system then accepted to be heard by the US Supreme
    Court.
    The punchline was that Frank Collin was a Jew himself, Frank Cohen, and his parents, in Chicago, had also been in the Nazi forced labor camps before migrating to the USA. His Nazi group did not discover his duplicity until sometime later. What he was part of was an important PSY-OP on America. After a
    year of mass media publicizing how awful the mean Nazis were for wanting to march in Skokie to rile the population, there followed the first ever TV Mini-Series, called the HOLOCAUST. Before this,
    holocaust was used to refer to WW II overall , not just Jews, but the trade marking of the Holocaust
    tale of Jews being exterminated in gas chambers as the official story and soon to be the only story told about WW II began with this Nazi march on Skokie -TV miniseries: The HOLOCAUST-then a slew of moving Hollywood fabrication movies about the newly minted version of HOLOCAUST narrative which continues to this day. Funding for Israel from the US Treasury began a steep incline; In Europe where the TV mini series was a hit, had already had movement to pass laws to make it a crime to doubt the official story of the HOLOCAUST in Germany and France and some other countries. In France, the vote to drprive the French people of their natural right to free speech occurred on Bastille Day and in the days just prior to the vote, the media spent much coverage on a Jewish graveyard which was vandalized [in a timely manner] by unknown persons in the south of France. Many Germans have been imprisoned for claiming the official story is incorrect in certain factual aspects. in the US there were countless books published of
    horror tales of Nazis and Jewish putative victim-hood and suffering. Frank Collin changed his name to frank Joseph and there was no hard feeling from the Jewish community and he now writes rogue archeological type books and there are interviews online with him about his books; and earlier interviews with him as the mean Nazi pretender in full Nazi gear!

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Dispatches from reader-land | Sean McElwee

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