Can hate speech be free speech?

Hate speech may stifle free speech by monopolizing the marketplace of ideas. Some types of arguments hinder rather than contribute to productive discussion (such as logical fallacies), and some hate speech may fall into this category. Additionally, some hate speech, or rather certain framings of how the world is, limit the scope of discussion and who is allowed to debate.

Generally, some practises can never be questioned in debate. Logical fallacies are not acceptable arguments, and persisting in logical fallacies is considered bad form rather than a valid avenue of discussion. Is it possible that some types of hate speech are inherently fallacious?

Is hate speech ad hominem?

Description of ad hominem:

An Ad Hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

1. Person A makes claim X.
2. Person B makes an attack on person A.
3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an Ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

Not all personal attacks are ad hominem, as sometimes a negative characteristic about a debater is relevant to the topic. For example, if the debate is about one debater’s level of sexual attractiveness, a claim that the debater under discussion is ugly would not be ad hominem. However, is hate speech (directed against ethnic minorities, queer folk, people with disabilities, etc.) necessarily ad hominem?

For example, let us say that the debate is about whether all members of a minority group are involved in a global conspiracy. An implicit assumption in this debate is that any member of that minority group is not allowed to participate in the discussion. If a member of that minority, Person A, provides reasons why he is not involved in a global conspiracy, the other debaters, who are of the majority group, can argue that Person A‘s testimony is invalid because he belongs to that minority group.

Here, Person A‘s membership in the minority group is relevant to the debate that questions the minority group’s integrity. To accept Person A as a valid debater is to assume one side of the debate, that members of the minority group can be telling the truth and can be equal participants in society. To allow Person A to speak and take him seriously would be circular reasoning. Thus, according to this point of view, rejecting Person A’s arguments on the basis of his minority membership would not be ad hominem.

On the other hand, this situation is quite different from mentioning ugliness in a debate about a debater’s sexual attractiveness. In a debate about a debater’s sexual attractiveness, the debater’s alleged ugliness is not relevant to his status as a debater. Only if another debater argued that the allegedly ugly debater’s arguments are invalid because he is ugly would it be ad hominem.

However, rejecting Person A‘s arguments because he is of the minority group is of the same form as rejecting a debater’s arguments because he is ugly. In this sense, rejecting Person A‘s arguments because of this minority status would be ad hominem. Person A‘s minority status is being used for no other purpose other than to undermine him as a debater and to reject his arguments, which differs from the case when mentioning the debater’s ugliness.

Does hate speech commit the burden of proof fallacy?

Description of Burden of Proof:

Burden of Proof is a fallacy in which the burden of proof is placed on the wrong side. Another version occurs when a lack of evidence for side A is taken to be evidence for side B in cases in which the burden of proof actually rests on side B. A common name for this is an Appeal to Ignorance. This sort of reasoning typically has the following form:

1. Claim X is presented by side A and the burden of proof actually rests on side B.
2. Side B claims that X is false because there is no proof for X.

In many situations, one side has the burden of proof resting on it. This side is obligated to provide evidence for its position. The claim of the other side, the one that does not bear the burden of proof, is assumed to be true unless proven otherwise. The difficulty in such cases is determining which side, if any, the burden of proof rests on. In many cases, settling this issue can be a matter of significant debate. In some cases the burden of proof is set by the situation. For example, in American law a person is assumed to be innocent until proven guilty (hence the burden of proof is on the prosecution). As another example, in debate the burden of proof is placed on the affirmative team. As a final example, in most cases the burden of proof rests on those who claim something exists (such as Bigfoot, psychic powers, universals, and sense data).

Let us use again the example of a debate about whether a minority group is involved in a global conspiracy. This type of debate is quite common, and has been used to question the validity of Jewish Europeans in Europe, to question the validity of Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians in North America, and to question the validity of Muslim Westerners in the West.

In hateful discussions about Muslims in the English World Wide Web, Muslims are often asked to prove that they are not terrorists, or asked to prove that they are not “Islamists” with a hidden agenda to supplant Western democracy with an autocratic form of sharia. Of course, if a Muslim tries to participate in this discussion, nothing she says can disprove the presumption of guilt. Participating in stereotypically “American” activities — like eating McDonald’s or shopping from Victoria’s Secret — does not prove that one is not a terrorist or conspirator, and is irrelevant to determining the truth.

The problem here is that the burden of proof lies on the side that assumes a given Muslim is a terrorist or conspirator until proven otherwise. It is possible to prove that a given Muslim has not been involved in any terrorist activity so far — theoretically — by listing a moment-by-moment account of her activities since birth. However, when it is claimed that a living Muslim is a future terrorist or conspirator, the truth-value of this claim cannot be determined until her death. To assume that a given Muslim debater is guilty of future terrorism or conspiracy until proven otherwise essentially bars her from participating in the debate until her death, after which she still cannot participate.

In practice, it is impossible to prove that one is not a future terrorist or conspirator, and the presumption of guilt does not allow an opportunity for rebuttal.

How can hate speech limit who is allowed to debate?

In the earlier section on ad hominem, it was claimed that rejecting a debater’s arguments because of his minority status takes the form of ad hominem. In the section on burden of proof, it was claimed that the presumption of a debater’s guilt is committing a burden of proof fallacy. In both cases, it was claimed that committing these logical fallacies limits the debaters who belong to the minority group under discussion from participating in the debate. How does this conclusion follow?

When a debate is framed in a way that questions the validity of certain persons, the implicit assumption is that these persons cannot be assumed to be full persons, and they cannot be assumed to be equal participants in the debate. In most debates, the debaters are not the topic of discussion and the personal characteristics of the debaters are irrelevant, so all debaters are considered equally valid debaters. In debates that question the humanity or personhood of certain groups of people, however, allowing the people under discussion to participate as debaters presumes their humanity and personhood.

A debate that questions the humanity or personhood of certain groups of people violates the separation between the debate and the debaters. The debater’s personal characteristics may become relevant to the direction of the debate, and the direction of the debate may say something about the debater’s personal characteristics. For example, if all Muslim sources on the nature of Islam are to be discounted, the direction of the debate discounts a wide range of perspectives, and also projects a non-validity on to any Muslim debaters within that discourse.

This type of debate becomes a self-referential, closed system that shuts out certain voices and perspectives, and is contrary to the ideal of an open “marketplace of ideas.” The messiness of social relations plays a part in the ostensibly “abstract” nature of ideas and discussion when people are the subject of debate.

Systems of power and oppression become relevant. National debates about the humanity and personhood of minority groups can affect national policy, whereas local debates restricted within the minority group about the humanity and personhood of the majority cannot change national policy legally without the majority’s consent.

If hate speech can restrict free speech by limiting the scope of discussion and limiting who is allowed to debate, and if certain types of hate speech are inherently unfruitful and unproductive, then are laws against hate speech necessarily harmful? If freedom of speech cannot be completely divorced from systems of power and oppression that privilege some perspectives over others, then can hate speech laws function as checks against the monopolization of the marketplace of ideas?

It certainly appears that hate speech can limit free speech, so debates about freedom of speech should recognize that hate speech is much more complicated than “unpleasant” ideas or social taboo.

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6 Responses to “Can hate speech be free speech?”

  1. Igor Alexander Says:

    You know, you’re absolutely right about this. Since over the long term, the multiculturalism and social engineering of the last few decades will not work, about all that you and your ilk can do to stop the house of cards from falling on your heads is to try to pass Draconian legislation to silence your critics (i.e., unapologetic heterosexual white gentile males). However well this tactic may have worked for you in the past, however, I don’t think it’ll be as effective in the future, and eventually you will find yourself excluded from “the debate,” much as you have tried to exclude unapologetic heterosexual white gentile males from the debate. Free speech really is a zero sum game, isn’t it? The more you have, the less I’ll have, and the more I have, the less you’ll have. Glad we agree.

  2. LLB Says:

    Hi Restructure! I saw you commenting over on SWPD and was reading your blog here. I’m curious what your response to Igor would be.

  3. Restructure! Says:

    It’s really hard to respond to Igor, because I don’t even agree with his premises. At “Since over the long term, the multiculturalism and social engineering of the last few decades will not work,” I already disagree, and have a different understanding of ‘multiculturalism’ and I do not think that liberalism is ‘social engineering’. He also refers to my ‘ilk’, and I’m trying to figure out what that means and why he contrasts my supposed ‘ilk’ with the adjective ‘gentile’.

    Is free speech a zero sum game? Maybe it is in some circumstances, where there is only so much time to speak, or there is only so much air time devoted to a point of view. But free speech can also exist in a virtually unlimited space, such as on the internet, where it would not really be zero sum.

  4. Canada’s Maclean’s has a whiteness problem. « Restructure! Says:

    [...] our own humanity or Canadianness, because when they debate our belongingness, they question and deny our right to equally participate in the debate. However, what we can do together as racialized people is recognize that this is not a [...]

  5. AfroCan Says:

    Restructure! Says:
    June 20, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    It’s really hard to respond to Igor, because I don’t even agree with his premises.

    …………

    Agreed. I also don’t agree with Igor’s oddly formulated premises. But in interrogating the debates of free-speech, true, everyone is entitled to his/her opinion…but is it an INFORMED ONE?

    In reading many of the blogger responses / rebuttals, I’m always truly amazed at how critically uninformed they are—almost unrelentingly so.

    Worse, they don’t recognize that their discourse comes from a position of privilege/dominance and “blind spots” of perception.

    One can immediately recognize from the ways in which a blogger formulates his argument, whether are not they a critical thinker, one who has remotely reflected on social experience, read dominant and alternative North American histories or the analytical works on race – intersecting categories/oppressions. Do they read for discourse analysis? Have they read any other than the Toronto Sun…?

    One can immediately see whether they are coming from a position of privilege in how they frame/contextualize their arguments and what discursive strategies they mobilize.

    That is why I’m always asking what book have they read on the subject or providing reading lists. There are so many critical works out there, written by scholars / activists who have experienced, studied, done the empirical research, made persuasive arguments, and nobody seems aware or wants to read them.

    Let’s face it, many of the so-called controversies on these posts/debates are “nothing new”. They have been analyzed extensively by excellent scholars with top-out-of- sight academic credentials—but somehow these scholars are “wrong” / “anti-White bellyaching” in the White imagination.

    Which leads one to asks what critical works have the White naysayers written about the subject lately?

    So it just boils to down to a kind of arrogance and willful ignorance on the White blogger’s part. They haven’t experienced the oppression, the marginalization/exclusion and the alienation, they haven’t done the critical reading yet somehow they “know” it all better than POCs while incessantly demanding we provide the “burden of proof” stats in educating them.

    I am often bewildered and a little bored at the ways White rebuttals to a POC’s interrogation / “talk back” to oppression gets re-framed as being “anti-White”, “reverse discrimination / victimization”, “anti-democratic” and somehow attacking the “true Canadian” value system.

    Somehow we POCs are out to “exterminate” all Whites/dismantle the Canadian way of life simply because we aren’t compliant enough with social oppression.

    POCs just won’t adapt and behave ourselves. I guess we just aren’t “grateful” enough because we all come from the “jungle” and “shxthole” countries to begin with. (Watch someone take this comment out of context).

    To even question our nation’s history/cultural norms, systems and institutional policies brands one as a “malcontent outsider” and “insurgent”.

    How….?

  6. From Racialicious Blog, “Canada’s Macleans has a Whiteness Problem” | for an inclusive society Says:

    [...] our own humanity or Canadianness, because when they debate our belongingness, they question and deny our right to equally participate in the debate. However, what we can do together as racialized people is recognize that this is not a “Muslim [...]


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