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500 Words on Speech

Robert Franklin

Posted on November 7, 2019 20:55

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In back-to-back weeks, the Washington Post published opposing op-eds on the problem of hate speech in our national discourse. Arguments for and against criminalization have only added more fuel to an already intense fire. But with the normalization of hate speech becoming increasingly relevant, especially as social media becomes more and more weaponized as the very fabric of "truth" becomes more abstract, is there a way to fight the normalization of hate speech?

It's easy to drown in the maelstrom of agitated voices when it comes to the question of whether or not hate speech should be criminalized. On one hand, advocates such as former Time editor Richard Stengel charge that hate speech "diminishes tolerance" and "enables discrimination," and that our "First Amendment standard" is an "outlier" in a world where hate speech has been curbed in many nations since the end of the Second World War.

On the other, critics of such a proposal, like author James Kirchick, state that what constitutes "hate speech" cannot be adequately defined and is "inherently subjective," and that "investing government bureaucrats" with such an empyrean power as determining what constitutes free speech presents a king's ransom of problems, including "the lack of a neutral arbiter."

Look no further than @realDonaldTrump to see why such a proposal is a horrifying one.

But despite their contrasting opinions on an, I'm sorry to say, relevant topic, both Stengel and Kirchick appear to be of the same motivation, albeit with contrasting ideas on how to get there. Unchecked hate speech has become a malignancy within our national discourse. Unfortunately, the only way to effectively treat this cancer is to approach the topic genuinely and with great care for the end result.

To effectively check hate speech, there must be a consensus on what it is. At this point, the best definition we have is speech that is abusive, threatening, or prejudicial toward a group of people, particularly on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Some variation of that definition will appear in nearly every source imaginable that contains passages devoted to determining what hate speech is.

But that can't be the only way to define it. That definition is too broad. People can be fickle and thin-skinned, and even a legitimate criticism can be, and has been, interpreted in a hateful way.

But if some kind of reform need be necessary when it comes to speech, its parameters are clear: education and tolerance. Prejudice is learned, and as I see it, the only way to unlearn prejudice, especially intra-generationally, is to be an educated population that doesn't view empathy and ethical preference for "we" over "me" as weak behavior.

Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical philosophy concerned with what impartially produces the most good. In fairness, "good" must also be defined, but in this case, prevalent ethical thinking in terms of prejudice is that it's, well, bad. Racism is bad. Sexism is bad. No one, even those who demonstrate these qualities, wants to be considered prejudiced. It's a uniquely offensive accusation, even if it's well-informed.

So the question becomes: "does [insert speech here] impartially maximize social good?" Hate speech can lead to hate crimes, so you be the judge. At the end of the day, though, I don't think there is an easy answer here. The best way to combat hate speech is to just be intolerant of it.

But, again, that's a vague answer.

Robert Franklin

Posted on November 7, 2019 20:55

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Source: WashPost

Why the First Amendment shouldn't be curtailed.

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