Banning hate speech doesn’t get rid of the hate

hate speech

The things that make you feel good in politics don’t necessary do good. But boy, are they morally satisfying.

Legislating to stop hate speech. Using a “hecklers’ veto” to run Posie Parker out of town. Victories against hate. Job done.

I’ve done my share.

My student comrades were on a high after we heckled and shut down a National Front meeting outside our UK Labour Party conference in the 1980s.

We didn’t change minds. Just the venue.

Shutting down people who are hateful feels right. But counter-intuitively, banning hateful words is not the best way to stop the hate.

Nadine Strossen is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She hates Nazis.

She hates them more than she loves free speech. Over coffee, she told me her mission is to get rid of the hate, not the speech.

She has spent decades looking at hate speech through history, and found no evidence that banning it reduces hate. As the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an author and a law professor, she would know.

New Zealand’s draft hate speech legislation has been put in the freezer, for now.

Extending the Human Rights Act to cover hate speech against religion and politics was a well-intentioned response to the Christchurch shooting. But it is bad law.

The first red flag was the Government’s inability to define hate speech. ”You know it when you see it,” the former prime minister said.

You don’t know it when you see it.

One person’s hate speech is another’s just cause.

Words cannot define precisely enough what is a subjective concept.

“Hate is an emotion after all,” says Strossen.

“No two thinking people can possibly agree on what is hateful and what is not.”

Every argument today to justify censoring white supremacist speech was made by defenders of slavery to ban abolitionist speakers.

She quotes the slavers arguing that the words of abolitionists “libelled the South and inflicted emotional injury”, and were “emotionally upsetting and traumatising”.

Laws were duly passed to “reduce the harm”.

More recently, some US politicians denounced Black Lives Matter and “defund the police” advocacy as hate speech against white people and police officers.

It is impossible to write anti-speech codes that cannot be twisted.

Worse still, hate speech legislation distracts from more effective ways of countering hate.

A swastika sprayed on a Jewish school is vandalism.

Burning a cross on someone’s front lawn is an illegal threat.

Planning mass murder in Christchurch was already illegal in 2019, if only our secret services had been paying attention.

Pre-Hitler Germany had anti-hate laws.

They didn’t stop Hitler.

They turned Nazi prisoners into martyrs while robbing others of their free speech.

Exiled German students tried to get Mein Kampf translated into English to warn the world of Hitler’s plans, but failed.

The book was banned.

There are better ways to counter offensive speech than running the likes of Posie Parker out of the country. Continue reading

  • Josie Pagani is a commentator on current affairs and a regular contributor to Stuff. She works in geopolitics, aid and development, and governance.
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