What is Hate Speech?

I have been asked what hate speech is. It is not exactly hard to detect.

Hate speech defames, belittles, or dehumanizes a class of people on the basis of certain inherent properties — typically race, ethnicity, gender, or religion.

Hate speech attributes to that class of people certain highly negative qualities taken to be inherent in members of the class. Typical examples are immorality, intellectual inferiority, criminality, lack of patriotism, laziness, untrustworthiness, greed, and attempts or threats to dominate their “natural superiors.”

The method of defamation typically includes:

  • Salient exemplars — that is, using highly rare and very ugly individual examples that have been sensationalized by the media and taking them as applying to the whole class. Examples: Trump’s racist attacks on Latinos and Muslims, attempting to stereotype all of them and smear entire classes of people on the basis of a handful of individual cases.
  • Extolling the false virtues of the opposite class, suggesting that the defamed class lacks those virtues. Example: The racist right falsely claims that whites are responsible for all advances in civilization. This deliberately covers up the enormous contributions and advances made by nonwhites in order to undermine their status as human beings.
  • Metaphor based on fallacious understanding: “Whites are more evolved” — from a survey of racist right-wing members. Note the mistaken understanding of evolution. The statement suggests that non-whites are lower than whites on an evolutionary scale, as if they were animals.
  • Perhaps the most dangerous form of hate speech comes from the government itself when the President excuses racist violence and supports the oppressive use of governmental force — large, organized crowds of armed demonstrators, police who target minorities, ICE trapping undocumented immigrants for deportation, discriminatory laws that intimidate minorities from voting, etc.

Hate speech these days is not just speech by an individual. It has become an industry for the racist right — organized, purposely provocative, a recruiting tool, and a show of power aiming at greater power.

Mass marketed hate speech is not “mere speech” by an individual. It is actually physical in nature because all ideas are physically constituted by neural circuitry in our brains. When you are repeatedly told by those protected by the President and his government that you are a lesser being and are hated, it can have a crippling effect, physically, on your brain, mind, and heart.

Freedom in a free society is freedom for all. We are not free to prevent others from being free. Hate speech can affect those who are repeated objects of hate with a crippling toxic stress and a sense of distrust and fear that can keep those hated from living full and free lives. Mass-market hate stands resolutely in the path of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans.

Institutions whose role is to promote freedom of speech, thought, and action need to rebut hate speech, rather than give the honor of official invitations to purveyors of mass market hate who bring with them a mass of violence-prone supporters to exploit and dishonor widely publicized “free speech” events.









3 responses

  1. Is the metaphor: “hate speech is harassment” — mislabeled as “speech” when the point is not to share ideas, but to leave people feeling afraid?

    To me our current politics there seems to be a spread from ugly ideas — which to me make sense to fall under free speech — to a mob with torches and guns, which is a walking threat intended to create fear. Much of the current fight seems to have roots in Gamergate, where harassment campaigns were run with all kinds of hate speech (death threats, rape threats, doxing, etc) designed to make people feel unsafe, and then that harassment was framed as merely free speech.

    Are there ways for progressives to be more clear, when we protest, what we are protesting? We seem to be letting the trolls win the metaphor battle.

  2. Thanks for the essay! But, how about groups that are not identified by an inherent characteristic? As a liberal, I’ve been ostracized by a conservative friend. Not that I’ve been threatened, but I have seen plenty of bitterness expressed across the political fences that might be received in the same manner as a racist or homophobic target. Could that fall into a “hate speech” category? I’ve attempted, in my essays on the topic, to address this “groupification” propensity by many more than the obvious racists and homophobes. At the root of the issue, I believe, is this simplification of the model that describes everyone within an identifiable group. “Stereotyping” and “prejudice” seem too loaded to capture this propensity to group. Maybe, if that were the focus as the root cause, we could make more progress as a society?

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