The Challenge of Hate Speech in a Free Society

Must a tolerant society also tolerate intolerance?  This a is a question all free societies wrestle with, and there are no easy answers.

Most Americans are probably unaware of it, but our respect for free speech in the United States is pretty extreme.  They know, of course, that many countries of the world do not enjoy the same rights we do in the United States, but I think they imagine that is just in the countries that have authoritarian or non-democratic governments.  But that’s not the case.  Nearly every country in the world takes a less expansive view of free speech than the United States.  Most countries have stronger libel laws, for example, making it easier for the press to be sued for publishing things that are untrue.

Most also have laws that limit hate speech much more than the United States does.

That doesn’t mean that they are horrible places where the rights of the people to speak out in unpopular ways are under constant threat.  They’re not.  They are places with histories different from our own that recognize the undeniable truth that hate speech is a corrosive that damages all of society when left unchecked.  It is a grave threat to the stability and health of any democratic nation.  Their position is perfectly understandable and defensible.

But I have never agreed with it.

It is without doubt that hate speech is a vile, damaging and obscene thing.  It is a tremendous challenge for any democratic society.  It cannot and must not go unchallenged, particularly when it is aimed at minorities and other less advantaged groups by members of the dominant group.

But it shouldn’t be illegal.

For many years it was my job to push the official USG policy on hate speech, which can be summed up like this: Bad speech (hate speech) should be countered by good speech.  Every time.  By all good and responsible members of society, and especially by government leaders and by members of the dominant social group.  We have preached that standard to other countries for many years, and have held them to account with condemnation when they failed to do so.

I believe in this standard.  Hate speech, in my opinion, should not be banned, but it must always be countered and condemned.  Immediately.  By all right-thinking members of society.  Without caveats or reservations.  Without consideration of political alliances or tribalism.

That is where we currently have a problem in the United States.  The first reaction of many people, taking their clues from right-wing propaganda and our current government, is not to condemn hate speech, but rather to condemn those who protest against it by making the ludicrous allegation that protesting hate speech is a violation of the right to free speech.  That is wrong on many different levels, but the most important one is that the first reaction must always be to condemn the hate speech immediately and without any reservation.

Without that condemnation our right to free speech is meaningless.  Hate speech, if not countered by near unanimous societal condemnation, and particularly by condemnation from our leaders, can destroy us as a society.  The right to free speech must be accompanied by the courage and commitment to ostracize those who engage in hate speech each and every time, if democracy is to survive in America.

This administration and its supporters have fallen far short in this regard, and have engaged in some of what is arguably hate speech themselves, on more than one occasion.  That needs to change, or we need to change this administration when next we go to the polls.

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