We must have the freedom to hate
Hatred isn’t big or clever, but it should never be a crime.
Ahead of spiked’s conference ‘The New Intolerance on Campus’, taking place in London on 17 February, some of the speakers will kick off the discussion here on spiked. Brendan O’Neill gets things rolling by defending freedom for hate speech.
The policing of hatred represents one of the greatest threats to freedom of speech in the 21st century. From coddled campuses, where student leaders ban speech they deem to be ‘hatemongering’, to the public sphere more broadly, where hate-speech laws govern what we can say about race, religion and sexuality, various ways of thinking have been rebranded as ‘hatred’ and are shamed or silenced into oblivion. It can be hard to stand up to this war on hatred; who wants to be known as ‘pro-hate’? But it is essential that we do, for the control and punishment of hatred represents an alarming intrusion of the state and others into the realm of ideas, and even emotions.
Everything that is wrong with the policing of hatred can be seen on campus. Censorious students give various justifications for their bans on everything from raunchy pop songs to ‘transphobic’ feminists. They claim to be maintaining ‘safe spaces’ for students, ensuring existential comfort, etc. But one of their key arguments is that they are forcefielding campuses against ‘hate speech’, against individuals whose unpopular views could ‘incite hatred’ against certain groups. It seems never to strike them that the very idea that an emotion may legitimately be kept off campus might just be the definition of thoughtpolicing.
The behaviour of these campus censors speaks to one of the key problems with measures against hate speech: the way they rebrand certain people’s genuinely held beliefs as ‘hatred’ that must be stamped out. The student union at Derby severely restricts the rights of Abort67, a pro-life organisation, on the basis that it’s a ‘hate group’. Anti-Islamist speakers have been banned from campuses on the grounds that they ‘could incite hatred’, presumably of Islamists. Islamists themselves have faced student censorship because, in the words of one LGBT society, they ‘preach hate’. Students have sought to ban feminists who don’t believe transsexuals are real women, claiming they could ‘incite hatred’ against trans people.
In all these cases, what the campus censors decreed to be ‘hatred’ were actually real, powerful moral beliefs held by various individuals. Only a moral infant could describe Abort67 as a ‘hate group’ — it’s simply very strongly opposed to abortion (wrongly, in my view). Anti-Islamist speakers do not ‘hate’ Muslims — they disagree passionately with Islamism, a political outlook. Germaine Greer doesn’t ‘hate’ trans people — she simply believes that womanhood isn’t something that can be achieved overnight with some drugs. Even some of the Islamist preachers hounded off campus for being hateful usually only express a severe religious opposition to homosexuality and women’s equality. Theirs is a moral conviction, however disagreeable.
One man’s ‘hate speech’ is another man’s deeply felt belief. Student censors’ cynical rebranding of moral views they don’t like as ‘hatred’ mirrors developments in society at large (giving the lie to the idea that the Stepford Students are singlehandedly destroying liberty). Across Europe in recent years, hate-speech laws have been used to punish priests for railing against homosexuality; animal-rights activists for badmouthing the Islamic ritual slaughter of animals; football fans for singing scurrilous songs. Now, you can agree or disagree with these people’s views, but surely we can recognise that they’re truly felt?
To lump together unpopular moralities as ‘hatred’ is to create a new category of heresy. Indeed, in modern parlance, the phrase ‘hate speech’ plays the same role ‘heretical’ once did: it denotes views that officialdom or self-styled representatives of fragile minorities have decreed to be wicked, and inexpressible. In our post-moral times, where it’s risky to say that any viewpoint is better than another, the self-elected guardians of public safety cannot write people off as evil. So instead they accuse them of practising ‘hate speech’ and throw the legal book at them. It’s a sly form of censorship, elevating the subjective feelings of the listener, their sense of being under-valued, over the objective right of the speaker to express his beliefs.
The second problem with the war on hate is also seen in campus life: the wrongness of silencing even those views most of us agree are actually hateful. If it’s wrong to rebrand outré moral views as ‘hatred’, it’s equally wrong to censor real hatred. Student unions ban far-right groups. They create ever-growing safe spaces in which certain racist or anti-gay ideas can’t be expressed. This seems nice, an attempt to expel foul views from public zones — but it’s actually the worst way imaginable to deal with prejudiced ideologies.
Censorship doesn’t tackle, far less defeat, ugly views; it just pushes them aside. It has the terrible double effect of allowing the hateful ideology to fester and grow — unchallenged, unexposed — while depriving the rest of us of the ability, and right, to see, know and dent that ideology. It strengthens the haters, convincing them their idea must be really challenging if it freaks out society so much, and it weakens the right-thinking, absolving us of the human duty to stand up to what we think is wrong. Here, too, campus life mirrors what has happened across society as hate-speech laws have spread.
The policing of hate speech is bad for everyone. For those whose views are simply controversial, who find themselves redefined as ‘hate groups’; for those who want to challenge real hateful ideologies, who can never meaningfully confront them; for the minorities supposedly being protected, who are reduced to moral minors to be quarantined in a safe space for their own good, their fragile souls guarded by switched-on student leaders or officials. The bottom line is this: we must be free to hate. Hatred is an emotion, and when a society controls emotions, it’s not a free society. Rather, it’s a society in which authoritarianism has become so entrenched that moral guardians even think they can tell us what we may feel. The war on hate speech is the end not only of freedom of speech, but of the basic freedom of the mind.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.
Brendan will be speaking in the session ‘No Platform: is hate speech free speech?’ at the spiked conference ‘The New Intolerance on Campus’ on Wednesday 17 February at Conway Hall in London. Book your tickets now.