Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Anti-Hate Speech . . . The Preserve of the Fools and Horses

So-called Hate Speech is Simply Distasteful or Offensive

Karl du Fresne

Hate speech. It's a phrase you hear increasingly often.  I've used it myself as a label of journalistic convenience, but I'm not comfortable with it and never have been.

My first concern is that much of what is emotively described as hate speech isn't hateful at all. Too often it simply means opinions and ideas that some people find distasteful or offensive. But merely being offended is no justification for stifling expressions of opinion in a liberal, open democracy that depends on the contest of ideas.

More worryingly, accusations of "hate speech" can be used to intimidate people into silence and put discussion of certain issues and ideas off-limits. In fact, I believe that's the over-arching aim. 

Anyway, who defines hate speech? The term is bandied around as if there's some agreed definition. But there's not, and freedom of expression is too precious to leave it to an aggrieved minority or an academic elite to define it and therefore determine what the rest of us may say.

It's also an infinitely elastic term. In Britain, where police have the power to prosecute for hate speech, there have been some frightening cases of overkill and heavy-handedness.  Better to set the legal bar high to allow plenty of space for free speech, as the courts have tended to do in New Zealand. By all means, draw the line at harmful acts, direct threats to people's safety or incitements to violence against minorities. But the law already allows for criminal prosecution in such cases.

The real issue here is language control – because if you can control the language people are allowed to use in political discourse, you can control the range of ideas people are permitted to articulate and explore.

This is not a traditional contest between Left and Right.
Enlightened leftists understand that everyone benefits from free speech. The revered American Left-wing intellectual Noam Chomsky memorably said that if you don't believe in free speech for people whose views you despise, you don't believe in free speech at all.

No, language is the latest battleground in what is known as the culture wars.  The mounting clamour for tougher laws against so-called hate speech is an outgrowth of identity politics, in which minority groups are encouraged to see themselves as oppressed or disadvantaged because of their colour, ethnicity, gender, religious belief or sexual orientation.

This has generated a demand for protection from comments that might be seen as critical or belittling – hence the frequency with which we hear people being accused of xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and misogyny.  No-one likes to have these labels pinned on them, so people keep their heads down. Accusing someone of hate speech has the same effect. It's a quick way to shut down debate.

Other code words commonly used in an attempt to de-legitimise valid opinions include "far-Right" and "alt-Right". These labels are likely to be attached to anyone whose opinions are to the Right of the political Centre. You can even be labelled far-Right for making statements that most people would regard as utterly unremarkable – for example, saying there are only two genders, as the Canadian commentator Lauren Southern did.

Southern is one of the two speakers who have controversially been barred from using the Auckland Council-owned Bruce Mason Centre – a ban that is now the subject of a legal challenge by the hastily formed Free Speech Coalition.  I am not a member of the coalition, but I made a donation to it and unreservedly support its goal of protecting free speech. As a journalist, I regard Auckland mayor Phil Goff's authoritarian edict as dangerous to democracy.

Over the past two weeks I have read many tortuously argued commentaries purporting to justify the ban on the Canadians. Stripped of all their prolixity, they can generally be summed up as: "I absolutely support free speech, but not in this case."  What especially dismays me is that I have read impassioned commentaries by idealistic young journalists who think Goff was right to ban the Canadians.

Journalists, of all people, should be ardent advocates of free speech because they have the most to fear if it's abolished. In totalitarian regimes, journalists are often the first people to be imprisoned, as in Turkey, and even risk being murdered, as in Putin's Russia.

But the most illiberal pronouncement I have read on the supposed dangers of free speech came from a university vice-chancellor who clearly thought that ordinary New Zealanders can't be trusted to form their own sensible conclusions about contentious issues.

This pompous academic thought we needed guidance to keep us on the right path. And where from? Why, from universities. We can infer from this that universities see themselves as having taken over the role once filled by churches. God help us all.

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