‘The internet is a place for free speech, not hate speech.’ This spectacularly Orwellian comment was made last week by EU commissioner Vĕra Jourová, as she unveiled a new EU code to tackle hatred on the internet. Following three or four years of agitation by officials, politicians, hacks and feminists, all of whom insist that hateful ‘trolling’ online is turning the internet into a cesspool of foul ideas and rotten comments, the EU has decided to take action. It has got web giants YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft to sign a promise that they will hunt down and extinguish illegal hateful commentary, especially racist and xenophobic comments.
Some have responded to the new code by asking if it represents overreach. There’s a danger, they say, that angry speech, or just zany speech, will be swept up in the clampdown on hate speech. This will no doubt happen. But we should take our critique of this new code, and of 21st-century censorship more broadly, a step further. We shouldn’t only say ‘relatively normal speech might be destroyed alongside hate speech’ — we should call into question the whole idea of ‘hate speech’. The category of hate speech is as ridiculous, and abominable, as the idea of thoughtcrime. It represents the criminalisation, not only of racism and xenophobia — which would be bad enough — but of certain ideas, moralities and beliefs. We should bristle and balk as much at the idea of ‘hate speech’ as we do at the idea of thoughtcrime.
Hate-speech codes are an ideological tool disguised as a force for moral good. Consider the recent history of the idea of hate speech, which is very well documented in Paul Coleman’s book Censored. After the Second World War, the keenest proponents of controls on ‘hate speech’ were the Soviets. There were various international gatherings in the 1940s and 50s to hammer out postwar international treaties, and at these the Soviets pushed for a global commitment to repressing ‘hate speech’, in particular far-right speech. They wanted stipulations against ‘hatred’ and ‘incitement to hatred’. Amazingly, the West resisted. Eleanor Roosevelt represented the Western powers at some of these debates. She argued that it would be ‘extremely dangerous’ to outlaw hate speech, since ‘any criticism of public or religious authorities might all too easily be described as incitement to hatred’. Indeed.
Eventually, the Soviets won out. In 1965, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination was adopted, and it included a proposal to criminalise ‘ideas based on racial superiority’. The keyword here was ideas. From the outset, treaties and laws against hate speech were about controlling ideas: obnoxious ideas, yes, but ideas nonetheless. It was clear very early on that the category of hate speech was an ideological tool for the repression of bad ideas, of certain convictions. Post-1965, Western countries introduced into their national laws this new commitment to repressing ideas based on racial thinking.
What’s more, the category of hate speech is an extremely elastic tool for the repression of ideas. It has spread from curtailing ideas of racial superiority to suppressing expressions of religious hatred. Some Scandinavian countries want to outlaw misogynistic speech. On campuses there are clampdowns on transphobic speech. Anyone who says that a person with a penis is a man can now be branded a ‘hate speaker’ and find himself No Platformed. So even saying ‘men are men and women are women’ has been encapsulated in the ideological category of hate speech. Normal, widely held beliefs are casually rebranded ‘hatred’.